Gender Performance & the Assumptions of Others (Again)

I am repeatedly fascinated and provoked by the assumptions those ‘outside’ of Women’s and Gender Studies make about those of us on the ‘inside.’ While my femme styling certainly results in the occasional frustrating provocation within this small branch of the academic world, I often get the sense that my performance of femininity also complicates non-WGS people’s responses to me when they find out what I do and where I do it.

Though I’ve considered doing so, I’ve not yet changed the way I dress, wear make-up, or style my hair to mitigate responses to my appearance that reflect stereotypical assumptions about how a feminist looks. Furthermore, as this blog surely demonstrates, with the exception of formal professional settings, I do not reign in (all of) my goofiness, wry sarcasm, or (what I consider to be) wit, in part because I like how these elements of my personality undermine stereotyped understandings of feminists as intensely serious, humourless people. Occasionally, however, despite my credentials, either or both of these choices result in my being underestimated, or treated with disrespect. 
 
I can’t go into detail in this public forum, but I will say that I was recently and rather obviously underestimated in this way in a casual meeting with new colleagues. I wasn’t meeting with students that day, so I came to campus in a trouser-jean-based ‘business casual’ ensemble. And now I wonder if I could have prevented this error through sartorial means.

I am thus inspired to up the profesh-factor in my attire for each and every day on campus this term. And we’ll just see if I can change certain people’s responses to me through clothing alone.

Today, for example, I’ve come to campus to work in my office all day. I’ve no meetings, and I don’t teach. But I’m wearing this:

Black microfibre dress: Tristan & Iseut
Charcoal cotton ruffle-front cardigan: Coin 1804 (via Winners)
Belt: Mexx
Bracelets & watch: remixed
Red leather boots: Miss Mooz (remixed)

Wonder Woman pose: preview of coming conference attractions

 (D-Med: I know. No arm. It’s gone into the light.)

Really, the boots are this colour:

 
OK, so this ensemble could still read as “casual,” but it’s comfortable and is not trouser jeans. It’s a start.

Do you use clothing and/or accessories to mitigate others’ negative assumptions about you?
 OR
Are you making any resolutions this fall?

38 thoughts on “Gender Performance & the Assumptions of Others (Again)

  1. Pingback: Sartorial New Life, from Vegas | In Professorial Fashion

  2. Pingback: Idealistic Decisions and Office Pyjamas | In Professorial Fashion

  3. *De-lurking*[I've been reading the blog since you started, but refraining from commenting in a desperate attempt to reserve some time in the day for actual work. I'm an almost 40 year old tenured academic feminist in the social sciences, and I fear that if I start participating in this conversation on a regular basis, I'll simply never stop!]I love the outfit, and agree that it is unarguably BA. I hate the casual way in which women in academia are so breezily underestimated. It seems that the default expectation is that we are light-weights; one strike and you're out. GRRRHaving said that, I am not entirely at one with the commentary about this; there are aspects of the way this conversation (about dressing 'femme', not 'casual') often plays out on style blogs that do bother me a bit. Dressing/appearance is political, and the ways in which we choose to style our bodies (as opposed to just raw physical characteristics) can legitimately be read as saying something about us. I guess we all know that, our we wouldn't find personal style blogs so interesting.Why are we so eager to ignore that there is a privilege attracted to feminine performances of gender? It is not just another look equivalent to any other, and therefore a straightforward matter of personal preference. And, that privilege is also so intimately tied to women's oppression as a class that it's not suprising that appearing to 'buy in' to that privilege can be viewed as problematic. Simple appeals to personal preference are too easy; saying that 'I feel better this way' ignores how heavily conditioned these 'natural' preferences are, and how much ideological work they do. We wouldn't accept this kind of simplistic analysis anywhere else, but we offer it so easily to ourselves when it comes to our appearance. There's also the too-easily glossed over issue of what is required to produce a certain look. I think it's a guaranteed waste of time and energy to try to produce the approved feminist look book, but I do think that appearance related practices are fair game. I don't see the point in declaring high heels to be unfeminist, but chosing a shoe that I can't walk in because it 'looks good' is a 'choice' worth peering into a little deeper. 'Authentic' feminism doesn't require frizzy hair or largeness of body, but if I have frizzy hair and a large body, and accept the 'need' to spend significant time, money and self-surveillance in altering those features, then there is a legitimate question about that which goes deeper than personal preference. If I am doing that in order to more closely approximate a privileged 'femme' presentation, then self-serving arguments about feminism really just being about 'choice' and my right to do whatever 'I' 'want' start to sound a bit thin.Anyway, in my opinion feminism doesn't require perfect adherence from its practioners. We all live in the world, and do what we can to get by and feel good. It just bugs me when the management of our collective cognitive dissonance around this leads to the easy (an in my view unsound) derision of a feminist critique of femininity.NOT to say that this is what I read in your post, A-Dubs. This is a general rant that has been brewing for a while. Thanks for the blog; it rocks.

