|2013 official promo shot, looking a tidy version of how I look.|
A few years ago I found myself - not for the first time - at an academic meeting with a few people joking about the clothes I wear and how I look. I guess they were, effectively, picking on me. I wasn't joining in with them, by the way, and I suppose that was the marker. I felt annoyed, fascinated, not very invested, and was very much there in the moment. I mean they mitigated it, of course, 'oh that's just you' and laughed, like the rules that they were talking about don't really apply to me.
Well of course they don't. Actually not only do they not apply to me, they also don't apply to them. Because the rules are not actually rules as much as a moveable feast of ideas that constantly change and mark things that most of us are entirely unaware of.
In my mid-thirties I began a PhD that focused on sexuality, gender and Indigeneity... it blended some of these identity markers, but as a research work that focused on my art practice, the blending was specific and it didn't provide any kind of overview. Sure, it needed to have consistency of thought around these three areas and how they manifest in my life, and more specifically in my body, but it didn't go beyond that. I thought gender was in there because it helped understand sexuality, and maybe even, to some extent, Indigeneity in the specific context of my life.
But that wasn't it.
Everything kept leading it's way back to the body, as the focus of self in art often has in my work. All sounds a bit eighties art school, but there we were. Each identity had it's own tensions in terms of my body. Indigenous - well I'm fair skinned, so that can be a thing, though frankly not something I spend much time thinking about. Lesbian - when I finally came out as a lesbian at 30, most of my friends either rolled their eyes and said 'about time', or looked at me blank-faced like they had always thought I was. In fact I spent much of my life to that point telling people that I actually was straight, so it came as no shock to anyone but me. Gender - heavens, that was another thing again. I had always been misidentified as male on the phone. Always. I have a very deep voice for a woman, and there is something about my voice that was read as male from a very young age. So the markers were deeper. Whenever I lost weight, as I had in my mid-thirties, or was wearing something gender-neutral(ish) I would also get mistaken for a man. This featured in my PhD work, as you can imagine. In fact there are some pics at the bottom, if you can't imagine. But I also came to realise that the multiplicity or even conflation of my identities were inflused with something else again, and it had been a subconscious reaction to how I am perceived by others. I obstinately won't dress the part - it is my personal political action. In many ways, through that process of the PhD, I began to wonder if it was almost exclusively around gender and how poorly I perform femininity, then I realised it was something else entirely.
That academic meeting was not a space where people were talking about my sexuality, Indigeneity or gender. They were talking about my messiness and that speaks to three identity markers (or any number) not being the only factors in any one, specific person. I have discoloured crooked teeth, I'm fat, I have one eye that doesn't properly open, I don't wear make-up and I choose to wear the clothes I do. I'd be a hard-sell - using standards of acceptability - done up 'right'. So I choose not to, I choose to be messy. Let me define that a bit. I'm messy, not dirty (that is the standard preface for talking about messiness, I learned that years ago when I worked on a piece with Ali Smith called The Clean Room), I frequently wear jeans and a t-shirt and a hoodie. I wear socks with boots, usually. Which sounds tidier when I write it like that, but I do look a bit of a mess.
My work kind of gives me the luxury of not caring - though that 'luxury' (actually let's call it a work condition or as I like to frame it, the Academic Freedom Statement that every university in Australia is required to provide under it's licensing agreement with TEQSA) is changing and I'm fighting back. I used to joke that I chose to work in academia because I had more time off when the Cricket was on, but that's not it. It was a perfect storm for me, a way to contribute something meaningful that I also knew I was good at, while being supported in maintaining a level of independent thought that went beyond the boundaries set by the physicality of universities.
Then everyone started wearing suits and appropriate clothing. As universities became more corporatised and more people started to fill up the ranks of the professional administration staff - a change I do not entirely disapprove of, though all swift changes have some significant implications - many things started to change and the clothing was simply a marker. One of them was that many people came from industries where corporate clothing was required (corporate attitudes too, but I suspect that would be another post by someone with experience across that environment). It happened at first with the professional staff wearing suits and girl-versions of suits (which were mostly also suits), and even that didn't happen overnight. It did, however, happen over less than a decade. Then I noticed two very different things started happening. The first was that some lecturers started to dress like that. The second, far more insidious, was that people started commenting on (mostly lecturers) who were wearing unusual clothing or footwear. 'You know, the guy who wears sandals', followed by an eyeroll. 'You're fine, but why does xxxxx wear jeans with paint on them?', to which I recall answering 'oh you mean the painting lecturer?' These comments and considerations DO undermine the authority of the person in question. And they're intended to. They are about judging their professional capacity.
I went to a major US conference in 2013, one of those big ones that has a lot of young graduate students vying for an elusive tenure-track position. It was held at a resort and when I was getting dressed that morning, I was trying to work out if I should wear shoes or not. I mean it was on a beach, four of the presentations were held - literally - on the beach. I'm happy to report I wore my boots, along with my jeans, tshirt and hoodie. The first presentation, in a makeshift motel room/presentation area was on English Literature ('Classics' was how they framed it) with the three young presenters - all female - positioned in front of the wall-mounted bedboard that could not be removed even when the beds themselves gave way to a newly formed presentation area. They were facing ten people in the audience, of which I was one. Each presenter, and their friends wore suits. Dark suits. Black or Dark Blue. Suits. Looking all the world to me like travel agents, I actually began to forget what each of them had presented on, so similar did they look. Yes, I recognise the irony that I am imposing my own views on clothes here. And in an interesting way, that was what led me to the next discussion I had with an American academic around my age. She said, oh yeah, they want to impress... which made me wonder that I couldn't discern one presenter from the other, which I would have found somewhat more impressive, and probably had little to do with their clothes. I asked if it worked. She said, nah, they think they are doing an actual job interview here, but they're doing the beginnings of one, and in the beginnings, it's Faculty (academics) like me (she was dressed like I was) that make the decisions, and if their clothing has an impact, it's probably one of resentment and may bring up a lot of issues around changes in the academy.
Sometimes I worry. Not about me, but about my Institution. And then I remember why I work there. I work there because they give me academic freedom AND academic expectations. I have to measure one against the other. I have conversations with key people, and those convos sometimes influence how they feel about the Institute and maybe to a lesser extent have an impact on me as an academic. It was over coffee that Dr Chelsea Bond of UQ that she shared with me one of the reasons she feels that she shouldn't be judged for her clothing choices. She said, 'I thought they employed me for my brains'. Precisely.
If we were to lose funding, or more likely never gain an important relationship with a key organisation because of how I dress... in the end I may have to examine this. But as the years progress, I've realised I do keep being invited to the party, in spite of how I dress, in spite of how much of a mess I am. And, as Chelsea said, I think it might be because - against all odds - I am more than the clothes I wear.
I realise there is also a lie in some of this discussion. I am all for not actively looking like a mess sometimes. My promo shots for work are largely tidy-ish. Or as tidy as I can be. I don't wear makeup. A few years ago, I did for a promo shot, it was girl clothes, make up and looking nothing like me. Or what my brother started to call the 'tit shot'. I put it on a promo sheet that went to people who would then meet with me, and nearly every person said 'oh your hair looked different in the photo'. Yeah, I don't think it was my hair.
N.B. Images below may not be safe for work, depending on whether your coworkers can discern the body part at the bottom of each poster. In all fairness, I did warn you I was in art school a few decades ago.
|Oops, I'm accidentally wearing a suit. There goes the messiness theory.|
|Speaking of messiness.|
|That's more like it.|