“Don’t show your cleavage.” I have heard this advice from:
- A professor leading a required grad course on professionalism in academia (she also told the women when the appropriate time to get pregnant and have children)
- A blog post for grad students attending their first conference
- An editor of a leading journal in my discipline giving advice to emerging academics (ok, my friend heard this and reported back to me)
What I hear when academic women say “Don’t show your cleavage” when giving “advice” to younger or emerging academics:
“You can’t be taken seriously if you show cleavage
You can’t be taken seriously if you have boobs
You can’t be taken seriously if you have a “female” body
You can’t be taken seriously if you are female or femme
Women (cis and trans) aren’t taken seriously in academia so in response hide the fact of your body and anything that is considered too femme.”
Hide your curves is the message, or men won’t listen to your words. This advice is easy for some, impossible for others. Some bodies are curvier than others and cleavages find a way of appearing out of decidedly “unsexy” clothing. Some bodies, especially racialized bodies, are hyper-sexualized in our society in which racism and sexism are deeply intertwined. This advice starts with cleavage and extends to other things considered sexy or overly feminine. And the line is so fine because women are supposed to look “pleasant” but not sexy. We are supposed to be concerned with our appearance but not too concerned.
No one says to men, why don’t you take women seriously?
Why don’t you think women are as smart as you, as talented as you, as capable as you?
Why do curvy, femme bodies make you unable to listen to the voice of the person to whom that body belongs?
Why do you not take women seriously when women are so damn brilliant?
To women who police other women’s clothing, why don’t you focus your energy on fighting the sexism and misogyny in academia instead?
Do you think it is too much of a wicked problem to tackle, so instead women must acquiesce to it?
Or do you think women who have curvier bodies or present in more femme ways really are not to be taken seriously?
Do you take other women seriously?
Some women will protest: Becky it IS a sexist world, I am only helping other women to navigate it successfully.
To which I say: No, this advice normalizes sexism. Helping women to navigate sexism means reviewing the process of reporting sexual harassment and if you are a senior faculty member, making sure your department takes reports seriously especially if they are made against one of the “big men”. And it means teaching men how to not be sexist. Courses or presentations on professionalism in academia should focus attention on calling out men’s sexist behaviour.
What I would say to emerging academics instead of “don’t show your cleavage”:
Women: Wear what makes you feel comfortable (if I was giving advice on what to wear when presenting at an academic conference it would be gender-neutral: “wear clean, neat clothes that don’t smell and don’t have noticeable tears.” At all the academic conferences I have been to there is a wide array of styles from business suits to cute dresses to jeans and t-shirts. Who cares? I care about what people say not what they look like).
If you feel sexually harassed or objectified by colleagues, students, or people in positions of power, report them or if you don’t feel comfortable, warn other women about them. Better yet, get together with other women and organize to fight back against the sexism in your department, discipline, and/or university.
Men: Stop being sexist. Fucking take women colleagues (and other women) seriously no matter what they are wearing or not wearing; or what they look like. If you don’t you are going to miss out on brilliance and you’re also going to be known as a fucking creep.
I’ll continue to wear what I want and to show my cleavage if I damn well please. Mostly my cleavage just shows itself. I can’t hide the fact that I am an embodied being. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t take me seriously, who is so mired in sexism that they have closed their minds to the ideas of people who present in certain ways. The sexists who are in positions of power are more dangerous than the low-level creeps. Admonishments of young(er) women to not show cleavages is just the tiny tip of the iceberg that is sexism within academia. Instead of bending over backwards trying to get sexist men to take us seriously let’s collectively tear down the misogyny of the academic world.
And while we’re at it, let’s examine and CHANGE the language around things like “seminal” thought and “hysterical “ behaviour. As a woman I have “ova” not “semen”, and why is it that when I am upset I am frequently ignored or dismissed when I argue in a calm, rational manner and am only given ANY attention when my understandable expression of frustration is seen to be governed by my reproductive organs?