  4. Me, too. I know I already commented. But I've been pissy all day thinking about this. Per Charlotte: do faculty not wear denim at your institution? I would say that most male and many female faculty at mine DO wear denim. I probably wear denim 90% of the time I'm not teaching but at school and maybe 50% of the time I'm teaching. Is my school just too casual? The thought had never occurred to me.Could we survey?

  5. Love the Wonder Woman pose, and even more, the red boots! With those you can stomp all over ANY underestimators.You have my empathy. I experienced similar underestimation in my first few weeks as a new prof. at my institution last year. If I wore casual trousers, or flats, I was immediately pegged as a grad student or administrative assistant, and asked to get books, make copies, etc. I moaned about this to my doctoral advisor, who told me that when she started her job in an all male department, she wore skirt suits, heels, and her hair in a bun. Implication: that I should, too. Sad to say, ever since I followed her advice, I've been treated much better by various and sundry. I'm always dressed a notch better than my male colleagues who wear button-downs and khakis. Though it's all I owned while finishing my dissertation, denim on me never crosses the threshold of my university.I really hate that my sartorial norms are influenced this way (though I do like fashion), but even more, I hate being underestimated or condescended to, so this is my pragmatic solution.

  6. Those boots are killing it. Seriously. And I dig the ruffly detail of that sweater. Um, I don't know who these idiots are who are underestimating you, but the problem lies with them, not you. There is nothing wrong with trouser jeans and a blazer on a non-teaching day. Ugh.But I get wanting to dress up a bit to be "taken seriously." Hopefully, with time, your reputation will proceed you and it won't be necessary. Quadruple grrr… For reals.

  7. just drawn that way, I'm sorry and I didn't mean to stereotype unfairly up there. The idea of our lovely hostess being required to "perform" feminism somehow rather than to simply dress respectably and do her job irked me to no end. Because how is it any better than being forced to "perform" June Cleaver to succeed?Conversations like this make me appreciate my current department SO much, and the almost magic freedom from gender-based persecution I've experienced in my fortunate life. I'm gonna go knock wood now.

  8. First of all, Gaaaaah! Amazing outfit–can't tell whether I love the boots or the top (read truffled instead of ruffled first) more. And second…yes, similar things have happened with me. I'm not in your field, but I've been out with colleagues, both male and female, who have let it slip that they can't take me seriously when I'm in a cute top or heels or what have you. I'm too stubborn to change my tops, though (well, you know what I mean)and I refuse to let anyone's snark influence my choices. Of course, that doesn't really work to change anything all that much and I feel like I should have a better verbal response to attacks on sartorial choices/persona.

  9. Outfit first, awesome! Love everything about it. Will steal the look for future use.Next, so, what is a feminist supposed to look like?As for getting Manhattaned (looked at from head to toe by another), right on, you were judged. You must have been looking terrific.Last, you were underestimated. Ok. Did the person who did the underestimating know you? Or was it a first time kind of thing?Wear what makes you feel good. Look good, feel good, do good. That and time (as Charlotte said) will help put everything in its place.

