I hate dressing up. I could tolerate the occasional obligation to dress up as a graduate student: the one year I taught one twice-a-week class; presentations in the department; annual conferences. Now as a professor, I have to dress up everyday. And, I just hate it. Of all of the things I must do to prove I am a competent and qualified (and hopefully, phenomenal) teacher and scholar, what I put on my body seems highly irrelevant and shallow. But, guess what? Since my competence and qualifications are not automatically assumed, I cannot afford to as dress casually as I would like.
Fat Boy Gripes
The fashion industry has a particular body type in mind, and it is not mine. Oh, and dress clothes are the worst. Since I have breasts, typical men’s dress shirts are very unflattering on me. So, as I pointed out to my advisor at a conference (to his embarrassment), I always wear a vest or suit jacket (or sometimes both) to mask the appearance of “man boobs.” Even with that issue covered, I still spend much of the day readjusting my outfit because I am self-conscious. What a waste of mental and emotional energy.
Queer Boy Gripes
Worse than my body image issues is feeling like a fraud in this hypermasculine attire. A suit, for me, is the costume of a white heterosexual middle-class professional yet masculine man. Slightly baggy jeans and shirts designed for men serve for my comfort (and my safety against homophobic and transphobic violence); but, the tighter fitting dress clothes designed for men really feel foreign to my body. On the outside, I appear a respectable man — listen to me, respect me, for I have a dick (and a brain)! On the inside, I feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and on edge that someone will declare that they are not falling for my masculine illusion — the jig is up, fag! We know you’re in there!
Brown Boy Gripes
Unlike my sexual and gender identities, I made peace with the racialized nature of dress clothes. I learned early in graduate school that certain appearances — certain “urban” or “thuggish” attire — was deemed unprofessional, even threatening to my (white) colleagues. I am conscious of the whitening effect of dress clothes, especially a full suit. My ambiguously brown skin is less distracting when concealed in a respectable black suit.
I am an assistant professor at a wealthy institution. Despite how much money I actually have in the bank, after years of living on graduate student wages, I am considered comfortably middle-class. And, despite being upwardly mobile from poverty, I come from an undeniably middle-class family. That includes the benefit of the cultural capital to navigate “professional” and other middle-class-dominated spaces. I know to look the part, I know to play the part. But, damn, it is uncomfortable for me.
My specific gripe about clothing here is that the restrictiveness of dress clothes seem to force a “professional” way of behaving and interacting with others. Suits, in particular, are too tight to make sudden or wide movements. One must stand tall, with one’s back straight and shoulders wide. If sitting, one is limited in options for comfortable posture: legs crossed either one over the other, or one ankle on the other thigh. Slouching, hunching, or having your legs spread to far apart can be uncomfortable, but also look bad in a suit.
For all of these behavioral restrictions, it is no wonder that I cannot help but sing at the top of my lungs and dance while listening to the radio on the drive home. Get this costume and muzzle off of me!
The Politics Of Respectability
Oh, I just know it. I am playing with a set of politics that make me appear respectable to my privileged colleagues (and students) so that they are more likely to respect me based on my actual skills and qualification. I am working to reduce the number of frivolous and shallow ways that I may be dismissed due to racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and classist bias. But, sometimes the joke is on me because bias cannot be reasoned with; you cannot win a logical argument with ignorance, after all. I may only be fooling myself by thinking that I can hide behind the master’s clothes to gain status in the master’s house. But, so long as I see others’ bodies policed for being “unprofessional,” too feminine, too masculine, too queer, too poor, too fat, too “urban,” — too anything other than white middle-class heterosexual cisgender masculine man — I worry looking too much like an Outsider will eventually lead me to be pushed out for good.
The Politics Of Authenticity
The other side of the coin of respectability is authenticity, at least for me. I have written before about feeling a tension between success (by normative standards) and being authentic in my identities, politics, and values. How much am I willing to do to be seen as respectable in the eyes of my (biased) colleagues? How much — of myself — am I willing to give up to be seen as respectable in their eyes? Is the success I gain worth feeling like a fraud, dressing and acting like them?
I had alluded to making certain clothing decisions that counter my “true” identities and politics to my gender and sexuality class last semester. Privately, one student asked me “how would you really dress?” Well, since “privately” was still in earshot of other students, I said I did not feel comfortable having that conversation then and there. But, I followed that with an honest admission: “I really don’t know.” I have been dressing in ways that placates the exclusive culture of academia so long that I cannot even imagine what I would wear otherwise.
In being genderqueer, having an ambivalent relationship with masculinity (and men) since the age of 5, I really would just like the option: do I feel like wearing a suit today, or the short skirt and the blonde bombshell wig, or just a comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie?
But, I do not live in that reality. And, I do not care to risk my job, status, and credibility just because I feel more at home in jeans and a shirt, or feel the occasional itch to go to work as Denise. I am trading authenticity on this front to avoid threatening my success on other fronts. As a marginalized academic, my only option seems to be which poison to drink; I have chosen the cocktail of success, inauthenticity, discomfort, and delusion. That is, in hopes that my work will prevent future generations from having to make this choice.