age · clothes · style matters

Looks good, looks "professor-y"

I waited in the doorway at the optician’s, waiting for my dear friend (a colleague) to catch up to me, to see my new glasses.

“Oh!” she said, “I like them!” She considered, and then added, approvingly, “They’re very professor-y, they make you look older.”

She was smiling, so I know it was a compliment, and when she popped into my office to say hello the next morning, noticed them again, and said, “I really like those on you!”

Later that morning, another dear friend and colleague took a good look at them: “They’re great,” she said, “very nerdy.”

Older. Professor-y. Nerdy. You know, that’s what I thought of them, too. (Except maybe the older part. I’m 37; I am no longer really trying to look any older than I am, thankyouverymuch.) Anyhow, it’s not too much to say I picked a pair of glasses that made me look more like a professor.

I know very few academics who have perfect vision. Most of us wear glasses. And many of us make some kind of statement with those glasses. I wear contacts as well as glasses, so when I wear my glasses on any given day, it’s a choice: maybe I’m too lazy to do the full eye makeup thing that unadorned eyes require, or maybe my eyes feel too tired for them, but usually when I wear my glasses to work, it’s because I’m trying to up the ‘professor’ quotient on my self-presentation.

For example, on the first day of class, I used to wear my glasses, so students would know I’m a Serious, Qualified Person. However, increasingly I find that I walk and talk and dress like a serious, qualified person (erect bearing and controlled movements, speech in paragraphs with complicated clauses, wool pants and architecturally clever sweaters) and that I might need to tone it down a bit. I mean, the other day, I was out for coffee in jeans and a sweatshirt, and struck up a conversation with a new mom next to me–she ultimately asked me if I was an English professor, because I used the word ‘ambulatory’. The Force is strong in me, I guess. Anyways. Now I wear contacts on the first day to look less like an ancient and alienating grammar robot.

But you’re damn right I wear the glasses when half the class turns in their assignment late and I’m going to Address the Issue in class. And I wear my glasses to proctor exams. I often wear them when I’m on a hiring committee, because lately I’m always the junior person and we’ve been interviewing senior candidates and sometimes they ignore me.

I guess where I’m going with this is that I wear my glasses to look and feel more powerful in the world; I take them off when I want to hide or diminish my power. I don’t mind that they make me look older or more serious–I mean, in general, I now wear my glasses a lot more frequently than I wear my contacts–and this surprises me, because the prevailing cultural narrative (you might be familiar with this) is that women are supposed to always try to look younger and … softer? I guess ‘sexually approachable’ is what I mean. But 90% of the time, I’m more likely to be deliberately keying my self-presentation to a scale of authority rather than a mass-mediated attractiveness. Unlike the ‘sexy librarian’ who reveals her inner hotness by dropping the bun and tearing off the glasses, I actually really think I’m really my best, most attractive self in the wool pants and the glasses.

What about you? Do you count yourself among the legion of book-addled myopics? How do you choose to correct your vision? Do you deploy your glasses or contacts as props in the performance of self?

14 thoughts on “Looks good, looks "professor-y"

  1. I have never worn specs, although I recently picked up readers; I'm actually a little annoyed that I don't need them more (just sometimes, first thing in the morning, I can't focus on text before I get out of bed), because I think they add to my (let's face it, already-huge) nerd vibe. But there's something that's always worried me more than that: I have, on three separate occasions, after BARELY exchanging words with some stranger (once in a restaurant, once in line for a train . . . can't remember the third place), been asked if I'm an actor. Now, I do act, and I guess that's supposed to be flattering; but it wasn't, like, “Are you so-and-so, a famous person?” No, it was, “Are you an actor?” Which clearly means that I'm giving off some sort of actor smell or something. I don't think I was overly theatrical in my speech with these people, so . . . I dunno. Just creeps me out.

    I mean, “ambulatory”. Come on. Dead give-away. 😉

    Think I'll go buy some more specs.


  2. Absolutely. Without my glasses, I always feel younger.
    Wearing them inspires a sense of validity that I associate with being professorial. I think the same goes for outfit selection and classroom performance. I'm incredibly conscious of the message my outfits send to students, and colleagues. Reminds me of a feminist theory professor I had at McGill who wore amazing gender neutral outfits, had perfect professor specs, and always commanded attention with her presence in a room. I thought: this is what I will wear when I become a professor. I was completely thrown off when I ran into her at a Futureshop on the weekend, specless, sporting leggings (before their popular return), a red t-shirt, and a fanny pack.