  10. LOTTA interesting, thoughtful comments. my two cents….first, killer outfit. second, brilliant move to judge someone' brain, morals, committment, etc. by whatever clothes they have on at the moment you happen to see them(snark). but wait, you work at the fashion university, right? (continuing snark) *oh brother*it is possible to change your appearance to be more in line with particular expectations and get different reactions from your target audience. http://www.fashionforrealwomen.com has great advice on how to come across as wealthy, successful, and authoritative in the USA from a 'this is how the world works so why not use all the tools at your disposal' perspective. good info and presentation. most likely worthwhile for professionals wanting to be/maybe having trouble being seen as such.at the same time – so much of this stuff is region and sub-culture specific. at UC Berkeley that outfit would be seen as over-the-top femme and frivolous – this being the land of fog and SERIOUS PEOPLE. how consumerist to spend money on clothes!! (excuse me, have you ever SEEN the prices at Chez Pannise?!?!?) (continuing snark continuation..)and even if a colleague flat out tells you to your face 'those pants look too casual for this meeting' you can't know if they are telling you the truth. maybe you just remind them of the best friend who stabbed them in the back, or they are setting you up to feel insecure in the dept. so they can stomp on you for a promotion. especially with a person you just met, it's very difficult to know how to take that kind of comment. and many of these types of signals are much less straightforward.then there's perception vs. reality in terms of comfort, etc. a pink sweatshirt is the same thing as a grey one comfort-wise, but the heather grey one is seen entirely differently….so, you just have to figure out how far you want to go with figuring out other people's perceptions and expectations of you and a person in your position and then giving them what they want. and where does what you want factor into the equation. what you're doing here – getting other womens' input into their thoughts and experiences – seems like a prudent first step. there's a lot of books and websites out there with good info as well that could be worth your time. in the end, turning yourself inside out to meet other's expectations is a fool's errand. taking your appearance into account and making some efforts to use it to your advantage seems only prudent. good luck!!!

  11. I keep coming back and re-reading all of these comments. Thanks so much for thinking through these issues with/for me, Stylenation. I am endlessly interested in what you have to say.

  12. just drawn that way, I'm sorry and I didn't mean to stereotype unfairly up there. The idea of our lovely hostess being required to "perform" feminism somehow rather than to simply dress respectably and do her job irked me to no end. Because how is it any better than being forced to "perform" June Cleaver to succeed?Conversations like this make me appreciate my current department SO much, and the almost magic freedom from gender-based persecution I've experienced in my fortunate life. I'm gonna go knock wood now.

  13. First of all, Gaaaaah! Amazing outfit–can't tell whether I love the boots or the top (read truffled instead of ruffled first) more. And second…yes, similar things have happened with me. I'm not in your field, but I've been out with colleagues, both male and female, who have let it slip that they can't take me seriously when I'm in a cute top or heels or what have you. I'm too stubborn to change my tops, though (well, you know what I mean)and I refuse to let anyone's snark influence my choices. Of course, that doesn't really work to change anything all that much and I feel like I should have a better verbal response to attacks on sartorial choices/persona.

  14. I occasionally use clothing to mitigate others' negative assumptions about me…but only in the office. Usually, I'm more interested in provocation, even when it occasionally bites me in the ass.♥ Vhttp://www.gritandglamour.com

  15. I love the outfit and the boots are just sassy, sassy, sassy!Yesterday I was going to be in a meeting all afternoon, walking through the hot and humid southern campus that I'm in, so I opted for jeans and a t-shirt with a hoodie because the meeting space is always freezing. Better to be prepared and grateful for a/c than freezing and sound like a beeyotch.So as I approach the student union, students start handing me cards for various events. While it's nice to think that I look young enough to be considered a student, I didn't realize until today what a detriment that has been to me. Today I had to call the College my department. When I called, the woman (a veteran staff member) had no idea who I was. When I explained to her who I was and what I did for my department and that I had been doing my job for three years now, she said, "oh." Oh. So no one knows I'm here. No one knows I do this job. My dress, my relaxed style is keeping me from being noticed. Not that I want to be noticed but I'd like to be at least acknowledged that I am the chick behind the curtain getting the work done. What kills me is that our male tenured faculty can run around all day in shorts and t-shirts (and sometimes even tank tops, yuck!) and no one ever questions them or what they do. Our female faculty, what little of them there are, dress either in regards to their religious beliefs, dowdy, or stylish. Rarely do I see jeans or even khakis on our female faculty.Anyway, I think it sucks. This stereotype is all over the world in various careers. Women always have to do better than their male counterparts to be considered a valued member of the team.

  16. "just drawn that way," now you have tempted ME to de-lurk. Wonderful, thought provoking points, which help me to make sense of the phenomenon of academic fashion blogs, my response to them, and my own dressing choices as an academic woman.

