When I started blogging nearly 11 years ago, I would post a “Shoe of the Week” because…well…I love shoes. I love shoes and makeup and cardigans and jewelry and all sorts of other clothing. Except pants. Pant are dumb. The mid-aughts were a tough time for me, as women’s shoes became dominated by platforms and 5″ heels, and open-toed boots, but I waited patiently for the fashion world to come back to its senses. I’m glad we’re back to a more rational time.
I figured of all the controversial stuff I ever wrote, shaking my fist at the tomfoolerly of academic culture, the shoes would be least among them. I was, of course, younger and far more naïve. Some folks loved the shoes. Some folks thought I was a tool of the patriarchy. Some folks thought it displayed a certain silliness that meant I couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. How could I love shoes and make up and also be focused on my career?!?!? And why wasn’t I more interested in conforming to the a-gendered norms that had gotten so many women so far (allegedly)?
(Fast forward….my career is doing ok)
The more I read comments from people who thought that I should be behaving differently, the more I realized that it wasn’t about me. It was about making the others feel comfortable with my place in the world. The presence of under-represented groups in academia does not make the general academic population feel uncomfortable and a lot of professionalism talks are aimed at training these folks how to “pass.” How to dress more masculine as to not be threatening. How to change your speech so that you are not threatening. How to act less gay, less black, less feminine, less barrio, less trans. If we spent as much time teaching the majority culture to not be assholes as we do teaching others to fit in, the world would be a better place.
I remember my optimism from those days when I thought that there would be a time when it would be acceptable to just be who we are. Part of what makes science wonderful is that our imagination, creativity, and differences lead to new ideas. Fast forward to today when the following advice was apparently given at a women scientist’s symposium…
And it just breaks my heart that we are still doing this to young women. Particularly, that woman are doing this to other women. Teaching them not the be “a distraction” by “showing too much skin.” Even if we ignore that there are groups of women who have been colonized and sexualized for decades, which would be wrong for us to do, it is fundamentally wrong to teach young women that there is some magical combination of behaviors that will cause the patriarchy to unlock the door of advancement. Sometimes, even when you do everything “right”, you learn that you’re not welcome in a space because the people in the space are racist/misogynist/homophobic/fools.
That’s when it’s time to be a distraction.