Jelena Džankić is the Research Fellow in charge of coordinating the EUI’s European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) on Citizenship. She holds a PhD in international studies from the University of Cambridge). Before coming to the EUI, Jelena was part of the CITSEE team at the University of Edinburgh and a Teaching Fellow in Comparative Politics at University College London (UCL). When she was younger, she wanted to be a fiction writer. She ended up writing academic books, chapters and articles.
– Why didn’t we become friends earlier on?
– I was afraid of you.
– You are so tall. That is scary. And you are all well-groomed and always have a nice nail polish.
– I am not sure I understand.
– You know, it is not too common for a woman to be that tall. And I am sorry to break this to you, but women who take care of their appearance the way you do are considered shallow in academia.
– Oh, I see.
Recalling this conversation with a now close friend of mine, it came to my mind that the original version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was entitled First Impressions. If I remember correctly, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth Bennet was that she was ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough […]’. Be it fiction or fact, and as much as we would like it to be otherwise, we are judged by appearances: our height, weight, the way we dress or comb our hair all determine how we will be perceived by others and how we will establish the grounds of our interaction with the outside world.
Obviously, and as it has happened in Austen’s novel (and in my life on various occasions), these initial first impressions can change. That, however, requires social contacts that unfold in a setting where questions of character, intelligence, and mutual understanding prevail over initial perceptions of one’s appearance. With the increasing reliance on digital and social media that advance particular visions of women, establishing such contacts in the personal sphere has become tremendously difficult. Equally, many professional circles have come to embrace a particular vision of a way their female employee should look. At this point, I would dare you to think of a woman who is a lawyer, or a chemist, a politician, a store manager, a CEO of a company, a soldier, or a socialite and not to have at least an idea of their appearance. And here I do not refer only to imagining their ‘uniform’ if they have any, but also to their facial features, body types, hair and makeup. I assume that with a few culture-specific exceptions, we will have thought of quite a few similar traits. Maybe we share some of them.
Maybe we are defined by appearances.
Our dangerous looks.
I am six feet tall and there’s little I can do about that. I never asked for my height and unlike those unhappy with their breasts, noses, lips, or sex, I cannot change it. Well, at least not without seriously endangering my health. I have read a piece about how between the 1950s and 1990s, tall teenage girls were ‘treated’ with synthetic oestrogen (DES) because their height was seen as ‘abnormal’ and it hardly fit the pattern of what is culturally and socially accepted as ‘femininity’ (Jakobsen 2011). As absurd as it may sound, being tall was considered a medical condition and DES treatments set off both ethical questions – such as the girls’ consent – as well as the medical ones. More recent studies have shown that side effects of DES treatment included irregular period, ovarian cysts, excessive vaginal discharge, galactorrhea (leakage from breasts), blood clots and breast cancer (Rayner, et al. 2010). Paradoxically, the treatment designed to make tall women’s ‘shoe fit’ the societally acceptable pattern of a feminine appearance had adverse effects on women’s primary sexual characteristics.
I have come to terms with the fact that I am a tall woman. My height is the very first thing people notice when they see me and it determines the first impression I leave. Research in psychology has shown that height is associated with perceptions of authority, and that while tall women are seen as assertive leaders, they are also often described as ‘aggressive’ or ‘dominant’. In their study of experiences of tall women, Chu and Geary (2005: 212) highlighted that tall women are ‘statistically rare and visually distinctive—both are characteristics that attract selective attention’. This selective attention contributes to vocational success by motivating tall women to adapt to different environments and offering them positive reinforcement to seek out leadership-related tasks. It simultaneously creates something that psychologists have termed as ‘unintended intimidation’; that is, an unsought projection of ‘power’ over others. To be very honest, I don’t always mind this super-‘power’ of mine, as it comes in handy in classes of 30+ students. However, I am quite uncomfortable with the accompanying image of aloofness, authority and pride. Emanating such images due to an unsought and relatively immutable physical characteristic commonly has an adverse effect on social (and personal) relationships.