  17. *De-lurking*[I've been reading the blog since you started, but refraining from commenting in a desperate attempt to reserve some time in the day for actual work. I'm an almost 40 year old tenured academic feminist in the social sciences, and I fear that if I start participating in this conversation on a regular basis, I'll simply never stop!]I love the outfit, and agree that it is unarguably BA. I hate the casual way in which women in academia are so breezily underestimated. It seems that the default expectation is that we are light-weights; one strike and you're out. GRRRHaving said that, I am not entirely at one with the commentary about this; there are aspects of the way this conversation (about dressing 'femme', not 'casual') often plays out on style blogs that do bother me a bit. Dressing/appearance is political, and the ways in which we choose to style our bodies (as opposed to just raw physical characteristics) can legitimately be read as saying something about us. I guess we all know that, our we wouldn't find personal style blogs so interesting.Why are we so eager to ignore that there is a privilege attracted to feminine performances of gender? It is not just another look equivalent to any other, and therefore a straightforward matter of personal preference. And, that privilege is also so intimately tied to women's oppression as a class that it's not suprising that appearing to 'buy in' to that privilege can be viewed as problematic. Simple appeals to personal preference are too easy; saying that 'I feel better this way' ignores how heavily conditioned these 'natural' preferences are, and how much ideological work they do. We wouldn't accept this kind of simplistic analysis anywhere else, but we offer it so easily to ourselves when it comes to our appearance. There's also the too-easily glossed over issue of what is required to produce a certain look. I think it's a guaranteed waste of time and energy to try to produce the approved feminist look book, but I do think that appearance related practices are fair game. I don't see the point in declaring high heels to be unfeminist, but chosing a shoe that I can't walk in because it 'looks good' is a 'choice' worth peering into a little deeper. 'Authentic' feminism doesn't require frizzy hair or largeness of body, but if I have frizzy hair and a large body, and accept the 'need' to spend significant time, money and self-surveillance in altering those features, then there is a legitimate question about that which goes deeper than personal preference. If I am doing that in order to more closely approximate a privileged 'femme' presentation, then self-serving arguments about feminism really just being about 'choice' and my right to do whatever 'I' 'want' start to sound a bit thin.Anyway, in my opinion feminism doesn't require perfect adherence from its practioners. We all live in the world, and do what we can to get by and feel good. It just bugs me when the management of our collective cognitive dissonance around this leads to the easy (an in my view unsound) derision of a feminist critique of femininity.NOT to say that this is what I read in your post, A-Dubs. This is a general rant that has been brewing for a while. Thanks for the blog; it rocks.

  18. Ooh, let's talk about getting misrecongized! I am often misrecognized as the secretary. A lot of the departmental secretaries are newly graduated students. I heart our secretary, and we probably dress more similarly than not (but she's a good dresser!). I have to tell the students, "Sorry, I can't help you. I'm a professor."I increasingly am starting to just not care if I fit in with sartorial norms. Based on the really good questions that folks asked me on Friday, I realized that I am comfortable enough in my position as a teacher, scholar, and professor at my institution that I don't think I have dress a certain way to meet anyone's annoying expectations. Even if my students think I am ditzy or young looking (both true), I know my stuff so at the end of the day, that's what matters.Also, a beautiful friend told me that she got explicit comments about her body, weight, and breasts in her most recent teaching evaluations. I am so flabbergasted, that I want to commit all kinds of acts that I ordinarily don't condone. But I digress. And wanted to reiterate how awesome you look, and are.

  19. 'Kay, first: I missed out on those boots! Love, love, love… and it does my colour-loving heart good to know you have a pair and I can see them. Ah…And then second: I love this outfit – what a sweet dress. And WW posin'! Aw, yeah.And finally third: What is this look that you're "supposed" to be emulating or riffing on or NOT doing? Because I think you look great. This will be an interesting experiment.

  20. Inquiring minds want to know: what do "real" academic feminists dress like? You could probably do a hilarious entry on that, actually, and I am highly encouraging it!!! (If you do I promise that I and my friend D. will fashion blog ISMB next year to show you what real academic scientists dress like in the wild!) I am picturing largeish women with no makeup and frizzy hair, in some kind of earthtoned cotton print duster-layered-over-muumuu ensemble, with large ethnic looking beaded jewelry.

