Yesterday, I was picking up a futon from a graduate student who is moving from Berkeley to New Jersey. Her name is Jessica, and although she has been working on the same floor as I have in Dwinelle Hall for the last year and half, we had never actually met before. So after I'd bought the futon from her, we got chit-chatting about the configuration of the academic departments, and how our floor, which consists of the faculty of the Scandinavian, Italian, and Slavic departments, does not integrate quite as well as one would hope. I was telling her that I frequently have conversations with another graduate student whose name I do not even know. In hopes that Jessica knew her name, I described the woman in question as having long blond curly hair and not too tall. Jessica looked at me blankly for a minute, told me the name of another student who has dark long curly hair, and I was like no, blond. So then she said, "Oh, do you mean the one who always wears make-up and whose clothes are always just so?" and I was like well maybe, she's very pretty. But then Jessica gave a little flinch, and then I realized that the woman I was thinking of never wears any make-up. On my way home, I realized that Jessica must have been talking about me, since my hair is blondish and I do tend to dress up when I teach. I am unsure what this reputation floating around about me on the 6th floor of Dwinelle Hall implies about people's impression of me. Perhaps that I am some snobby graduate student who insists on dressing like a businesswoman. Or that I am some insecure female who is desperate to attract male attention. Or that I am a materialistic fake that has no right to be in academia. Either way, clearly Jessica, a no making-up, baggy-clothing wearing recent PhD, feels that her look is more suitable for a graduate student at UC Berkeley. And indeed it is. It fits the image better, of the sort that isn't supposed to care about appearances, isn't buying into the corporate pressures of this or that, is on the forward edge of feminism, etc.

I wish I would have realized it sooner, that she was talking about me. Maybe then I would have had a chance to explain to her that first of all, I am much older than she is, and that yes, in my professional life I learned that looking nice is helpful in a myriad of ways. But I would have also probably tried to defend myself more vigorously, and explained that in Iceland, where I was doing my fieldwork, women really do not leave the house without make-up on, so if I wanted to be affective at participant observation, and be respectful of the culture I was studying, I needed to adopt some of their practices.

Anyhow, needless to say, what Jessica said really hurt my feelings and I have been upset about it ever since. Only in Berkeley would a woman trying to look her best be the sort of thing that gets one talked about behind their backs.


Rubye Jack said…
Having worked at UC Berkeley for a little while I know the style you are describing here. The thing is that the no makeup, baggy clothes look is just as much a statement as that of someone who wears makeup and tailored clothes. Being of the no makeup persuasion, I don't think we resent or talk badly about those who are more into fashion. It's just different and I think the good thing about Berkeley is that both styles are acceptable. It would be pretty shallow of her to talk badly about you anyway, and I would try not to place any importance on what she thinks because who really knows anyway. Some of us prefer blue and some purple. It doesn't really matter.

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