  3. This reminds me of a conversation with a colleague many years ago. He always wore a tie to teach. For many of the same reasons. (He does have poor vision but is too vain to wear glasses in public, I suspect. Gender may be an issue, of course.)

    I note that for teaching, your practice shifted as you got older. I think all younger profs (regardless of gender) do things to distinguish themselves from the students. It is interesting that women feel the need to continue to do these presentational things consciously to be taken seriously even when they are more senior. Though relative seniority also figures in your narrative.

    Great points to raise.


  4. Love it.

    I wear my contacts for sports and fancy-dress. (It has been said that “I clean up rather nicely,” when I put on a dress and wear contacts. But, that's its own story.)

    I have two pairs of glasses–the (take me) serious(ly) pair and the fun pair. The fun pair is red, and, until this week, only worn on weekends. What happened this week to change that? I realized that I only had one month left to achieve my new year's resolution: Have more fun.

    I'm can't tell if anyone is taking me more or less seriously.


  5. Wonderful!

    I too went out and purchased a serious pair of prof-esque specs after a particularly influential prof. I wanted specs that said 'I'm wickedly smart and devastatingly sassy.' The result was a lovely pair of modernized dark horn rims. I've had them since the first year of my MA.

    Interestingly I rarely wear them out, though this is more practical than anything: my lack of peripheral vision when wearing the specs makes me nervous…


  6. One theme I'm noticing running through this post and some of the comments is this idea that to be taken seriously as a female professor, you have to avoid looking like a woman, and especially a young woman. Several people mentioned gender neutral clothing as some kind of a necessity. Why are we so afraid to be women in whatever way we want to be? Maybe it's the fact that we are creating these rules and expectations for ourselves that make us feel like we are not taken seriously if we don't follow them. Is it possible that we are just projecting this onto others?

    I've always found that the professors I respect most are the ones who have a commanding presence and who seem comfortable in their own shoes, no matter what shoes they wear. Or maybe I should say glasses in this case.


  7. I need glasses for distance – driving, say, or reading a presentation from the back of the room. Accordingly, I almost never wear them at work – even though I really should, I suppose, in order to see every one of those 330 faces in the lecture in perfect clarity. But, I wear them so rarely that I get distracted by these things! on my face!, which works against any professional cool.

    That said, I do appreciate them for their accessory value, as you suggest; as the junior female – who tries to dress in a way that's current, flattering, and feminine – I suppose taking the glasses out of their case once in a while is a subtle signal to remind the rest of Senate that I read as much as anybody. But I have been somewhat surprised to find that they seem to create expectations or views of a 'sexy historian.'


  8. Claire, I need my glasses for distance, as well, only in my case, “distance” encompasses anything further from my eyeballs than about 3″ (left eye) or 5″ (right eye).

    Anna, you raise some excellent points. You don't know this about me, but I was a pretty hardcore Goth for a long time — fishnets and PVC bustiers and blue lipstick and bondage collars and short leather skirts and all the rest of it. At the time, the aesthetic really appealed to me, and also, I was very interested in exploring the public expression of my own fully feminine and feminst subjectivity through my clothing. I was very comfortable in myself and all was good.

    This lasted about 10 years. I well know a very wide range of public self-presentation.

    At a certain point, I began to feel I had bigger fish to fry: that instead of investing so much energy in proving to people that I should be heard and respected DESPITE what I was wearing or what I looked like, I toned down the theatricality of my self-presentation so that I could focus on other things. It's strategic.

    People modulate their responses to you in large part based on what you looked like. I think this is ridiculous and made a point of flouting this reality for more than a decade. I think I've done my part flying the freak flag. Where I'm at in my life now, to continue to do so (if I wanted to, which I'm actually not too interested in anymore) would distract from other things I'm interested in.


