Geek men’s appearance, and related issues

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions, to the best of my knowledge this concludes posts answering questions from rounds 1 and 2. Round 3 will be in a few months.

We got a couple of questions from the same person about how comments about judging (geek) women’s appearances relates to judging geek men’s appearances, so I thought I’d bundle them together. Since they’re so lengthy, you might want to directly quote the part you are replying to, as well, if it’s going to be at all unclear.

The first question was submitted late for the previous round:

I can understand women (probably, particularly geek women) not liking comments / compliments about appearance. That fits well with my own geeky worldview: that substance is more important than style.

But I also sometimes see comments from geek women suggesting that geek men should take more care over their own appearance / presentation. That one I can follow as far as “don’t be smelly” and “don’t be scary”, but beyond that, I myself go back to the “substance, not style” viewpoint.

I don’t think that the combined message is “Men’s appearance matters to women, but women’s appearance should not matter to men”, but I’m a bit confused as to how these two strands fit together. Perhaps the unwelcome comments about women’s appearance are about intrinsic appearance (body shape etc) but what some women are suggesting male geeks should pay more attention to is non-intrinsic appearance (the clothes over the body)?

I’ll admit that as I’ve got older (and my ASD aspects have been diluted) I’ve upgraded my habitual appearance from “don’t-care geek” to “somewhat shabby provincial academic”; I think it’s partly so I can pass as non-geek when it’s useful to do so.

There also seems to be a less frequently-asked question going around, about mostly-male geeky groups being more accepting of female newcomers who dress more geekily or gender-neutrally; I get the impression that this is sometimes an issue for women who don’t normally dress gender-neutrally. (My own, privileged, take on this is that it’s a good tactic to make allowance for the group you’d like to join, typically by presenting a view that suggests that your presentation isn’t a big deal to you, is a good idea for the stage when they’re forming their impression of you, and once you’re “in” you can dress as you like and no-one will think of you as an outsider; the geeks I know are pretty loyal once they’ve decided that a newcomer is genuinely a geek. But I’m worried, venturing into feminist home territory, of putting that forward as a suggestion (even though it’s only about tactics, not ethics), as it might seem
quite oppressive to some.)

I do understand (or get an impression, I hope not a sexist one) that this may tie in with women’s self-esteem / self-efficacy being typically lower than men’s, and competence in managing appearance / presentation may be involved with counteracting this.

And a flippant end part to this question, as I try reversing “men” and “women” in the original question: On the few occasions when I do wear a suit etc, women compliment me on my appearance. Is it OK that I’m not offended? ;-)

This round’s question:

This isn’t really one specific question, but I’d be interested to hear what Geek Feminists have to say about geeks, gender, and personal appearance.

I can understand about women often not liking compliments about their attractiveness from male obvious geeks, particularly as such comments are usually part of a clumsy attempt at picking up a woman, just any woman even if almost a stranger.

But then, I’ve seen observations (and even an experiment [Cheryan 2009]) about geekiness of computer geeks and their stereotypical environment putting women off from entering computing. (Now I’m not convinced that the stereotype Cheryan used is actually representative; I’ve been in a lot of computing environments and none of them had any Trekkie stuff in them!) Victoria Kirst also has a different take on this study.

But that only covers the “ambient belonging” factor of the rooms etc. I’ve also seen comments about the personal appearance of (male) geeks putting women off, and that’s the bit I really don’t understand. I have some very tentative ideas about it; for example, once (before feminism?), I think it may have been common for a woman’s social standing to be derived from the men she associated with (which might have just been father and brothers, and later her husband), and I suspect there are still people for whom this is true. Or, for a manipulative woman (and I take it that feminists, as egalitarians, will avoid manipulativeness, so again this is probably just addressing non-feminist women) it may be uncomfortable to have to interact with men whose psychological pressure points she doesn’t understand.

