(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

Me - Stairs

I hate dressing up.  I could tolerate the occasional obligation to dress up as a graduate student: the one year I taught one twice-a-week class; presentations in the department; annual conferences.  Now as a professor, I have to dress up everyday.  And, I just hate it.  Of all of the things I must do to prove I am a competent and qualified (and hopefully, phenomenal) teacher and scholar, what I put on my body seems highly irrelevant and shallow.  But, guess what?  Since my competence and qualifications are not automatically assumed, I cannot afford to as dress casually as I would like.

Fat Boy Gripes

The fashion industry has a particular body type in mind, and it is not mine.  Oh, and dress clothes are the worst.  Since I have breasts, typical men’s dress shirts are very unflattering on me.  So, as I pointed out to my advisor at a conference (to his embarrassment), I always wear a vest or suit jacket (or sometimes both) to mask the appearance of “man boobs.”  Even with that issue covered, I still spend much of the day readjusting my outfit because I am self-conscious.  What a waste of mental and emotional energy.

Queer Boy Gripes

Worse than my body image issues is feeling like a fraud in this hypermasculine attire.  A suit, for me, is the costume of a white heterosexual middle-class professional yet masculine man.  Slightly baggy jeans and shirts designed for men serve for my comfort (and my safety against homophobic and transphobic violence); but, the tighter fitting dress clothes designed for men really feel foreign to my body.  On the outside, I appear a respectable man — listen to me, respect me, for I have a dick (and a brain)!  On the inside, I feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and on edge that someone will declare that they are not falling for my masculine illusion — the jig is up, fag!  We know you’re in there!

Brown Boy Gripes

Unlike my sexual and gender identities, I made peace with the racialized nature of dress clothes.  I learned early in graduate school that certain appearances — certain “urban” or “thuggish” attire — was deemed unprofessional, even threatening to my (white) colleagues.  I am conscious of the whitening effect of dress clothes, especially a full suit.  My ambiguously brown skin is less distracting when concealed in a respectable black suit.

Class-Related Gripes

I am an assistant professor at a wealthy institution.  Despite how much money I actually have in the bank, after years of living on graduate student wages, I am considered comfortably middle-class.  And, despite being upwardly mobile from poverty, I come from an undeniably middle-class family.  That includes the benefit of the cultural capital to navigate “professional” and other middle-class-dominated spaces.  I know to look the part, I know to play the part.  But, damn, it is uncomfortable for me.

ScholarMy specific gripe about clothing here is that the restrictiveness of dress clothes seem to force a “professional” way of behaving and interacting with others.  Suits, in particular, are too tight to make sudden or wide movements.  One must stand tall, with one’s back straight and shoulders wide.  If sitting, one is limited in options for comfortable posture: legs crossed either one over the other, or one ankle on the other thigh.  Slouching, hunching, or having your legs spread to far apart can be uncomfortable, but also look bad in a suit.

For all of these behavioral restrictions, it is no wonder that I cannot help but sing at the top of my lungs and dance while listening to the radio on the drive home.  Get this costume and muzzle off of me!

The Politics Of Respectability

Oh, I just know it.  I am playing with a set of politics that make me appear respectable to my privileged colleagues (and students) so that they are more likely to respect me based on my actual skills and qualification.  I am working to reduce the number of frivolous and shallow ways that I may be dismissed due to racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and classist bias.  But, sometimes the joke is on me because bias cannot be reasoned with; you cannot win a logical argument with ignorance, after all.  I may only be fooling myself by thinking that I can hide behind the master’s clothes to gain status in the master’s house.  But, so long as I see others’ bodies policed for being “unprofessional,” too feminine, too masculine, too queer, too poor, too fat, too “urban,” — too anything other than white middle-class heterosexual cisgender masculine man — I worry looking too much like an Outsider will eventually lead me to be pushed out for good.

The Politics Of Authenticity

The other side of the coin of respectability is authenticity, at least for me.  I have written before about feeling a tension between success (by normative standards) and being authentic in my identities, politics, and values.  How much am I willing to do to be seen as respectable in the eyes of my (biased) colleagues?  How much — of myself — am I willing to give up to be seen as respectable in their eyes?  Is the success I gain worth feeling like a fraud, dressing and acting like them?

Me - No SmileI had alluded to making certain clothing decisions that counter my “true” identities and politics to my gender and sexuality class last semester.  Privately, one student asked me “how would you really dress?”  Well, since “privately” was still in earshot of other students, I said I did not feel comfortable having that conversation then and there.  But, I followed that with an honest admission: “I really don’t know.”  I have been dressing in ways that placates the exclusive culture of academia so long that I cannot even imagine what I would wear otherwise.

In being genderqueer, having an ambivalent relationship with masculinity (and men) since the age of 5, I really would just like the option: do I feel like wearing a suit today, or the short skirt and the blonde bombshell wig, or just a comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie?

