Since I got back to Spokane, I have been on a sugar high. It's because I came home to a house that had been Peeped. Everywhere I looked, there were Peeps. Not just the canonical yellow marshmallow chicks, but also pink, blue, purple, orange, and green ones, and some pink and purple bunnies. At first I thought they were color coordinated, then I realized that they were just doing what all smart critters do, and trying to blend in with their environment--a blue Peep in a nest of blue plastic straws; orange Peep in front of Penguin paperbacks; pink peep in a pink vase. This makes sense. They are, after all, prey.

I was not unprepared to find them. The day before I flew home my friend (and the dean of my college) Lynn asked me to spend time pondering this question: What do Peeps, panties, and pajamas have in common? It didn't take me long to figure out that I would likely find some of each in my house.

Indeed, lounging on the bed were a pair of super-soft fleece pjs (Lynn said, "I figured you needed something for summer"), there were, as I said, Peeps everywhere, and on my anatomical diagram there hung a pair of panties, with a Peep bunny sticking out of them (kind of obscenely, actually). It took me a full day to notice that there was also a blue Peep up near the neck. I suspect I will be finding Peeps in surprising places for years. Fortunately, as everyone knows, they taste best when stale.

Only Lynn.

I wrote about her in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. I'll post the whole thing here, because it's password-protected.

The Chronicle of Higher Education The Chronicle Review


From the issue dated April 3, 2009
Can't We Be Smart and Look Good, Too?


My friend Lynn is a girlie-girl of the highest order. She wears shiny, pointy shoes, never has a hair out of place, and can appear glamorous in jeans and a T-shirt. She shops frequently, with glee and determination. Whenever we go to Nordstrom, she buys another tube of lipstick in what seems to me exactly the same shade as the seven others she totes around in her Coach bag. She puts a zillion products on her face, but never looks like one of those women who use too much makeup. Her clothes are hip and trendy, and always occasion-appropriate. She's given to clingy V-neck dresses that show off her prodigious pectorals.

She works hard for those pecs, showing up at the gym every day and shoving around a lot of iron. Even at the gym, her hair and makeup don't get mussed. She glows instead of perspires, and her gym outfits are way cute. In the summer, she uses sparkly lotion so that it's impossible to miss those hard and shimmering muscles. (When I asked if I could write about her, she said: "I have no shame.")

Lynn apparently has always been like this. Larry, her husband of 25 years, a historian and university administrator, said that Lynn pursued him when they first met, but he wasn't interested. She cared too much about her appearance, he said. What changed? Once they'd had a few conversations, he realized that she was the smartest person he'd ever met.

While that might not be worthy of note were she a corporate executive, in academe it makes Lynn a freak. You see, she's a dean.

After a meeting with the entire faculty of our college, I asked her how she had been able to deliver bad news — we, like everyone, are in a budgetary state of disaster — and create no hard feelings on the part of that obstreperous group, leaving us somehow feeling energized. How had she been able to tell each department that we were not serving our students as well as we needed to, and not make us defensive or angry? How had she made the bitter pill of the hard times that were coming, and the fact that she couldn't answer all of our questions, go down so easily?

She answered quickly: Botox. (And having lots of candy on hand, she added.) Self-effacing joking is a winning trait in a dean. So is having a good analytical mind, a keen sense of priorities, and the ability to see all sides of an issue. A sense of humor doesn't hurt, either. And if Botox gives you confidence that your face looks as sunny as your disposition, if it erases lines etched into your forehead from years of thinking hard, so what?

I used to think that my friend, the dean, suffered from a packaging problem. Lynn just doesn't look like an academic, even though she's a terrific dean and, before that, was an accomplished professor and lauded mentor. But, I thought, she's too shiny, too coiffed, too chic to fit comfortably into academe.

And then I realized that maybe the problem is us.

For years, as an acquisitions editor, I traveled to campuses, knocking on doors and visiting professors in their book-lined lairs. What I remember most about those encounters was the ugly shoes — and the eye rubbing. The professors always took off their glasses (they all seemed to wear glasses) and rubbed their eyes for long minutes during conversations. Often they'd run a hand through their hair so frequently that by the time I left, it would be standing straight up. They were in the clothes they wore to class, togs that, I'm sorry to say, a New Yorker wouldn't put on to walk the dog.

I also attended the annual conferences of a number of disciplines, seeing academics in their dress-up duds. There wasn't much difference. Men wore badly fitting suits, or ancient corduroy sport coats and food-stained ties. Professorial jewelry tended toward "interesting," which usually meant big, clunky, and inexpensive; there's rarely anything shiny on an academic woman. Those clad in tailored jackets and pencil skirts, with glossed lips and flat-ironed hair, were either publishers or graduate students on the market for their first job.

