It Shouldn't Matter What I Look Like: The Perils Of Being Conventionally Attractive In Academia

I try not to smile in case someone thinks it's distracting, I work with fierce concentration to show I am worth the company I am in. I am painfully sensitive about my academic achievements because they're like a security blanket validating my self-worth.
Publish date:
November 12, 2013
sexual harassment, academia

I'm an attractive young woman. Not a ten, but probably a solid 8.5.

As obnoxious as the above is, it is relevant to this story. It's not relevant because the issues of anyone scoring lower than 8.5 on are more or less important than of those ranking at the top. It's not relevant because there is some sort of profound difference in the problems of conventionally attractive and non-attractive women. It's certainly not relevant because I want to play the world's tiniest violin while flicking back my long, luxuriously shiny hair. It is relevant because it shouldn't be.

There are many things about me that I consider to be more pertinent to my daily existence, which largely revolves around my graduate studies. I am in one of the more grueling and high-performance PhD programs in the US. I started my studies on a major internationally competitive fellowship and continue to win funding from external sources. I will publish three peer-reviewed articles this semester.

Ninety-eight percent of my students "strongly agree" that I'm an excellent instructor in the ticky-box questionnaires they're given at the end of the semester. I have helped organize two conferences, given talks, chaired organizations, written around a dozen scholarly reviews, and combed through applications to fill a faculty position. I can read seven languages and struggle my way through a few more.

Let me add a luckily smaller but still unfortunate figure to the list: two. That's the number of senior male faculty who have behaved inappropriately toward me.

The first one I didn't even realize until after the fact, and I am still uncertain what to call it. During my undergrad, I was something of a student activist, and a faculty member seemed interested in discussing academic policy with me. Eventually, he asked me to meet with him for coffee off-campus.

I found it odd, but chalked it up to paranoia and the fact our conversation stayed on academic topics reassured me. After my graduation, he asked me to have lunch with him. This time we talked longer and about a broader range of things. He said he'd keep an eye out for funding opportunities for me and that we should meet up whenever I was in town.

I won a fellowship (with no meddling from him), moved continents, and we haven't seen each other since. It was only much later I found he was in the process of getting a divorce during our get-togethers. It is perfectly possible I was just being paranoid, but something about hearing this left a bad taste in my mouth.

The second incident taught me that you can only blame things on paranoia for so long. A former professor of mine -- married with kids, of course -- contacted me shortly after I had started my graduate studies to suggest co-authoring an article with him. I was delighted and jumped at the opportunity. We started exchanging frequent e-mails about the topic.

Only sooner rather than later, he started adding strange comments amidst bibliographical recommendations.

"I was always fond of you, and have missed you since you've been gone."

"You are such a charming person."

Because the main bulk of our correspondence was still professional, I chalked these random comments up to professorial awkwardness coming out "sounding off." I took care to only respond to the scholarly parts of his messages and figured the personal comments would eventually stop.

To no one's surprise except mine, things got worse. He got me a Christmas present. He suggested meeting over some wine and dinner. I said I would rather come to his office during work hours. When I showed up, he still got out a bottle of wine. Through all this, I struggled to keep up the façade of professionalism. We talked citations and new publications and edits. I casually mentioned visiting my long-term boyfriend before moving back to shoptalk.

It was like through some cruel twist of irony or a particularly unfortunate case of telepathy that he e-mailed me two days after my (by that point) fiancé left me, and that he further -- for reasons unbeknownst -- insisted on finding out his name. I defaulted to my avoidance tactic, but he sent another e-mail hounding me about the name, at which point I felt forced to admit we were no longer together.

He responded by saying how sorry he was and how he wanted to comfort me. How I should feel free to tell him anything and it would be strictly between the two of us. How he'd been having dreams about me, and he'd be happy to share those with me, too. I was in hysterics even before his message, and I am still proud of myself for responding without using a single expletive. His reply was, of course, to say I had misunderstood him.

While my fiancé leaving me for someone else left me with the typical feelings of insecurity, unattractiveness, and self-hatred, the professors' behavior left me similarly questioning myself. Am I really worth co-authoring an article with? Did I somehow weasel my way into grad school using my looks? Am I just a big fraud, a pretty face with nothing behind it?

Now, whenever I receive academic support or encouragement from males, there is an annoying little voice at the back of my head. I have always been a serious person, but there is now an edge of desperation to it. I try not to smile in case someone thinks it's distracting, I work with fierce concentration to show I am worth the company I am in. I am painfully sensitive about my academic achievements because they're like a security blanket validating my self-worth.

Conversely, I am flooded with pathetic gratitude whenever a male colleague takes me seriously without commenting on how lovely I look or how nice my dress is or how pretty my lipstick is.

This is not an issue of being pretty or not, and I hope we will fight to keep it from being reduced to that. This is an issue of professional integrity, abuse of power dynamics, and systematized sexism. I've encountered this problem with my professors, and I've encountered it with my students.

Tedra Osell -- of the now-defunct Bitch, PhD blog -- once argued that looking feminine and attractive gave her an edge in discussing feminism with her students. Good for her; all I've received thus far is inappropriate comments. (I wish, furthermore, to point to comments about Osell which, in addition to praising her as a lecturer, say things such as "She dresses like the gals in sex and the city, and she looks like scully from the x-files, and talks like a valley girl..she is great" and "Wow, hot prof and a half! california what!")

I am sometimes overwhelmed by the fact that in addition to teaching them about my subject matter, I am also supposed to teach my students how to be decent human beings. But I am even more overwhelmed that this is clearly something some of my male colleagues have never learned.

For my professors, the 8.5 weighed more than all my accomplishments. I keep working hard to bring all my other figures up in the hopes that one day they will outweigh that damn 8.5.