Do clothes maketh the academic?

The past fortnight has been a little strange. I’ve been entirely lost in that last of the grants and the beginning of teaching – drowning a little in trying to ensure both share focus with a mind that isn’t complete marmalade. It’s been OK so far…

But in this distraction – as my small cat continues to chew up all the toilet paper in a way to gain attention – I’ve been finding the oddest things to read. And these articles have argued, in their ways, that I’ve not been living up to expectations I either keep on forgetting existed (or didn’t realise existed in the first place).

All in all, it’s been a smidge disconcerting because, as I’ve been focusing on holding everything together in a vaguely balanced way, appearance ideals rear their – ugly is far too strong a word – boring head. Sometimes having to worry about what I look like – or disregard another article telling me what I’m supposed to look like – is becoming increasingly dull.

Even when the debates are deeply amusing.

Alvy Carragher impaled one such article – how a good woman dresses and behaves.

The usual lala about modest clothing and heels and makeup – and no doubt brushing your hair. I love Alvy’s blog – the way she sees things is brilliantly skewed. And, it’s true, it’s all the usual lala but it’s exhausting to continually have these polarized conversations where, on one side, women must love themselves for who they are and, on the other, are only lovable if they follow however many steps to look a certain way. It’s exhausting to those of us who are used to the conversation, used to dissecting it and ignoring it where it doesn’t suit. I wear loads of dresses and skirts but I also love my Skechers and am rarely fussed to brush my hair in any meaningful way.  I don’t own an iron and my style is essentially grounded in my refusal to iron. But we’re the lucky ones – those of us who can happily do that dissection with little thought. I worry about those women who don’t do that dissection so easily – those who will always struggle and those girls (children even) who need to learn that the conversation is one that can be dissected. The lucky ones need to become teachers of this because someone taught us too.

For all that the value of feminism is argued, it’s worth and it’s meaning, I will always be a feminist while we still have to tell little girls that they can be whoever and whatever they want, wear whatever they want, without worrying whether they’ll be girly or beautiful or accepted enough. While we still have to tell them, and write at length about it, and make specific art and advertising that highlights in big bold interpretive-dancing letters that girls can grow into whatever sort of person they want, whoever feels most true to them.

For me, that’s one of the important feminist fights.

But these swirling thoughts – buffering against the grant writing and the teaching this fortnight – were compounded by another article about what academics should wear, not a dress code per se but a suggestion of clothes to be worn so that you’re taken seriously.

Again, something else to be dissected – kept and discarded as relevant. Something I’d ordinarily laugh at and forget by my first chai. But it’s stuck in my head because I’m trying to work out whether what I wear really, truly, deep down matters in the basic aspects of getting good work done. Am I a better writer in a fitted dress than if I’m embracing comfy man-repeller pants and a cardi?

Obviously, the academic world would grind to a shattering halt without cardis so they always have to be on a list, if a list is what we’re writing.

During my PhD, I wrote absolutely everywhere. I dated a musician for almost my entire literature review, which was almost entirely written in various pubs while he gigged. If the mood strikes, I can write in underwear as easily as I can in jeans as easily as a conference dress. (This may be my tell as a researcher – I don’t own fancy going-out dresses but I do own dresses that I buy because I want to wear them at conferences). If the mood doesn’t though, if it’s a day where I delete more than I write and swear often and loudly at the screen, I could look like Ms Moneypenny in all her ironed, pencil-skirted, brushed-hair glamour and it wouldn’t make a drop of difference. And it’s still the case now – my clothes don’t influence how much I write, or whether it’s actually any good at all. My honesty does.

But that’s just me.

It may be different for others.

But I also wonder whether this idea of what an academic should look like speaks to a sense of lack that we sometimes feel, that I sometimes feel. That, for so long, there’s been a stereotype that academia is a fluffy, unreal job (which it is very much not)_and so we need to clothe ourselves in a style more akin to more ‘serious’ jobs. Is it a sense of the saying that you dress for the job you want, and that some people see this as a way of making academia more respectable in a sense? The cardis have to be sleek, rather than nanna?

For me there’s a difference between dressing for occasion – my conference dresses make me feel more confident because their special-ness gives them a little bit more power – and dressing for something you think others want, for something you think you should be. The first still feels playful – it winks to the person I am while I’m doing something that makes me feel more nervous. The second though, makes me feel as though I’d be dressing up, pulling on a mask to be a caricature of a ‘good’ academic. The style over substance.

Have I over-thought this? I’ve been over-thinking everything lately so this could well be the case. But in all the issues we need to discuss in academia, what we should look like feels like a distraction. And distractions only take our attention away from the things that make our hearts (my heart anyway) beat in this work.

What do you think?

After Jill Meagher and Tugce Albayrak

I’ve cried this week reading commentary on the deaths of two women: Jill Meagher and Tugce Albayrak. These three pieces, written by three very different people, are incredible: (this is older than the other pieces – found as I was trying to re-find the piece above)

The grief felt over the deaths of these women has been turned into beautiful words that challenge us not only to keep their memory alive but to honour their memory too in speaking up and speaking out about the violence that took these women’s lives – and takes the lives of many more. The violence (in whatever its form) that shapes how women – how I – go about the day and make decisions. And it’s not that this influence is necessarily blatant and overt at all times but more a lingering tug in the back of my mind:

Is it better to get a taxi home from the pub rather than walk the (barely) ten minutes home? Is it better that, if I walk home, I then text everyone to say I’m home safe?