But any such things that I’ve come up with only cover small minorities of women, and don’t explain any general effect. Perhaps there isn’t a general effect? Perhaps (and I think there may be some truth in this) it’s mostly non-feminist women who have difficulty with non-mainstream men? And should geek men try to look non-geeky? Would it help with changing the gender balance?

And a smaller incidental question: are the women who’re uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky men also uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky women?

The questioner didn’t provide a full citation for [Cheryan 2009], but I’m assuming it’s:

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical environments impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

It is, unfortunately, paywalled. Most people know of Sapna Cheryan’s work through Lisa Grossman’s article Of Geeks and Girls and you can find a video of Cheryan talking about her work among the TEDx Seattle videos (direct links seem to be impossible).

36 thoughts on “Geek men’s appearance, and related issues

  1. ptp

    Going to answer this from a male perspective, with all the caveats that I’m unable to speak on behalf of the female perspective first-hand, but I am able to speak to the male one.

    I can understand women (probably, particularly geek women) not liking comments / compliments about appearance. That fits well with my own geeky worldview: that substance is more important than style.

    This part’s a bit heavy, so bear with me, because I’m not trying to shame anyone, but it’s important to make sure that we’re on the same page as far as context.

    There’s more to the first part than substance over style. Guys don’t generally get this kind of treatment, and they have different conditioning as far as their own sexuality, so there isn’t a lot of common ground for us here. Complimenting or commenting on a woman’s appearance isn’t just about valuing style over substance – like most issues of social justice, it’s also about privilege/power.

    Rarely is a man at risk when a woman compliments his appearance. With the shoe on the other foot, though, the risk levels skyrocket. A disturbing amount of men have really frighteningly myopic ideas about women, and in a heartbeat the compliment can go from something innocuous to something sexist, abusive, or otherwise harmful. “I said she looked really pretty and she didn’t say anything and when I asked her out after work she said no. What a fucking bitch! Who does she think she is?” This is one of the more tame manifestations of how compliments can go sour; I don’t think I need to describe the more violent end of the spectrum.

    Obviously not every man thinks this way, and we give each other the benefit of the doubt that we don’t, but here’s the catch: as guys, we often don’t know how other guys treat the women in their lives. This kind of thing is more common than we know, and the fact that it’s as common as it is provides a really uncomfortable backdrop for the matter of commenting on a girl’s appearance (whether in a professional setting or not).

    And of course, none of this is uniform. No two girls will have the exact same experience, and even if they did they wouldn’t have the same interpretation. The point isn’t to treat every situation the same, it’s to be sensitive to the fact that you don’t know what someone’s personal experience is, and so you should be respectful of the full range of experiences he or she may have been through.

    If you have a friend who you are confident will understand your good intentions, and you know that it’s not something that will bother them, then that’s okay on a personal, private level. However, before you say something, ask yourself why you’re saying it. Be very aware of your own motivations before you say something. Are you trying to cheer someone up? You can probably do this in better ways. Are you trying to be flirty? You’re at work – if that seems like a bad idea to you, it is, and if it seems like a good idea, 99 times out 100 it’s still a bad idea.

    But I also sometimes see comments from geek women suggesting that geek men should take more care over their own appearance / presentation. That one I can follow as far as “don’t be smelly” and “don’t be scary”, but beyond that, I myself go back to the “substance, not style” viewpoint.

    If I’ve successfully debunked the idea that it’s about substance vs style then the answer to this is clear. Also, this isn’t really something you can just flip upside down. Many women are socially conditioned, from an age so early it doesn’t even seem right, to be hyper-aware of their appearance. Men enjoy the privilege of not having to deal with the same degree of social expectations, especially in the geek world where you can come to work in sweats, grody-ass flip-flops, and a t-shirt adorned with corny jokes about the Communist Party. Comments about taking better care of your appearance are a reflection on that. Plus, come on, guys get to look at girls trying their hardest to look attractive, why not do them the same favor ;)

    1. ptp

      (As an aside, is there a way to preview my posts before I submit them? I like to proof-read posts like the one above a few times before finally posting, and preview windows help me catch things I often miss in editor windows)

    2. Mary Post author

      ptp and others: we ask that you use the word “women” on our site, not “girls”, unless you really do mean to talk about children.

