Am I Looking Good, or What?

Brian Taylor

April 28, 2010

Question (from "Dolly"): Should a young assistant professor, under 35, wear orthodontic braces? The assistant professor is doing everything to get tenure, writing articles and getting grants, and now she has the money to fix her crooked teeth. Will she be perceived as vain or masochistic by her colleagues? What if a graduate student sees her at the supermarket wearing her elastic bands?

Question (from "Emmylou"): I am thinking of coloring my gray hair. It's white, gray in front, and somewhat brown in back. I am on the faculty job market and am considering this step in desperation. My hair grows very fast, and we all know that the look of wearing a dark cap on white roots is really ugly. But will it help me get a job?

Question (from "Porter"): Could you offer a few words of wisdom regarding appropriate attire for panelists at academic conferences? I would hardly insist on a jacket and tie (which I wear myself) or a jacket with slacks or skirt for women, but surely flip-flops and T-shirts are unsuitable. Am I wrong?

Question (from "Faith"): What about cleavage in academe?

Answer: Ms. Mentor wishes that all academics could be hired for their qualities of mind, their disembodied intellects. She wishes there were some way for job and tenure candidates to be chosen the way symphony musicians are—through "blind" auditions, where the players can't be seen. Or maybe everyone should wear caftans with hoodies.

Ms. Mentor also has a history of enraging her flock whenever she makes pronouncements on fashion in academe. Scholars need only Google together "Ms. Mentor" and "frumpy" to find snipers and bloggers such as "I'll Wear a Suit When I'm Dead." You can even read the groundbreaking exposé that started it all: Alison Schneider's "Frumpy or Chic? Tweed or Kente? Sometimes the Clothes Make the Professor" (The Chronicle, January 23, 1998).

But Ms. Mentor is skirting the immutable belief that academics are not supposed to be beautiful or chic, just presentable and mouselike. (Shout "Academic fashion!" into a crowded room, and someone will squeal back, "Oxymoron!") The fact that most tenured professors are now settled into their mid-50s does not bode well for any young, flamboyant fashionistas seeking work lately. Even if there were jobs, it is unlikely that they would go to the purple-haired, the highly pierced, or the tattooed-all-over.

Braces on one's teeth, however, aren't routinely considered a frivolous beauty aid. In the United States, broken, missing, or extremely crooked teeth are social-class markers that can keep people out of schools and jobs.

Would anyone disapprove of dental work? Ms. Mentor thinks braces show a drive toward self-improvement, always to be lauded. Since braces are not pretty, some observers will assume that they are for health, not vanity. The most bookish will barely notice. ("There's something different about you. New glasses?")

Yes, the stray graduate student who sees you at the supermarket will notice, and perhaps scuttle off to tell his or her cronies. So what?

Likewise, hair coloring—which a century ago was practiced mostly by "floozies"—is now routine for American women (and some men) of a certain age. Nora Ephron calls it the displaced homemaker's friend, and it's the ally of any job-seeking woman who might be passed over as "too old to fit in." Yes, it does make a difference.

As does wearing a T-shirt to an academic conference; that spells trouble whether the T-shirt does or not. Ms. Mentor knows graduate students who go to their first disciplinary meetings in beach casual (short shorts, flip-flops), saying, "I'm not on the market yet, so ..." But their future employers are looking. There's not much of visual interest at most scholarly meetings, and so their elders will note who is dressed seriously and professionally—and who seems to have just flopped out of bed. Everyone's wearing a name tag; everyone's making an impression.

And anyone wearing a "Peace/Love/Margaritas" T-shirt instead of more-sober attire seems to be saying, "I don't care whether you take me seriously." (And if you hire me, I'll be the free spirit who can't be bothered to order books, turn in grades on time, or go to boring committee meetings. Someone will have to nag me.)

"Hank," a promising graduate student, wore his daily T-shirt and comfy flip-flops to a national academic meeting in a large city. He struck up a conversation with a senior scholar he had always admired, who said, "Come on along, we're having dinner out." But the restaurant, it turned out, refused to serve people "not properly dressed." Senior Superstar and his superstar friends, the people Hank needed to know to get a postdoc and a foothold in his career, went in to eat. Hank was left outside, an opportunity lost.

As for cleavage: Yes, Ms. Mentor knows that people should not become unglued at the sight of a woman's curves. Nor should they think that "voluptuous" means "vapid." But some do. Ignoring prejudices does not make them go away. "Loretta," a graduate student in the sciences, was considered the brightest future researcher in her class. And then she went to a department Halloween party costumed as a madam, with red satin gown, feather boa, and plunging décolletage. "I want to shake up the old boys," she said, naïvely—and indeed, they never looked at her in the same way again.

Ms. Mentor wishes there were more advisers like Dr. Isis, the "Domestic and Laboratory Goddess" who writes about what to do with "Professor Breast Man."

Ms. Mentor urges senior faculty members to speak up about such behavior. Not about hair color or teeth—unless asked—but about professional dress and unprofessional comments. Baby-boomer professors too often baby others, for fear of looking like fogeys, frumps, or prudes. Ms. Mentor, however, wears those labels proudly. Doing justice is not always fashionable, but it always looks good.

Question: More and more people just don't show up for their scheduled presentations at academic conferences. Should those of us who are there (a) spread rumors that the no-shows didn't come because they had nothing to wear, or (b) seize their time and use it to enhance our own reputations by producing even more brilliant perceptions on the spot?

Answer: (b)

Sage readers: For the summer, Ms. Mentor invites recommendations of newish (2005 or later) academic novels to delight and instruct. As always, she welcomes rants and queries, rarely answers letters personally and never immediately, and disguises identifying details. Confidentiality is guaranteed.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is