Dressing the part

It’s almost time to get ready for the weekend again. So let’s go through the checklist of what every girl needs in order to ‘get some’ – a pair of standard boots (usually a pair of chocolate-colored UGGs or a pair of Frye boots for the trendier ones), tight jeans (or even jeggings will suffice) and, of course, a push-up bra enhanced low-cut tank top or v-neck t-shirt. This is the typical outfit for a good chunk of girls at Williams who usually top it off with perfectly straightened hair. The difference between what these girls look like earlier in the week compared to on Friday night? Swap the jeans for sweats or leggings and the tight tank top for a sweatshirt or Boathouse jacket. This is the visual embodiment of what we will call the “cult of effortless perfection.”

I first heard the term “cult of effortless perfection” uttered by Professor Leslie Brown earlier this year and felt like everything suddenly clicked the moment the words escaped from her. As I understand it, the term is used to describe the very effortless appearance of girls at this school. It refers to the subtle changes a girl makes to her physical appearance that make it look like she didn’t really try to look good. What is problematic about this concept, however, is the amount of effort that is actually put into looking effortless. The cult also feeds into the notion that physically speaking, these women do not have to put in effort into their appearance because they do not have the time to do so. Usually this assumption is rooted in the fact that this girl prioritizes either athletics or academics over her physical appearance.

A different frame of reference for beauty can be found in “survival aesthetics.” This term describes the ‘necessary’ practices of physically enhancing oneself in order to compete for positions of power and visibility. This can be manifested in the wearing of tight, body-hugging clothes and, more noticeably, in the use of make up. As Professor Maria Elena Cepeda noted at an informal lunch talk a couple of weeks ago, women tend to be criticized for their excessive display of sexuality in order to get ahead in life, but very rarely do we consider the roots of why these women dress as provocatively as they do. More important, rarely do we indict the stifling criticisms that persecute these women for celebrating their looks and compromise the intelligence that they may in fact have.

Let us consider the existence of these two philosophies as a reaction to negative perceptions of women in higher academia. Visually speaking, the two standards indicate the two types of assumptions about women from Monday through Friday afternoon. On the one hand, we have women who do not seem to care about their physical appearances because they are too busy to consider such silliness; on the other hand, we have the women who care too much about their appearance and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously. At the same talk in which Professor Cepeda described “survival aesthetics,” one female student remarked on how she felt like she was being judged by her fellow peers because she wore makeup and carefully chosen outfits on a day-to day-basis. One student laughingly said to her, “You’re writing a thesis?” and was blown away by her ability to produce such a challenging and vigorous piece of work. I found this anecdote particularly troubling because deeply embedded in the comment was a clear assumption that pretty girls couldn’t write good things.

These two competing identities speak to the difficulties of being a woman in higher academia. There is a constant need to walk a very fine line of what is appropriate and what is too sexy. But my question is, since when does the physical appearance of a person threaten their intellectual capability? When did we become so insecure about the way women look on this campus that we have to try to look effortless? For those girls wearing tailored dresses and perfectly matching accessories to class Tuesday afternoon, I applaud you. For those girls wearing sweatpants and hoodies to class, I’m glad you feel comfortable, and I congratulate you for not letting mainstream culture determine your outfit choices on a day-to-day basis. However, I would like to suggest a middle ground for women to freely roam. Perhaps it is possible to not have to fulfill two different identities: the student on weekday mornings and the hot chick on Friday and Saturday night. Why not just be a hot intellectual every day of the week?

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