Monday, September 5, 2011

clothes maketh the woman

I consider myself a feminist. I like to be admired for my intellect, my scientific insight, and my hard work.  Often I find myself wondering why I also care so much about my appearance. I worry too about projecting this onto my daughter. Geekygirl is a gorgeous kid, and people tell her so. Peggy Orenstein in "cinderella ate my daughter" raises concerns about teaching our daughters that their value lies in part or at all in their looks, that this will set them up for eating disorders and poor self esteem, but the ugly reality seems to be that no matter how much we wish it were not so, looks do matter.

I'n my profession, I'm a scientist in the biopharmaceutical industry, looks are probably less important than in many others. There could even be a downside of appearing too "bimboey". I wonder sometimes whether I should cut my hair, embrace my natural brown locks rather than spending a fortune on blond mane maintenance at the salon, and relax my rigorous figure-maintaining salad eating and exercise regimen. Science is a forgiving career, personal grooming wise. I was recently at a party filled with the other, more glamorous bookend of our industry, pharmaceutical sales reps, and felt distinctly dowdy, though I was secretly delighted to be proclaimed by one "way too fabulous to be a scientist".

Finding that balance between looking both attractive and intelligent consumes far too much of my energy and money. Before business trips, mental energy time that should be spent pre reading slides and brushing up on science is devoted instead to preparing what to wear, down to what type of underwear will provide smooth support for my aging bum under my nicely fitted but not too tight slacks, without causing me to have to keep adjusting them all the time (these are great, in case you are looking for such an item). I spent far too much time coming up with a formal yet feminine style for my trip to Japan last year. I was pretty happy both with how the trip went professionally and with how I looked though, I have to say. So much so that I snapped this shot of myself in the hotel room mirror!

It was with great interest, that I read this quite old article, which points out that there is no neutral work ware for women. hair up, hair down, short, long, every style says something about you and how you see yourself. High necks, a touch of cleavage or an eye popping bustier. Make up or no make up. Everything makes some kind of statement, whereas a man in a pair of grey trousers and a blue or white shirt, as long as both fit him and are vaguley clean and pressed, blends in to the background. Men can choose to stand out, of course, with jewelery, exposed chest hair or flashy shirts and ties, but most don't even have to think about the image that their clothes project.

Changes at work leave me back in the world primarily of men. Nice men, don't get me wrong, but people who tower over me, leaving me with the dilema of whether to wear comfy flats that leave me a head and a half below the conversation, or to rock shoes like these babies, which give me an almost eye level experience with our senior team, but walk a fine balance between 'executive' and "stripper".

It took me until I was about 27 to become reasonably happy with my own physical appearance. I spent most of my teen years designing elaborate hairstyles and eye make up techniques to detract attention from my too large nose, and most of my twenties worried about my weight, despite only ever skirting the edge of the overweight BMI category. Now I've hit my forties the brief period of being vaguely satisfied with my appearance is passing, as the spectre of aging looms and lures me, a scientist who really should know better, to spend stupid sums of money on tiny pots of expensively packaged face cream. I run and do pilates, not just to keep my blood lipid profile healthy, but to ensure I still fit into my slim pants. I get great satisfaction from looking slim, pretty and sexy, and feel miserable when my skin flares up in dry scaly patches, when the bags under my eyes reveal my age or when my tummy wobbles over the waistband of my skinny jeans. I really don't understand why I feel this way, since what I look like has no bearing at all on how well I parent my kids, do my job, or live my life.

In hope of understanding more about this issue, I picked up  two books exploring this very subject. The first, The Beauty Bias : The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, by Deborah Rodes, explores the unpleasant reality that attractive people are more successful, especially women. The author speculates that this is a form of discrimination that should be legislated against, and exhorts women not to buy into it, to stand firm and age gracefully. She also accepts that there is an uphil battle for change while men are in charge, since men just seem to prefer pretty women. The second, The Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom by Catherine Hakim takes this thesis further and offers a different solution, accepting it as brute fact of life and encouraging women, indeed everyone in all walks of life to use their looks, their "erotic capital" as she coins it, to get ahead.

I'm still distilling my thoughts on this complex topic, but I would love to hear yours.