On image and constructing identity

I'm starting my third year in grad school, and this has prompted a number of reflections, about things both serious and frivolous. Things are different now, and one of the fastest ways to know things are different is to look in the mirror or open my closet door.

I was a biology major in college, and school and work were my life. My standard uniform was a beaten up pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt, or a green button-down with sulfuric acid holes from TA-ing chem lab. I also didn't shower all that much (because, if showers take ten minutes, and you go a week without showering, you've just saved yourself an hour, and those hours add up.). It's also fair to say that especially my last two years, I was carrying a pretty big chip on my shoulder, and the yuck probably resulted in fewer verbal "screw you"s being dealt out.

My first job after graduation was interning in a molecular tox lab. So I added showers into my routine and phased out the cruddiest of the jeans. But frozen tissue samples don't really care what you look like, so there were many, many days of burrowing under my lab coat.

Then, there was grad school. And I swear, cardigans, skirts, colorful flats and heels have been breeding in my closet. Part of that is the influence of colleagues and mentors - I didn't know a single woman who actually wore pencil skirts or pointy-toed shoes before I started my masters, and all of a sudden, I was spending every day with three of them. Everything about this is filled with tension- well described here. The tension of not wanting to buy into gender, as it's constructed in this country. Like many American girls, I had thoroughly absorbed the notion that you have to choose between being Smart and being Pretty. Somewhere, I learned that Smart girls could fend for themselves, and therefore, no one wanted to be around them, and they generally wound up successful, but alone. Pretty girls on the other hand, were always surrounded by friends and admirers. While they were helpless, their visual appeal and dazzling conversation skills ensured them the admiration and assistance of everyone they encountered. However, as a Pretty girl, you were forever at risk of losing your looks with age, or, heaven forbid, that someone prettier come along and steal the partner on whom you were dependent. Faced with this dichotomy, I chose, quite reasonably, to be a Smart girl.

Then, I wound up in grad school, surrounded by professors and classmates who were both Smart and Pretty. To borrow from Judith Butler, I learned that there were more than just these two separate ways of doing femininity. I saw something admirable in how my Smart and Pretty friends and mentors did gender- they were beautiful, bright, comfortable in their own skin. They managed to signal that they were competent and approachable. Occasionally, I tried out their approach, and eventually it changed something about me. Not so much my inner self, but the signals I send to others. In this vein, I choose to select the messages I send with my appearance.

I choose to look like someone who puts effort into how she presents herself, who considers others (e.g. showering!). When I teach, I don't dress in a way that I'll be mistaken for a student, and I will not look like someone who is currently debating about whether to go off their maintenance meds or start buying them from Canada. It is my choice how the world sees me, and when I put on my lipstick each morning, I tell the world that I will not be seen as a sick, pitiful, graduate student.


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