Important News: I Got a Haircut

Last Thursday, I got a haircut. I immediately began writing a post in my head. Thankfully, it turned out that last week there was also an op-ed on women and fashion in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Now I'm not going to look like a narcissist, which I dare say is the most use the Chronicle's ever been for me.

In her essay, Laura Sloan Patterson talks about burgeoning blogs on “academic fashion.” I agree with her key points. First, teaching is a highly performative, and yes, “erotic” act. Second, female college professors should feel free to dress however they want to on the job, even if that involves dressing up or “creating identity, subverting class or gender norms, performing self, and appreciating aesthetic beauty.” I'm not necessarily here to pick a fight with her.


I think Patterson's essay is missing a key bit of analysis. If we're going to talk about the role women's fashion choices play in their work with students, I think we should also look at how women's outfits impact their careers. Women's fashion choices often influence their work life, and often in ways that men's choices do not.

About my haircut.

Last spring, I put a few bright red streaks in my hair. They looked good. Since that worked out so well, I went full on red. Magic marker red. If I do say so myself, my hair was fucking awesome.

Let's take a break for a wee autobiography. I'm thirty-two years old. I received my Ph. D. at age twenty-eight. I'm a transsexual woman, and in addition to not knowing how much passing privilege I have from day-to-day, I don't go to any great lengths to hide this fact. I'm also a lesbian lady, so there's that. For the last fifteen months, some or all of my hair was bright red.

I don't teach at Seton Hall (or Princeton). The median age of the students I work with is around thirty-eight. The bulk of my faculty colleagues didn't get their Ph. D.'s in their twenties. Without having access to the data, I assure you that I'm one of the five youngest members on the faculty, even though I've been here three full years.

Does anyone see where I'm going with this?

I'm not going to talk about my career trajectory, or my college's review process. I'm bold, but I'm not naïve. What I will say is that more than one student and/or advisee has questioned my competence. This sort of thing shows up on performance reviews. Issues have been raised by colleagues.

I'm working on it. Last Thursday, I got a haircut.

Now, I'm not complaining about my new 'do. On the contrary, I love it. My red hair was pretty faded and frizzy. Now my hair is a nice dark brown, with a hint of red. I think it suits me:

[Sweaty derby professor does not care what you think of her haircut. Note that the fingernails compliment the hair. Fashion!]

I also took down all the roller derby posters in my office. My framed primer on unicorn anatomy is now tucked away in a corner where I can see it, but students can't. You know, it's in the kind of nook where I started squirreling away pictures of the lady who isn't my husband.

Let me be clear: I'm also working on the academic end of things. However, teaching is performance. My queer lady performance was a bit of a stretch. I mean, I was playing a college professor, but, you know, bright red hair doesn't exactly scream “I have a Ph. D. from a major research university, have published research articles in all sorts of peer-reviewed journals, and have totally taught this shit before.”

Here's the fun bit. While I do enjoy dressing up and showing my own fashion sense, more often than not I show up to work in jeans, (red!) sneakers, and t-shirt. If I don't have any meetings or student appointments, I'm usually grading, shuffling paperwork, reading, or writing, and I'm in a hurry to do it. And frankly, I'm never not at work. I check my work e-mail on Sunday nights and I grade whenever I have the time, wherever I happen to be. Between work, family, and personal commitments, I simply often don't have the time (or money) to dress the way I'd prefer.

My casual wardrobe garners mixed reviews, too. I've been told I look like a student. My students are free to dress however they want, so I'm not even sure what that means.

Here's the thing: Nobody (to my knowledge) has ever said, “I don't think that red-haired queer lady knows what she's doing.” I have absolutely no way of demonstrating that I, Kate, the person, am behind these negative reviews. What I can say is that I haven't noticed very many men (in my case, I haven't noticed any) wresting with similar issues.

My fashion sense can be too young, too old, too sexy, too serious and unapproachable, too sloppy, or too anything. People are always going to judge whether or not I look up to the job. As a woman, and a feminine one to boot, I'm guaranteed to not always make the grade. I can't win at fashion.

While I agree that women should feel free to dress as they'd like at the office, I think it's naïve to ignore the very real price we may pay for the privilege. We're walking a tightrope, and it's not one of our own making. Without challenging the sexist basis on which society assigns us worth, we'll never be free to be ourselves. That, in my opinion, is a fight worth having.

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