  9. I wear my progressives (in my glasses) with pride, every day. Yeah, I'm nerdy, I guess. Can't see without glasses, and contacts are unwearable after 2 hours in my building. Sorry academic fashionistas, I dress up a little for teaching (it's a way to prepare myself to be in the classroom space) but I don't think too much about it. Never have. I leave the deconstruction of my fashion choices to my students.


  10. Glasses for the win.

    Mostly because I like to roll out of bed 3 mins before I have to hop in my car and drive to school. Or work…or whatever. I look forward to the day when rolling out of bed at any time is doable, because I was in my artist studio making masterpieces late at night, and have no worries…hah, and etc etc etc… 😀

    Plus I think my face looks strange without them. Then again wearing the spectacles since grade 4 really makes them part of your identity in some ways.

    I even went one step further into nerd'dom and got braces in high school. Beat that…wait…this isn't a nerd competition is it.

    Anyways, I like this idea of giving yourself more power with the application of something that might normally be seen as something that gives off a certain “I'm not physically strong” vibe. (however I do surprise many men at my job when I lift 3 flats of beer at once and carry it out to their car for them..glasses+girl+strong= whattt?)

    I like the idea of reverse superman actually…a person who gets their secret super human power of “professor-y-ness” when they put their glasses on.

    Although for me, I had to choose a pair of somewhat funky, but not distracting, (I don't want to be staring at my own glasses all day because they are shiny, or too dark) and gives me an “arty but cool” vibe.

    As well I feel less naked with them on…I could be naked and wearing my glasses and still feel at least somewhat covered.

    A mask for the soul since the eyes are apparently the window…except I can't really say I've learned anything about anyone's soul by staring into their eyes…only an uncomfortable sensation of being creepy.


  11. Aimee, I understand what you are saying about picking your battles and I agree with you. I also believe that there is certain clothing that's considered more professional than others and that you do need to look “sharp” to present yourself in the most advantageous light. Yes, it would probably be very difficult to be Goth in an academic setting. But still, there is something between Goth and “glasses and gender neutral” and I believe you can wear it without loosing your authority or professional status (I don't even know what “gender neutral clothing” is even supposed to be to be honest).

    I too went through a phase of dying my hair all sorts of wild colours and wearing some pretty “interesting” clothing in even brighter colours. It helped come out of my shell. It was a useful prop at the time, but once I was more vocal and didn't need to draw all that attention to myself visually, the prop wasn't necessary anymore. Maybe something similar happened to you? You simply didn’t need to make such a strong statement with your clothing because you were already making it through your bearing?

    What I was really trying to get at is that it's not little props like glasses that make people take you seriously. I suspect that if you do feel like you are treated differently when you wear glasses, then it is because you feel more comfortable/powerful in them and give off that sort of vibe. People feel it and respond accordingly. And if you feel like less of a professor without them on, people feel that too, instinctively. You can always tell when someone is nervous and uncertain of themselves. I still maintain that it is the way a woman holds herself that makes her a great and respected professor, not how “professor-y” she looks.

    Glasses are made for correcting your vision. They have no meaning outside the meanings you assign them and I would be careful about giving them so much power and importance.

    I think it was this sentence in particular that got me thinking about this:

    “I often wear them when I'm on a hiring committee, because lately I'm always the junior person and we've been interviewing senior candidates and sometimes they ignore me.”


  12. I wear whatever I feel like wearing most of the time because one's true self is all you really have. There are no guarantees whatsoever that going around funny looking most of one's day will result in a job offer, tenure or promotion. I do accept the arguments that it may help and perhaps significantly, but I'm not willing to go around in geeky shoes or glasses or clothing that makes me feel self-consciously awkward all day long. I teach best when I feel comfortable. That is not to say that I teach in an old sweatshirt (though I often teach in jeans), and I do have a pair of glasses that might be power glasses (strong brown rectangles from the front but with turquoise on the opposite side, window pane in the arms so I can shoulder-check while driving — I still get a lot of compliments on them even though I've been wearing them for 4 or 5 years). As I say, I don't disagree with anyone else's comments above, but I think it is important to be comfortable. It's also important not to be standing up at the front of the class teaching about discourses of resistance while wearing the uniform of conformity. Again, I am not under the illusion that wearing denim confers any revolutionary status on one's work. I dress from the shoes up, and I love boots so I have no choice but to wear things that go with boots.


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