A fellow grad student recently pointed me to an article over at Tenure, She Wrote. In this article, Acclimatrix recently wrote an article that outlined tips for male academics to be more supportive and respectful of female academics: “Don’t be that dude: handy tips for the male academic”. Among the advice Acclimatrix offers for male academics is included the following point that struck home for me, as a female grad student in a particularly stylish department:

2. Don’t comment on a woman’s appearance in a professional context. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are; it’s irrelevant. Similarly, don’t tell someone they don’t look like a scientist/professor/academic, that they look too young, or they should smile.

As a feminist, I wholeheartedly agree with the point. As academics (especially in the humanities), our jobs are about intellect and argument not our physical appearance; we should be more interested in a person’s ideas than in what they’re wearing: the content of our research and our ability to teach should be weighed above our ability to put together a cute outfit. I’d suggest that both men and women should seek such a goal, but as a woman interested in fashion and – admittedly – looking professional and polished at my job, I find putting this laudable idea into practice more difficult.

As a female graduate student, I’m always concerned about the way I dress.  In professional circumstances, I like to think myself well put-together. Dressing appropriately is a factor we can’t ignore as academics, as much as we like to pat ourselves on the back for our devotion to the life of the mind.* The options are much more complicated for women than for men as academic professionals. Women have a wider variety of professional options that can make decisions about appearance simultaneously more freeing and much more fraught than those required of men. Is this outfit appropriate for teaching or is this skirt too short or top too low-cut? When presenting at a conference, do I have to wear a skirt or can I wear pants? Does wearing jeans or failing to wear make-up to a particular department event give my professors and colleagues the wrong impression of me?

Particularly, Acclimatrix’s point got me thinking about the relationships I have not only with male colleagues but also with female colleagues – mostly with other female graduate students. Grad student friendships are often difficult to characterize, because they involve three important and sometimes conflicting factors: (1) you’re friends, given the close bonds that form in the face of graduate school’s many trials and oddities; (2) you’re colleagues, often offering advice and encouragement and commiserating about research; and (3) you’re competitors, as you fight for recognition from your department, grants, faculty members, etc.** Due to this unique relationship and the blurring of lines between friends and colleagues, Acclimatrix’s suggestion above seems difficult to enact, as valid as it is in theory. Some of my friends in my department, like me, are interested in fashion both personally and professionally, and this personal interest and professional concern flows into our relationships. We talk about it frequently. We compliment each other. We analyze each other’s ensembles. We strategize outfits for conferences, job talks, department events. We shop together or for each other. Not talking about appearance, when it is such a part of our lives seems difficult, although it’s something to strive for.

*A great example of the backlash against female academics in fashion, Elaine Showalter writes about the derision she receives for cultivating a fashionable appearance in “The Professor Wore Prada,” where she writes “[A] passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life” for female academics.

**I don’t mean to say that this competition is always negative. The competition is most often good-natured and friendly, but the truth is, there are often only so many grants to go around, only so many faculty members to serve on committees, etc.