Tightrope Walking in Heels

We’ve just finished hosting a Quantitative Biology Workshop at Spelman to attract our Atlanta-area colleagues and bring a few collaborators in town. In about a week, I’ll be at NSF for a panel. Somehow, I’m also moving in the midst of this…

In trying to have some strategy so that I’ve got everything I need to go to NSF on hand, I’m confronted with a rather mundane, but important, choice: what do I wear?

Since coming to Spelman, I’ve been a bit more conscious of my clothing for a few reasons:

  1. I’m a postdoc now. This means I teach a bit as a primary instructor and am visible around the department. My ratty jeans don’t send good signals, as comfortable as they might be.
  2. I’m younger, and unfortunately, I have been mistaken for a student. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be limiting when you actually are an authority on something.
  3. The faculty here tend to be more traditional, so they wear clothing that is a bit more professional. Likewise, the students tend to dress really well, so fitting in means a bit more dressing up.

Seeing faculty across different Atlanta institutions at last week’s conference, I was again reminded that appearance (clothingmakeup) does seem to make a difference in the way people perceive you, particularly for women and minorities. If I’m looking to make a positive impression on new colleagues while at NSF, it seems I need to up my game.

Normally, to pack for a trip, I wouldn’t care about clothing too much, and the pragmatist in me would pack what fits into suitcase, won’t wrinkle, and tolerates weather/AC unknowns. Now, beyond the checks for rips and stains, I’m starting to give what I wear more thought. I’m very much a novice at this, but hooray for help from the internet!

A cursory glance through Google will show a ton of links, with everything from the basic ‘bathe often’ to runway fashion in academia. For me, I think mastery of basic hygiene has occurred (hopefully), and I’ve no desire to be a runway model, so I want to find a good middle ground of ‘functional, fits, and fitting’. I’m trying to adopt this attitude and outsource my shopping through delivery services (shout out to StitchFix and Trunk Club for Women!)  when I can afford it.

This isn’t the first experiment I’ve done with my image. Not many people know this, but I actually did a pilot experiment in my 3rd-4th year of graduate school. It was small (and had no meaningful control, obviously), but I made the choice to not wear t-shirts with text, wear mascara and concealer, and on days I taught, I would always wear a cardigan/blazer, blouse, and dark shoes (lab days I cheated and wore black sneakers vs. boots). On those days, I did get positive responses from others in terms of both the number and quality of interactions. These responses are hard for me to write off as merely confidence-boosting, because I’d say I was actually less confident and more awkward when I wore this stuff. I begrudgingly have to admit these differences in the classroom and general interactions (both on campus and in stores/restaurants) were image-influenced– even if people liked outwardly-awkward me best.

So, I’m packing away boxes and suitcases, keeping in mind that anecdotal experience says I should care how I appear. Nonetheless, sweat pants may make it in the bag. Work-life balance, right?

What tips do you have for being comfortable and professional? How do you cope with ‘appearances’ in academia? Let me know your thoughts!

 

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