  21. Love the Wonder Woman pose, and even more, the red boots! With those you can stomp all over ANY underestimators.You have my empathy. I experienced similar underestimation in my first few weeks as a new prof. at my institution last year. If I wore casual trousers, or flats, I was immediately pegged as a grad student or administrative assistant, and asked to get books, make copies, etc. I moaned about this to my doctoral advisor, who told me that when she started her job in an all male department, she wore skirt suits, heels, and her hair in a bun. Implication: that I should, too. Sad to say, ever since I followed her advice, I've been treated much better by various and sundry. I'm always dressed a notch better than my male colleagues who wear button-downs and khakis. Though it's all I owned while finishing my dissertation, denim on me never crosses the threshold of my university.I really hate that my sartorial norms are influenced this way (though I do like fashion), but even more, I hate being underestimated or condescended to, so this is my pragmatic solution.

  22. Me, too. I know I already commented. But I've been pissy all day thinking about this. Per Charlotte: do faculty not wear denim at your institution? I would say that most male and many female faculty at mine DO wear denim. I probably wear denim 90% of the time I'm not teaching but at school and maybe 50% of the time I'm teaching. Is my school just too casual? The thought had never occurred to me.Could we survey?

  23. Outfit first, awesome! Love everything about it. Will steal the look for future use.Next, so, what is a feminist supposed to look like?As for getting Manhattaned (looked at from head to toe by another), right on, you were judged. You must have been looking terrific.Last, you were underestimated. Ok. Did the person who did the underestimating know you? Or was it a first time kind of thing?Wear what makes you feel good. Look good, feel good, do good. That and time (as Charlotte said) will help put everything in its place.

  24. I'm a little confused… Were you underestimated because you were dressing femme or because you were dressing rather casually? Because I'm not sure that I understand what's particularly femme about a trouser jeans ensemble — although I can see one being infused with your awesome and brilliant personality.Those boots are HOT!

  25. I think the outfit is fantastic. And I think it is reeeeedeeeculous that you were under estimated, either as a brain or as a feminist, because you were wearing business casual clothing. I think this in part because my advisor, the department chair wore shorts all summer. Granted, unless he had a meeting with the big brass, but still, jeans and a blazer are fine, even for teaching, at many places.Geez.

  26. I adore this outfit. If I wore it to teach in, I'd consider myself really dressed to the nines.So at your school denim not a Serious Enough Fabric? Even dark-dark wash? Even trousers, not "jeans"?I do think time is a great friend. If you're in a place where the attitudes on dress are provincial, you can't change it all in a day. Sneaky, subtle introductions of pizazz (the red boots) will make you feel subversive enough not to accuse yourself of selling out. If you push the envelope an inch at a time, one day it'll be all the way across the table.Again, this outfit is smabulous.

  27. Thanks for this post, and for an earlier one (or more? I forget) you wrote addressing the same issue. I came across your blog this weekend and read every last post (I was sick and needed diversion)and ended up being glad I had: you gave me a little life breakthrough! I'm a philosophy prof, and one of my areas is feminism. Since the institution at which I teach is socially/politically/religiously conservative, I've had my struggles. Got it: the conservatives aren't on board with feminism. What I wasn't prepared for is that some feminists apparently aren't on board with me. I was stunned two years ago at a feminist philosophy conference when I got the evil eye from other presenters and attendees because of my long hair and mascara. I have no proof, of course: they may just not have liked me for other reasons. But I noticed that they were nice to me in the morning while my wet hair was back in a braid, and unkind after it dried (and shrunk, which hurts) and I took it down. I also had a finger waved at me in admonition when I was seen laughing with a man. Lately I've been feeling more and more pissed off about this issue, which I think is absolutely the right reaction. (It beats being hurt, or just confused.) Why do I–or you–need to look a certain way in order to be a "good feminist"? It makes sociological sense that oppression can create an unfortunate narrow-mindedness in the communities affected by it, but I wish there were more awareness of this problem. I've also been realizing how profoundly this difficulty affects some feminist scholarship. It's not "just" a presupposition about how Enlightened Women should dress. Apparently we ought only to think, feel, choose, and act according to someone's pre-ordained list as well.All of which is to say:1. Keep fighting the good fight.2. Thanks for helping me to see that I'm not the only person who has felt gobsmacked by this problem.Beth

  28. Love those ruffles mirrored in the dress and boots.I look forward to hearing how your experiment goes. Can tweaking your sartorial choices only slightly do the trick? Or are more drastic measures needed?

