On Being Pretty (or not) in Academia

Added on by Keegan Osinski.
I've wanted to write for a while about the effect of women's appearance in academia. First it started as "Just because I like cute clothes and lipstick doesn't mean I'm not smart." But then I realized that in many cases having a more-or-less conventionally "pretty" appearance can actually result in people being more likely to listen to you rather than less.

And so emerged the double-edged double-standard that women have become so used to facing.

Be pretty--because no one will listen to you if you're plain--but not too pretty, because then people will think you're dumb.

I remember agonizing over this back in March/April when I was preparing to present at my first academic conferences. I painstakingly picked out my outfits, trying on everything in my closet to find a balance between pretty and professional, dressing my age but not too trendy. I wanted desperately to stand out, and also to be taken seriously. My age and gender alone achieved the former, as I was almost surely always the youngest in the room, and usually one of only a handful of women. But the latter proved a bit more challenging.

Would people still hear what I had to say if I wore a makeup-less face and my hair in a ponytail?

Do people take me more seriously when I wear my glasses?

And this is a struggle women are met with every day. It's the performance of femininity in a delicate balancing act with a proper projection of power and meekness, authority and sweetness.

Sure, I can't really know what people think about me. And maybe it's my own neuroses, but so often I get the feeling of people being like, "Awww, look at that cute little girl doing theology." Or, my favorite (which actually happened), "You're too pretty to be a librarian."

There are plenty of pretty librarians. There are plenty of homely librarians. Both and either can be great or terrible at their job. Is there any industry (besides, perhaps, modeling or Hollywood) in which a person's appearance actually affects their job performance? Really?

And of course this is pretty much never an issue for men.

I think I'm beyond asking why appearance matters so much--it's become a given, fostered by patriarchy and capitalism, creating women and our appearance into objects for consumption instead of human beings to engage seriously and honestly. I'm more interested in just challenging this assumption, without overtly bringing attention to it (except for this blog post, of course).

I'm just going to keep reading. Keep writing. Keep at that academic hustle.

I'm also going to keep painting my nails with glitter and wearing bright lipstick.

I'm going to engage you (male or female or otherwise) sincerely and critically.

And I just ask that you do the same for me.