Style and Success in Academia

Happy Friday friends! Earlier this week a post I wrote for one of my favorite blogs, Stylish Academic, was shared and I wanted to repost it here for all of you to read too. I’d love to know your thoughts so feel free to share them in the comments!

One of my biggest pet peeves as a professor (aside from grade-grubbing emails and senseless excuses) is when I hear other female peers explain that they purposefully alter their appearance to make themselves look “older” or “frumpy.” They usually go on to explain they do this so that their students have more respect for them. Every time I hear statements like this, my heart sinks and I feel insecure as I stand in front of them in my self-described cute outfit.

As a relatively young professor (I’m 32 and pre-tenure), I understand the constant battle of trying to have a professional appearance in the classroom and be taken seriously by my students as well as my peers and elders. While there are days when I wear predictable neutrals like gray shift dresses and blazers, I firmly believe that success and style can happily coexist. So, it upsets me when I hear female peers use their appearance as a way to “earn” more respect from others.

Instead of falling into this trap, I force myself to stay out of it. I have already earned my place at the head of the classroom and as an educator. My students are there to learn from me and fulfill their requirements to graduate and unless I wear something totally outrageous, they’re too busy staring at their screens to even notice my outfit. But they do notice my energy, and for me, my fashion is strongly correlated to my feelings.

When I put time into my appearance, I don’t want to waste it. I carefully select what I’m going to wear each day based partially on comfort and practicality, and the amount of confidence it will give me. Wearing a new dress that is flattering to my body’s shape, that I bought with the money I earn, makes me happy. This translates into my day and especially into my teaching. When I think I look good, I feel good. Sometimes this is as simple as pairing a skinny leopard belt with one of my neutral, basic dresses and other times it’s figuring out a professional way to work in a new statement necklace to my look.

In fact, I have found that my attention to my appearance has strengthened the relationships I form with my students. Not only am I an educator, I strive to be a role model. Entering the workforce is overwhelming enough for college students and I don’t think they should observe that they have to stifle their personal style to get ahead. Just as we cultivate their skills to help them stand apart in a crowd, we need to do the same thing for ourselves.

Academics spend years working toward their degrees and sometimes just as long trying to land their perfect job. During that time, we become experts in our subject areas, and that expertise remains with us regardless of what we are wearing. It is through communication, including nonverbal communication like fashion, that we form relationships. If people are not taking us seriously or are (wrongfully) assuming that we are too young or too fashionable and therefore can’t possibly be a subject matter expert too, they are mistaken. Why should people who make snap judgments influence our day-to-day appearance? If we based our grades for students based on their fashion choices alone, we would not only lose our jobs, but we’d likely have a class full of below average grades since oversized t-shirts and sweatpants do not typically convey A-level intelligence. It is for these reasons that I believe and demonstrate through fashion that success and style can coexist, even in academia.

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