But, I do not live in that reality.  And, I do not care to risk my job, status, and credibility just because I feel more at home in jeans and a shirt, or feel the occasional itch to go to work as Denise.  I am trading authenticity on this front to avoid threatening my success on other fronts.  As a marginalized academic, my only option seems to be which poison to drink; I have chosen the cocktail of success, inauthenticity, discomfort, and delusion.  That is, in hopes that my work will prevent future generations from having to make this choice.

23 thoughts on “(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

  1. Lovely post. And I beg to differ, Eric, You *do* have that choice and you can live in that reality. The reason I know you can live in that reality is that you have described it here. You have written the possibility into existence. Now, if you try, there are a lot of what ifs: what if the world explodes, what if your colleagues and students think you’re insane, what if your choices make others unbearably uncomfortable, what if nothing happens.. and what if the something that happens is that you shift the norms at your institution just by being exactly who you are.. how will you know until and unless you try?

    You don’t have to choose to confine yourself within the definition of marginalization you’ve outlined here. Everything you described — job, status, credibility – is not imposed on you. You can decide to shift your calculus..

    I would also add that I suspect your decisions about what to wear, and your comfort level with dressing in a more authentic fashion, will probably change as you settle more into your career. I don’t mean that you will wait to wear your wig until you get tenure, but moreso that inevitably, as you adapt to a new environment, you will continue to feel and assert more comfort in being who you are. That may or may not include a wig..

    C.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As one who studies racialization, I really love this section:

    “Unlike my sexual and gender identities, I made peace with the racialized nature of dress clothes. I learned early in graduate school that certain appearances — certain “urban” or “thuggish” attire — was deemed unprofessional, even threatening to my (white) colleagues. I am conscious of the whitening effect of dress clothes, especially a full suit. My ambiguously brown skin is less distracting when concealed in a respectable black suit.”

    It’s prompted ideas all day.

    You’re a great writer. Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspectives! Keep it up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Is there no middle ground here? It’s a suit or a skirt and wig? I’ve had plenty of faculty that wore jeans and very few that wore ties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Victor, is this in reference to what is expected (or what I imagine is acceptable), or to how I prefer to express my gender identity? No tie with dress clothes is ok (not the first week, or even first few). Jeans… I’ve tried and those seem to be my worst classes; and, others have given me conflicting reactions. But, there are no questions asked (nor challenges from students) in a suit!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the parenthetical phrase might be the most telling “(or what I imagine is acceptable).” Perhaps the suit and tie is like Dumbo’s feather. They’re not different because of it, but they believe they are. It makes folks feel like they fit in, it makes them feel like they’re more in control; and by projecting that, their students act accordingly.

    It also reifies the idea by teaching students that the suit is what’s respectable. If students only question and challenge when jeans are worn, it might be a reason to wear them. Perhaps, from their perspective, your suit is telling them to shut up and listen, to not ask questions, to put them in their place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, challenge — push students! But, let’s hope they don’t take us down in course evaluations, where they already penalize marginalized professors. This is a bit more than deluding myself that I have any level of control on the job. I am doing whatever I can to survive. Unfortunately, there is tension between my strategies for individual survival (i.e., getting tenure, keeping this job long enough to get tenure) and my strategies for survival as a marginalized person (e.g., fighting oppression). I’m happy to hear better suggestions for survival. My gripes noted, I’m not comfortable risking this job over jeans.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Just as an alternative perspective (as a straight/cis/non-US man)…

    I began teaching at college about eight years ago, I was straight out of my PhD and teaching both final year undergrads and masters programme students. I found myself uncomfortably close in age to my students and as a result getting too familiar with them. Many of my students were my age, some older

    So I started wearing suits and ties, which helped remind me that I was no longer in college and that I couldn’t be quite so easy going with people whose grades I controlled. It worked for me!

    Funny thing is though, one of my colleagues (who was much older and more senior) suggested I dress down as my attire might be alienating to the students! I declined…

    Like

    • I can relate, as part of my fear about dressing “down” is eliminating the small age difference between my oldest students and myself. But, I suspect my competency will still be questioned as a Black queer professor even once I’m a little more wrinkled and gray.

      Like

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  17. This is fascinating to me. For one, I would love to dress more masculine (and do as much as my curvy fat girl body allows), and I consider you one of my models for how to look good in masculine clothing.

    For another, I feel you on the being fat and trying to fit the fashion. If I get a shirt that will go around the boobs (and increasingly, the belly), the sleeves are all wrong. I could buy women’s dress slacks, but apparently they ran out of fabric making the sleeves extra long and can’t include pockets in the pants. So, I have men’s slacks that have waists too large so that my hips and thighs can fit in them.

    There are some custom clothing places for women who want to wear masculine clothing, but they’re all pretty much tailored to the slim, boyish body, too. And hella expensive.

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