      Thanks.

  2. A.Y. Siu

    There are a couple of issues here.

    1. I don’t think most geek women would mind in a random context being complimented on their appearance any more than non-geek women would mind. Most people (male or female) like compliments, and there’s nothing wrong with looking good.

    Where this becomes problematic, particularly in a geek context, is if there is even a hint or insinuation that the geek woman’s value in a geek context is primarily as eye candy. She couldn’t be a serious programmer or hacker. She must just be at this conference for geek men to ogle at. I haven’t seen a geeky event of any kind in which geek men are assumed to be there as primarily eye candy and the geek women are assumed to be the serious or “hardcore” geeks.

    2. There is a difference between physical attractiveness and basic hygiene. Taking regular showers, using deodorant, getting a haircut every once in a while—this is what’s called basic hygiene. Every geek (male or female) shouldn’t think these practices are unreasonable. They will make you more physically attractive than just being… utterly disgusting. But they won’t turn Shrek into Prince Charming.

    1. Mary Post author

      I don’t think most geek women would mind in a random context being complimented on their appearance any more than non-geek women would mind.

      I don’t know that this is true, at least in its implication that most of the time it’s OK to compliment a geek woman’s appearance. Skud went over a personal experience of what tricky ground it is in another thread.

      The trouble is that, even if every single individual comment or compliment is respectful, genuine, non-creepy, etc, in sufficient numbers they still turn into “you are eye candy first and foremost”. And no individual would-be complimenter can know what the woman’s experience with assessment of her appearance is: does everyone do it? are they usually positive? are they usually conditionally positive in some way?

      It’s rather like the pick-up problem (as in, approaching strangers in some way because you are attracted to them): you can be more or less threatening, but you cannot control all the other loaded experiences that the stranger has already had.

        1. Mary Post author

          Yes, and I should have acknowledged your full point better. Sorry.

          But the first paragraph seems too strongly worded to allow the segue into the second, that is, I’m not sure that “a random context” is all that common. It was “random context” that really struck me. It’s not as though outside of geek contexts this problem doesn’t exist: I’d say it exists in most non-intimate interpersonal contexts, and quite a few intimate ones too.

          Mostly what I’m thinking of is the discussion around xkcd’s Creepy comic, in which the context is a public transport journey. Random context? As random as any other. Safe to assume that the woman is therefore default-happy to have her personal appearance discussed? Not really.

    2. Cessen

      Taking regular showers, using deodorant, getting a haircut every once in a while—this is what’s called basic hygiene.

      This reminds me a bit of this post. And I’m a bit more inclined to agree with her than you.

      But yes, I think regular showering/bathing is a reasonable expectation. And perhaps, optionally, some kind of deodorant after physical activity if a shower is not available and you’re going to be in a closed space with others. But I think beyond that, challenging society’s expectations of body odor is a very positive thing. Human’s don’t smell like roses. We smell like animals. ‘Cause that’s what we are. Somehow we’ve lost sight of that and decided that our bodies are offense. Alas…

      (I’m also not entirely clear on why hair cuts are related to hygiene? Seems more like a personal appearance issue. It’s been about 3 years since I last had a hair cut, and I get nothing but compliments on my hair.)

      1. Helen Huntingdon

        I read that post, and while I sympathize with where she’s coming from, I don’t agree. Smells have real consequences for the people around you.

        I also quit wearing deodorant for health reasons, but not wearing deodorant doesn’t mean you have to smell. The same instructions given for handwashing to prevent flu transmission work perfectly well for getting rid of the bacteria that cause armpit odor. Once you do that, you find out pretty fast that any odor is residing on your clothes, not your armpits, and there are some fairly simple solutions to that, like not wearing clothes tight in the armpits. Don’t give the bacteria anything to work with, and they stop stinking up the place.

