I am not a natty dresser. I almost never wear a tie or jacket. My hair is usually ruffled. My clothes are inexpensive and off-the-rack from department stores that aim at the mass market. I never iron my clothes so they frequently look rumpled and I often wear them until they are so worn and frayed that there is a real danger of holes appearing. I hardly ever polish my shoes, with the result that they look scuffed all the time. I would not go so far as to say that people cross the street when they see me approaching but clearly I am not going to be on the cover of GQ magazine. Disheveled is the word that probably best describes me and I have little interest in putting in the effort to become sheveled.
I know all this about myself but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. One of the reasons that I enjoy being in academia is that one’s appearance does not seem not matter that much to one’s employers unless one has ambitions of rising in the administration. I used to think that it did not matter much to students either, because I have taught many thousands of students and read many student evaluations of my teaching and I can’t recall a single one that criticized my appearance. But I was wrong. It turns out that it matters sometimes and that is if you are a woman. My female colleagues tell me that some students seem to feel free to use the evaluations to critique their hair, clothes, shoes, and general demeanor. As a result, I now notice things that I had been oblivious to before. For example, just yesterday I organized a panel discussion on teaching featuring four faculty members. The three men came dressed highly casually but the sole woman was smartly dressed. I was not surprised because women are always aware that they face much greater scrutiny and that their appearance matters as much as what they say.
That this is grossly unfair goes without saying. And it is not only in the US that this happens. Recently a spectacular case of the public over-reacting to the looks of an academic occurred in the UK. Mary Beard is highly regarded classicist at Cambridge University. On a British TV program that dealt with immigration, she made some remarks downplaying the burdens that loosening immigration laws would have on social services. The responses her comments were wildly inappropriate.
Her remarks, made on Jan. 17, unleashed a torrent of vicious, crude and personal online attacks, many targeting her unadorned style and her long, unkempt gray hair. Anonymous attackers also superimposed a picture of her face on a pornographic image. But rather than retire to her fainting couch (it is in her Newnham office, should she need it), or accept what happened as the cost of being a public figure in the Internet age, Ms. Beard decided to fight back.
Adopting what she said was a “high-risk strategy,” Ms. Beard reproduced on her blog some of the most unsavory remarks and the mocked-up image, which she has since removed.
At first glance, the professor is an unlikely candidate for such impassioned attention. Her gray hair, which she described as “mad,” hangs around her shoulders, which might be draped in a loose-fitting sweater or dress. She often uses tights to display a hint of her personality: on a recent Friday, they were black and adorned with shining plastic stars.
“I’ve chosen to be this way because that’s how I feel comfortable with myself,” Ms. Beard said. “That’s how I am. It’s about joining up the dots between how you look and how you feel inside, and I think that’s what I’ve done, and I think people do it differently.”
Beard is tough and fought back but she should not have to deal with things like this. In an op-ed she reflects on her experience dealing with this abuse.
Why do women in the public sphere face this kind of reaction? I am not talking about the fact that women’s looks and appearance are subjected to much closer scrutiny than men. While that is unfortunate, you cannot stop people from choosing what they want to notice and what to ignore about other people. What I am talking about is why some people fell free to throw those things into discussions when they have absolutely no relevance. And they are usually done in the most vitriolic form.
This has serious negative effects. Women will feel pressured to spend time paying more attention to how they look and speak in addition to what they say. And even with the last, they may hesitate much more than men in saying something that could be considered even mildly controversial because of the disproportionate reaction that it may generate. And even worse, they may not even be able to anticipate what might be controversial or not and thus hesitate to accept invitations to enter the public sphere. After all, Beard was commenting on an aspect of public policy that had no obviously gendered overtones and was making a point that many others have made. She could hardly have expected that it would generate such a backlash. Should we be surprised that women feel discouraged from taking an active role in public life?
I listen to a lot of NPR and they often have experts on various topics. If you listen to the men, they will speak confidently and make flat declarative statements. But if you listen to the female experts, many of them will be more tentative, often ending their statements with an upward lilt, making them seem more like questions, as if anticipating disagreement. I am of course generalizing but not much. Interestingly, I have noticed that the women who speak confidently and assertively are the ones who appear on Fox News, even though they are often not experts on the topics they are addressing. It is also obvious that they have also paid close attention to their appearance.
Why do women face this kind of unwanted and undeserved scrutiny? Perhaps it may be because as a society we haven’t as yet fully come to terms with the fact that women are the intellectual equals of men. There are still pockets of resentment that women are not in a subordinate role but those feelings are suppressed most of the time because nowadays it is considered bad form to express them. But given an opportunity to do so, especially anonymously, and that resentment can spew out like a volcano.
We really need to get over this.