Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On Being Pretty (or not) in Academia

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.


  1. I think you are right on Keegan! Especially as the academy is largely dictated by white old men, the appearance of a young woman academic is often judged, manipulated, and ignored. It is time for red lipstick to duel with tweed jackets!

  2. Keegan, Yes! I really appreciate you addressing this issue. When I preach in churches, people often tell me that they love my shoes/outfit, that I am "sooooo cute" (or, "it's so cute when you get angry/passionate"), or that I have a high-pitched (nice) voice. Parishioners often address me as "darling" or "sweetie." Not a single person has ever addressed Jeff in such a way. And the youth thing.... "You look far too young to be a pastor."

    My own response has been discomfort in traditionally male roles and places (pastor/preacher/teacher). I don't know that I realized this until I was thought about how it might feel to preach while pregnant (how can I look un-womanly when pregnant?). I think I (and probably most people in the churches I have served) have just never seen very many women preaching or teaching in the contexts in which we find ourselves.

    With as much space as the women before us have carved out for us, we still have work to do. We have to keep speaking, presenting, reading, writing, and preaching because God has called men and women into service, and the women after us need to see that this is the case.

    In response to my own discomfort and awareness of being a woman, I wear skirts and make-up when I preach every.time. (even though I know those performances of "woman" and "feminine" are constructed). I love where you are at the end of this post. I too will keep wearing skirts and nail polish and preaching with my high-pitched voice.

    p.s. I miss you

    1. Angela! Thanks so much for your response. I miss you too (though I am not so far away anymore!). I love your approach of embracing your womanliness in the pulpit, even though that is what seems to draw people's attention/comments. You are fulfilling YOUR calling, as a woman, without trying to fit into a "traditionally male" role despite it.

      Keep doing what you're doing! Amen!