In high school, no one took me seriously. This may sound bitter, angry, perhaps even petty, but it was true. I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager. I came to school (almost) every day with an overtly positive disposition. I took AP classes and spent hours longer than required at school, deep in the throes of student council or drama club or marching band practices. I loved every moment, and I was unwaveringly happy. But no matter how hard I tried, I was very, very rarely taken seriously.
For one, being inherently optimistic and pleasant does not predispose one to be seen as academic. As well as I did in my classes, my scores meant nothing to my peers who saw me as too sunny and cheerful to be considered an “intellectual.” I was girly, happy and curious, and these traits were perceived as conflicting with intellectualism. Having an affinity for young adult novels or “unrefined” television shows were deemed incompatible with high-brow academia. Even things I couldn’t change, such as my body or my voice, defined how others perceived me. Clothes worn by other girls without comment were viewed as inappropriate on my frame. Year after year I was conditioned, like so many other young women, into believing my body was shameful and hypersexual, something to be covered and hidden away.
My community is perhaps outdated in its views, but that is by no means uncommon. The University of Michigan is a far more accepting community, and I am no longer so negatively perceived on the basis of being feminine or optimistic. However, our perceptions are no clearer or less vindictive than the perceptions of my “outdated” community. While I may no longer be as negatively perceived on the basis of my appearance, many identities at this university continue to face harsh judgment and criticism on the basis of their image.
For centuries, modes of gender presentation have been incredibly particular. Though we’ve progressed from corsets and waistcoats to Canada Goose and athleisure, the ways humans choose to present themselves have been influenced heavily by how others perceive these presentations. Consider how you would perceive someone dressed in chainmail at a Renaissance festival as opposed to shopping for deli meat at Meijer. Your perception of this person would be deeply influenced by their apparel, appearance, gender, age and, importantly, the context in which they appear.
For some, perception and judgment are not as influential into their presentational decision making. Some are content to present themselves as they please, regardless of judgment or perception; yet for most women, this disregard for appearance seems improbable and unattainable.
For women, particularly women of color, non-gender-conforming individuals and individuals passing as women, presentation is incredibly important. Women in male-dominated fields often feel compelled to downplay their femininity to be successful. Men are able to feel more comfortable in fields such as medicine or computer science, where appearance is viewed as unrelated to the technical work being done. The field of business comes with its own dress codes and policies, some requiring women to wear high heels and makeup.
These struggles are only exacerbated when another identity, such as race, ability or sexual orientation, is considered. This topic was discussed in an early episode of the show “Insecure,” created by Issa Rae. On the show, Molly, a young, successful, Black lawyer is introduced to a new summer associate at her firm. The associate, also a young Black woman, is depicted as confident and loud, and Molly is asked by a senior associate to tell the young woman to tone it down. Not only must these women grapple with being women in a male-dominated field, but they also must navigate their field as racial minorities, taking care to avoid racial stereotypes. The perceptions of their coworkers almost entirely dictate their choices in appearance and portrayal.
I am lucky to be able to express myself as I please without major consequences, though I dread the near future when professionalism will trump (or restrict) my creative expression. Others are not so lucky. As liberal and open-minded as our University claims to be, perceptions tainted by prejudice are still incredibly pervasive. The age-old idiom of “don’t judge a book by its cover” remains applicable, and our motivations to maintain a particular appearance are still influenced by a fear of judgment. Not all judgments on the basis of appearance are unethical or unreasonable.
Consider your perceptions of others and instead of reprimanding yourself when you judge another person on the basis of their appearance, ask yourself, “Why do I associate ‘x’ appearance with ‘y’ personality trait? Is what I’m doing helpful?”
Megan Burns can be reached at email@example.com.