        1. Cessen

          I believe I did say that showering is a reasonable expectation. ;-)

          And I’m not sure, but it sounds to me like you’re referencing using anti-bacterial soap to bathe? If that’s the case, that’s a really bad idea. There are reasons that bacteria are rapidly evolving to be resistant to antibiotics, and people using such soaps outside of professions that require it is a big part of that. (The use of antibiotics in the meat industry is another big reason, but I digress.)

          Regular use of anti-bacterial soap = bad long-term health consequences for the world. If it comes down to an either/or, it’s better that people stink.

        2. Helen Huntingdon

          Huh? I’ve never seen anything about anti-bacterial soap in flu-prevention protocols. Just soap and warm water. The key is a solid 20 seconds of brisk but light rubbing in the warm soapy water.

          I switched to that because it’s much easier on my tender skin than deodorant.

          And in so doing, I found out that the notion that I need deodorant not to smell is just a big myth, just as I don’t need insanely harsh chemicals to keep my house clean.

        3. meerkat

          One thing, washing your hands is much easier than washing your armpits. You can wash your hands in any public restroom but you can shower in very, very few. Also some people just generate more smell than others so I would doubt that it was possible for everyone, but showering five times a day isn’t really practical in the first place so I don’t know how you manage to stay completely scent free just by washing. Maybe my clothes are too tight in the armpits? They aren’t particularly tight at all, but I must be doing something wrong because I stink at the end of the day.

        4. Helen Huntingdon

          It’s not entirely just by washing — as I said earlier, it’s a matter of paying attention to the root cause, bacteria, and giving them nothing to work with. That varies according to situation, I’ve discovered. I suspect the same things won’t work exactly the same for everyone, but there are a lot of ideas online.

          Shirts tight in the armpit are the worst. I’ll wind up smelling a little by the end of the day no matter what I do if I wear one. I’ve been giving them away. The looser in the armpit the shirt is, the less likely I’ll face even the hint of odor no matter what my activities are.

          Not slacking off on the full 20 seconds per armpit in the shower makes an enormous difference for me. I have to remind myself that shortcutting it isn’t a good idea because the skin seems plenty clean well before that.

          For touch-ups between showers, I’ve seen a lot of solutions online. A mix of witch hazel and rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball is extremely effective for instant odor vanquishing, but generally overkill. I’ve gotten the hang of knowing when to just wipe with a warm damp washcloth or paper towel, which is generally once a day.

          I remembered that my dad said that a trick he learned in the Marines is that spraying deodorant on the inside of the armpits of your shirts matters a lot more than putting it on your skin. I’ve tried several different spray astringents for this, and they all seem to work pretty well. Half vinegar, half water, for instance, or Crystal mineral deodorant in spray form. I don’t need any of them if I pay attention, but I generally do the shirt-spraying just to be sure. I prefer the vinegar and water just because I have it around all the time anyway.

          And I always spray the armpits of my shirts with vinegar and water before washing them, whether I think they need it or not. That seems to make quite a difference just on its own if I make sure the seams are good and soaked with the solution.

    3. John

      I’ve seen quite a few references to male geek hygiene (or lack thereof) here and elsewhere; are geek men really typically less hygienic than other men? My experience has been that geeks, however scruffy, generally don’t smell bad.

      1. Helen Huntingdon

        Ever been in the back room of a gaming store? Shoot, ever been in a gaming store?

        In my experience, whether you get more stinkers than the general population depends on the type of geekdom. There are substantial cultural shifts between different branches of electrical engineering, for instance. There are some branches with more stinky types than the average population.