  29. I'm sitting here just shaking my head. What shit. Isn't the entire point of the feminist movement CHOICE? I went to one of the most liberal women's colleges in the country for undergrad and am now a tenured prof in my 40s and I KNOW that I'm judged sometimes by my clothing choices. But I've stopped caring. My work and my teaching speak highly of my intelligence and professionalism. This sort of retrograde "political" arrogance is far less feminist than trouser jeans. Good grief.Love the boots, by the way. 🙂

  30. Also, I just read Dress A Day's old (2006) post about how you don't owe the world pretty just because you're a woman. Do you owe the world a more feminist-like representation that you have to work at? (Or as she put it, you don't owe feminism ugly, but I suspect that's super-reductionist).To thine own self be true except maybe not in jeans at work?

  31. You look marvelous. I almost bought those boots last year, are they comfortable?Semi-coherent thoughts about this post…being a scientist in a woman-friendly department in a remarkably non-stodgy university, I feel almost no gender-related pressure about how I dress. What I want to wear seems to be completely acceptable to everyone in my realm, although sometimes I read as a little more dressed-up/expensively dressed than my colleagues. I'm rarely tempted to wear either ultra-feminine styles or jeans to work, so maybe my natural inclinations have converged with my environment somewhat. But then what does ultra-feminine mean in gender studies vs. what it means to a scientist? Maybe I'm just underestimating the impact of that kind of thing in your particular field? Maybe gender studies people are always looking for signifiers? Scientists are about avoiding phenol burns on your nice clothing. I approve of your self style-challenge to up your professionality. But, how do you define that, and will it prevent you from being your awesome self? Did your quirky (but non-denim) All Saints ensemble the other day draw an eyebrow raise? Or was it just the jeans? Maybe you just found a specific boundary.

  32. This is a tough one. Part of me just sputters in disbelief and rage at the ongoing, pervasive stereotypes about what feminists should look like. I need a moment for my rage: GARRRRRRRRRRR. I can't believe anyone with ears that connect to a brain would underestimate you. I bet those who do wind up feeling bloody stupid once they realize how smart, insightful and awesome you are. I wonder if they make the connection, though, between their stupidity and their assumptions about appearance.Rage and disbelief aside, I have indeed changed what I wear / how I look in order to avoid making certain impressions. How lame am I? In the casual realm, see my playgroup-joining freakout attempts to look approachable and non-intimidating. In the professional realm, I've dressed up, removed a piercing and covered tattoos in order to be taken seriously. I've worn pants and menswear looks in professional situations in order to look less femme, in part because my field has historically been dominated by old men who still kind of wonder why a nice young lady would want to study this stuff. Some of those choices are just what I like (pants, flat shoes) but some of them are absolutely about working against others' assumptions.On a lighter note, those boots are fantastic. I keep hearing good things about Miz Mooz.

  33. Did you read Sal's post this morning? I've already been thinking about perception related to clothing today, but hadn't considered it from your perspective. It's true that you don't dress at all like most of my WGS teachers did in college, but why does a feminist have to look a certain way? And why are we surprised when they don't?I love love love this outfit though. I can see you strutting across campus in the WW pose, leading a crusade to study the history of and defend the rights of women everywhere!And as for me, I just assume that no one has any negative assumptions about me. Okay that's not true (especially since I'm just as sarcastic and witty), but I generally try not to care because I know that I'm a) awesome and b) pretty good at my job. And so are you.

  34. Those boots are killing it. Seriously. And I dig the ruffly detail of that sweater. Um, I don't know who these idiots are who are underestimating you, but the problem lies with them, not you. There is nothing wrong with trouser jeans and a blazer on a non-teaching day. Ugh.But I get wanting to dress up a bit to be "taken seriously." Hopefully, with time, your reputation will proceed you and it won't be necessary. Quadruple grrr… For reals.

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