Far from wishing to offer a ‘sad reflection of a tall woman’, I am trying to show that appearances matter. They determine the first impression that we leave in personal and professional fields and establish the grounds for our development as social beings. Now, one may have another physical characteristic, a different body shape, or whichever changeable trait (such as hair or dressing style), but while appearances matter in forming impressions, the latter can change. This requires one’s awareness of the impression they leave on others, as well as the willingness and capacity to actively engage in social interactions aimed at altering the imprint left by the ‘image’ that we project.
Yes, appearances deceive.
Looks are a danger.
In October 2014, Francesca Stavrakopoulou from the University of Exeter wrote a wonderful piece in The Guardian entitled ‘Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed’. There, she explained that the way female academics dress will have an effect on how they are perceived among their colleagues and noted that ‘dressing in a more conventionally feminine way is somehow more frivolous, and can undermine perceptions of a woman’s intellectual and professional skills’. While I had never thought of this as an issue when choosing my apparel, only two months before Stavrakopoulou published her piece, I attended a major political science convention. I came to my panel in something that could be described as a ‘conventionally feminine’ outfit (a white shirt paired with a patterned knee-length puff skirt, a nice jacket, yellow pumps and my ‘signature’ leather cuff). The convention was held in a packed hotel room and the airconditioning was not working, so I took off my jacket to which I had previously pinned the nametag. I was among the first to arrive to the panel. I took my seat and introduced myself to other colleagues as they arrived. Yet while shaking my hand, one of the fellow (female) panellists said ‘Where is your nametag? Are you too fashionable to wear it?’. While feeling personally offended by this unnecessary comment, I became aware of a very important issue. There is not only ‘hidden sexism’ from men to women in academia that Stavrakopolou spoke about, but there is also the perception among women, nurtured and sustained by women themselves, on what is acceptable as a dressing style that ‘screams I’m an intellectual and a serious professional woman’. That is plain wrong.
At 9 am on 23 February 2006, I had my three hours long MPhil exam at the University of Cambridge. I woke up early that morning, did my hair and makeup, polished my nails and chose a nice outfit. Yes, I could have spent another two hours doing revisions for the exam, but I felt that I needed to do something different. I had studied hard for many weeks, and after many sleepless nights, seeing my image in the mirror that morning gave me the boost of confidence that I needed. It made me realise that I had far more strength, dedication and ambition than I thought I did. And – I am not going to brag about my exam scores – I was very happy with the result.
Bottomline: looks are dangerous in and of themselves, whatever you look like. Regardless of whether whatever defines you is a ‘given’ trait such as height or the colour of your skin or eyes, or something that can easily be changed such as a hairstyle or clothes, looks are central to how others form their impressions of us. They can be ‘dangerous looks’ due to the unintended projections of power, unapproachability, authority that accompany our appearances. Yet we should not forget that ‘looks are a danger’ because being a woman is accompanied with specific cultural and social imagery in the private sphere; and perceptions of what a woman ‘should look like’ in professional circles. Many women are outside this frame. They are feared, marginalised, ignored, or judged. That, and not their looks, is the real danger.
We can’t run away from appearances.
We can’t run away from how we are perceived.
And we should not.
We have a choice.
My choice is to stick to the looks I feel comfortable with.
The ones that make me feel confident.
My dangerous looks.
My looks of danger.
What is your choice?
Chu, S. and Geary, K., 2005. Physical stature influences character perception in women. Personality and individual differences, 38(8), pp.1927-1934.
Jakobsen, H. 2011. Height as an infliction. Science Nordic
Rayner, J.A., Pyett, P. and Astbury, J., 2010. The medicalisation of ‘tall’girls: A discourse analysis of medical literature on the use of synthetic oestrogen to reduce female height. Social science & medicine, 71(6), pp.1076-1083.
Stavrakopoulou, F. 2014. Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. The Guardian. October 26.