Is it better to go running with someone? Or if I go by myself, and I go running in the morning, is it better to wait until it’s fully light? And if I go by myself, is it better if I wear something other than my little running shorts which are cool in the eleventy-million degree summer weather but which are little?

It’s far too easy for these questions to devolve into a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of unanswerable rhetoric (and these are such a tiny sample of what the questions could be) – ‘better’ is so ridiculously subjective. Because at the end of the day, these lingering tugs all revolve around one ultimate question: which decision will keep me safe? Which decision will be impregnable against any harm? Because if something was to happen (touch wood), which decision would mean that I wasn’t blamed and my attacker would actually be punished for his crime? Which decision wouldn’t lead to questions about what I was wearing, and who I was talking to, and how I got home, and why I went by myself?

These questions are exhausting. Entirely exhausting.

Not least because men do not seem to ask them as often as women – and, if they do, then that’s a conversation we need to have as well.

Not least because the idea that I can’t go for a run or a walk by myself to collect my thoughts and de-stress without being accompanied by a bodyguard-like male protector is claustrophobic.

Not least because if I’m out running with my 6’5” tiny brother, no one yells at me from cars, or the footpath, about exactly which sexual acts they’d like to do to me.

Not least because the fact that I am less likely to  be yelled it if a man is out with me feeds into a masculine stereotype (that all men are obviously both capable of being, and want to be, a woman’s bodyguard-like protector) that we already know is hurting men.

No one wins this game full of stereotypes.

And so I find myself going for runs by myself wearing what I like when I like because none of those acts are illegal. Walking home from the pub, even when I’m tired and my feet hurt, because that is not illegal – and it’s not like taxis are always safe either. Doing all these things that are ‘unsafe’ because otherwise I’m afraid I would never leave the house.

And this is also in full acknowledgement that the issues I face melt away in comparison to those faced by other women in Australia, and across the world.

Last year, Bianca Hall wrote a brilliant piece ( which highlighted the fact that the language so often used with these crimes makes women have to the vanguards of their safety – not that the people who commit these crimes need to be punished appropriately and consistently. Not all men are violent, and will never be violent, that’s a given. Yet I wonder whether this language of what women should do to stay safe really doesn’t actually hurt men as well – if women have to proactively keep themselves safe then the implication becomes that men simply can’t control violent urges, which then implies that all men have violent urges that need to be controlled. And we know this not to be the case. The circularity of this argument is exhausting and, again, helps no one at all.

Bianca writes: “We all know that pang of panic that can clutch the chest in an instant when an unseen man steps out from a sidestreet and falls into step behind us (Is he walking too close? What’s he doing? Is it me he’s after?), and the rush of relief when it becomes obvious the poor bloke was just trying to walk in the same direction as a woman and is probably mortified at the thought he’s frightened her”. I have a feeling that the men who know me reading this will tell me I shouldn’t worry about this so much – that I’m sensible, regardless of my love for early morning exercise, and that I’ll be fine. And I know this.

Except I remember where I was when Jill Meagher went missing and was found. I remember because I was up north for work – going in between the hotel and different work sites, going for early morning walks. After Jill was found, the guys I was working with wouldn’t let me travel to and from my hotel to different places by myself – just in case. And that’s the kicker, it’s always just in case.

In reading all of this lately, and writing about similar stuff for work, the findings from a Swedish ‘social experiment’ really got me thinking. Run by a group known for prank videos, and other social experiments, which they post on YouTube, this video shows a man verbally and physically abusing a woman in a lift. It’s all pretence as the men and women are actors but none of the people know this as they enter the left and the video is pretty full-on in its depiction (you can see it here but I want to provide a trigger warning here just in case: The creators say that only one woman said anything to the couple, out of 53 people who entered the lift.

What does this say about society? Does this say that people in general don’t care about violence against women?

The researcher in me knows we can’t really take any findings from this as we don’t know how the experiment was conducted. The researcher in me also worries whether the people who were filmed were offered debriefing opportunities afterwards, given what they’d seen.

As a woman though, I’m honestly not sure if I would have said something either. Maybe I would be brave and say something. Yet, even here, I’m not entirely sure ‘brave’ is the right word but I’m equally unsure of what would be the better replacement.

In that cramped space – where the man was that much bigger than the woman (and potentially me as well) and already aggressive – I’m not sure that I would have felt safe enough to speak out, rather than just retreating into myself. I tell myself that, if I were in that situation, I might not speak out there but I would call the police the second I was out of the lift.

And that, of course, is not enough.

This not only frustrates me in terms of my perceived lack but it makes me angry as to why I would be afraid to speak out. I would be afraid of the man because he could hurt me too, or worse. In the midst of it all, maybe I wouldn’t think about the consequences and that I would speak out, but sitting here writing, the consequences become all too stark, and all too frightening.

It is these stories of Jill and Tugce – women just out for the night, doing nothing out of the ordinary – that feed that fear, that make you take care and think twice as a woman. (This is not to say that there aren’t men who feel this same of trepidation in terms of violence but this isn’t an experience I can speak to). Yet, it is these stories that remind us how much we still need to talk about issues of violence and fear without getting stuck on semantics. I feel that I’m simply repeating things already said, again and again, but the fact that we’re still having this conversation means nothing has changed in any sort of tangible sense. These conversations need to be focused on change: changing a blaming culture that puts an emphasis on women protecting themselves; changing the way in which we raise boys and girls and teach them about respect and violence and compassion; and, changing our assumptions that just because ‘this is just the way things are’ and ‘this is what I’ve always thought’ doesn’t mean they’re right and don’t need changing.

So… What do you think?