Professional standard

(Ia Balbuena-Nedrow)

It seems to me that, no matter how smart an idea is, we won’t take it seriously if it’s dressed up in pink.

Common practices that devalue the intellectual contributions of women include everything from assuming women are “vapid” for caring about their appearance, to assuming that women with “girly” speech styles are less competent. We are even more likely to devalue a woman’s mind if she has a sexual appeal — think Elle Woods from Legally Blonde.

In the film, Warner dumps Elle by saying “if I'm going to be a politician, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” He never considers her to be a “serious” prospect because he assumes that the women he dates can either be sexy or smart, but not both.

In spite of him, Elle goes on to graduate top of her class in Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, the film still treats her success as a punchline — the equivalent of Samuel Johnson’s famous quip that: “a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Even as Elle’s accomplishments pile up in the film, audiences are supposed to find her unlikely success to be laughably absurd. After all, she only got into Harvard in the first place because she wore a bikini in her admissions video, right?

The story of the unapologetically-feminine Elle Woods demonstrates the way a young woman’s intellectual achievements are belittled if she dares to maintain a girly and youthful personality. In practice, visual codes of professionalism are wielded as barriers to keep women, people of color, young people, and poor people out of elite spaces like the ivory tower. 

The message is painfully clear: either assimilate into the white men’s club, or get out. Young women who want to be taken seriously need to age themselves up, dress more conservatively, and speak like men. If you want to be treated with respect like a man, you have to act like one. Isn’t that what “lean in” founder Sheryl Sandberg tells us? Isn’t that why Vivian Kensington rigorously sanitized her own appearance, and why she constantly disparaged Elle?

For young women, assimilation generally means carefully scrubbing away all traces of youth, girliness, and that dreaded sexual appeal. I can say from personal experience that cute, bubbly young women are rarely treated as serious authorities on important matters. I've frequently heard young women in my graduate program expressing their fear that students won’t respect them unless they make themselves appear older and more austere than they really are.

But a woman shouldn’t have to change her entire presentation of self just to be taken seriously. Men don’t have to. I’ve yet to hear any of my male colleagues say that felt they needed to dress differently to receive students’ respect.

Policing women's appearances in response to elitist codes of professionalism, while insisting that doing so will ensure their success in those spaces, is just another form of benevolent misogyny. Trying to de-sexualize or de-feminize a woman's appearance means continuously valuing her appearance over her competence.

And, moreover, we need to ask who gets to determine if a woman is too “sexy” or “girly” for inclusion in an elite space. I’ve been dress-coded in a t-shirt before — do I get any say in the matter of whether my body will be used as an excuse to discredit me? Is my chance at success entirely dependent upon the sexual desires of those around me?

The imperative to femininity is a hopeless double-bind: young women are taught to cultivate a sexually-appealing feminine appearance in order to gain social capital in a male-dominated world, even though that feminine appearance is often what keeps us from succeeding in traditionally-male spaces. 

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We simply cannot meet all these conflicting social imperatives. We aren't shape-shifters, after all.

In the end, visual codes of professionalism only encourage us to evaluate women as visual objects instead of as professionals. Expecting women to change how they look if they want to be taken seriously means protecting the sexist stereotypes we have around intelligence and competency, while also reducing women's agency in self-fashioning. It's insulting and it's infantilizing.

It is long past time for us to take radical steps towards changing our sexist perceptions of what feminine appearances signify. We need to give women the freedom to articulate their self-hood, without compromise, on their own terms. Allowing for a broader visual interpretation of what counts as smart and competent is the only way to start deconstructing this insidious form of sexism. 

Frankly, the world would be a better place if we had a few more Elle Woods. So, until further notice, I’ll be here — dreaming of sexy academics.

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.

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