Why are academics so, well, unattractive? I'd never really thought about it — just accepted it as a given — until I met Candace, now chairwoman of the Board of Trustees at a small college. Like Lynn, Candace is a girlie-girl, prone to commenting on the clarity of other women's skin and pointing out unfortunate fashion decisions. At first it drove me nuts (Don't you have anything more important to notice?), and then I realized that it is no different from my tic of editing every menu, headline, and park-service sign I see. It's just what draws her attention.

Gradually, Candace made me realize that I could wear tighter clothes without shaving off IQ points, that most people with hair my color pay for highlights, and that tinted moisturizer smoothes out my blotchy skin. She dressed me in hand-me-down cashmere Prada sweaters and made me realize that I could be both a thoughtful person — indeed, a feminist — and care about how I looked. I could even look good — with the help of a lot of products, careful clothing choices, and the right tools (praise be to the inventor of the flat iron).

Why, then, did it feel like a betrayal of academic values?

Because we're supposed to be above all that. As a look through the catalogs of many scholarly presses will reveal, we are forced to not judge books by their covers. We have more important things to think about than the size of our pores, more valuable reading than that which tells us how to get six-pack abs, and no time to waste trying to get them. We are supposed to critique the culture of consumerism, not participate in it. Plus, it's less threatening to ask a colleague to comment on the rough draft of a manuscript than to request help in shaping your eyebrows.

The historian Patricia Nelson Limerick once said that professors are the people no one wanted to dance with in high school. We were the smart kids, not the popular ones; the chess-club presidents, not prom queens. We learned to embrace our geekiness by creating our own lunch-table clique; if your clothes were too trendy, your hair too smooth, we didn't want you to sit with us.

It is, of course, a joy of life in the academy not to be judged on the superficialities of our appearance but by the facility of our minds. But to be suspicious or dismissive of those who look sharp while saying smart things, whose bodies are as muscular as their ideas, tastes a lot like fermented high-school grapes.

Friends, there is no inherent virtue in frumpiness. Ill-fitting clothes and frizzy hair do not make us look smarter, only less appealing.

We are underpaid compared with corporate executives and chairs of boards of trustees, and most of us can't afford Prada or Manolos. But many academics pride themselves on never having heard of those brands. (What? You never saw Sex and the City?) The literary critic and New York Times pundit Stanley Fish once made a famous argument about what happens to academics when they become successful: They buy the ugliest expensive car on the market (at that point, a Volvo) and make arguments about its safety, because they get twitchy about enjoying material things. Then they dis the folks (like Stanley) who drive elegant and frivolous Jaguars.

Because most of us on the faculty do not have to show up for a job from 9 to 5 to meet with clients we are trying to woo, we are able to care less about appearing "professional," at least as it's commonly defined. Coming to class in disheveled clothes may even be a political intervention to show your students that what you have to say is more important than whether you brush your hair, but still, sometimes hair brushing (or beard trimming or food-on-shirt removal) is in order. When the authors I worked with were asked to comment on current events on television, someone usually had to take them shopping to make them ready for prime time.

We do still occasionally have to interact in public and with a larger culture that, for better or worse, cares about presentation. We should at least know what the expectations are and make conscious decisions about when to flout convention.

I am comfortable with the frumpiness endemic to academe — I find it quaint and endearing — but I squirm when I hear people complain about those who are better coifed or groomed, implying that they are somehow not "serious." That's just hooey. Many of us spend lots of time on neurotic obsessions. If I'm going to run 50 miles at a time, or toil for decades researching the mating habits of the banana slug, I have no business criticizing someone else for covering up her gray hair or wearing a pair of high-heeled boots. Why can't there be a both/and rather than either/or when it comes to academics and appearance?

On one of my course evaluations, a student wrote that not only was I a terrific teacher, I had a great ass. I'd forgotten that my students were not only listening, but spending hours looking at me as well. I was horrified to think that the comment would become part of my permanent record. Then I realized that a day would come, soon probably, when I'd never hear or read a statement like that again. If highlights and Botox make me feel good and attractive, I'm happier and more confident standing in front of my students. That likely makes me a better teacher. And if Lynn continues to take me shopping, and Candace keeps sending me hand-me-downs, I will be able to find clothes that flatter my butt, even when it starts to sag.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her latest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 30, Page B4
Copyright © 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education


Marnie said...

Sigh--ok. forget all my mumbling in the later entries about stealing a look at this article. Thank you for posting it! I love your writing almost as much as I love you. And I have to say, this one hit a nerve . . .

Nancy said...

OMG. How are your students going to be hot for teacher if you wear baggy clothes that your nice ass gets completely lost in? You go miss Queen of the Academe. By the way, I wear lip-gloss, the shiny expensive kind, always and especially on my long runs.