  3. Keith Ealanta

    (With thanks to HolySchist for pointing out that replying to the LJ feed isn’t going to get my response read :) )

    I’d have to say that stereotypically geeky appearance can be off putting even for other male geeks.
    When you walk into a room and half the peoiple there are in stained t-shirts and just generally unkempt it’s appearant that social graces are not going to be at their best. I’ve been that sort of geek, but these days I’d much rather talk with people who can manage reasonable courtesy and where I don’t have to consider the wind direction in planning my conversations.
    My point is that some of the elements of personal appearance provide warning about peoples ability to relate to others. If you come into an area full of strangers, you want to know that you will be treated with basic respect, not forced to jump through hoops to demonstrate where you sit in the technical-aptitude pecking order.
    I don’t care if I’m better or worse at something than someone (does that blow all my geek cred?) as long as I can talk to them and learn from them or teach them or best of all, both.
    So from my perspective, many geeks are off-putting for all but their closest kin. In being put off I think gender is (nearly) irrelevant.

    1. John

      (Asker of this question here)

      So far, this seems to be the post that gives me the biggest “Aha!” about what I was wondering about.

      I definitely see what you mean, although I’m not sure I agree with all of the detail.

      Partly because I’m male, no doubt, and partly because I’ve been lucky as to which geek circles I’ve moved in, in fact I’ve found that the scruffy, geeky, people are actually more considerate than the general public… but I can see that they might not look that way to someone who’s not used to them.

      But “some of the elements of personal appearance provide warning about peoples ability to relate to others. If you come into an area full of strangers, you want to know that you will be treated with basic respect, not forced to jump through hoops …” can apply to other kinds of appearance at least as strongly. If I find myself in a room of power-suited strangers, I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to demonstrate where I sit in the income pecking order.

      But I’ve found a reversal analogy by taking something stereotypically feminine: if I were to want to learn about knitting, and turned up at an [almost-]all female knitting group, where everything they wore, and everything in the room, was knitted, and I felt they were going to push me into a world where nothing counted except knitting… yes, I guess I would feel intimidated, and would probably try learning from a book instead.

  4. Daedala

    I think that one issue is that complimenting a woman on her appearance is often a way of inscribing privilege over her. Even if that wasn’t the conscious intent, it often puts her in her place. Which may be on a pedestal, or a runway, or whatever: it’s not a place she chose.

    On the other hand, ignoring social norms of grooming and dress often seems to me to be a very privileged thing to do, a way of putting everyone else in their place: I don’t have to conform! Only lesser people conform to social standards! And by the way, only shallow people would be bothered!

    1. Kite

      Gosh, I think you might have hit the nail on the head for me about why really smelly geek guys piss me off. Thinking about a completely selfish fucker who used to visit his gf and son who were temporarily homeless, staying in our shed. The smell he left as he merely walked through the loungeroom LINGERED and it was HORRID, a really fetid faecal smell. He sure left his mark on our home. He was a full-time worker coding for a bank, so obviously no one said anything to him there. There is NO way any woman would EVER be able to get away with that. And I’m sure he thought he was DEEP for not caring about his appearance. His gf certainly cared about her appearance. Basically, the unkempt guy can be the observer, untouched by the opinion of those he observes.

      As for the complimenting of women, I am reminded of another geek guy who used to toot fat women “to make them feel better about themselves”. What – an – utter – douche.

      1. Kite

        That said, smelling can be also a mark of lack of power or loss of control, of course. I’ve had to struggle with that myself on occasion, even when I was working but struggling/sick, having not enough energy or awareness to control it, and it’s very embarrassing.

  5. Katherine

    “I don’t think that the combined message is “Men’s appearance matters to women, but women’s appearance should not matter to men”, but I’m a bit confused as to how these two strands fit together. ”

    My take would be that if we all try to reduce the need for women to be hyper-aware of our appearance (by complimenting appearance less, or commenting on appearance less overall) *and* if men pay more attention to their appearance, it levels the playing field by moving both extremes towards the middle. Noone should have to be hyper-aware of their appearance, but at the same time it isn’t really preferable to have everyone ignore their appearance altogether. Moving the general trend towards a happy medium also allows for more tolerance of people who prefer the opposite end of the spectrum from their gender-based prescribed position (men who like to be hyper-aware of their appearance, women who don’t care how they look at all).

    These apparent double standards that feminism seems to prescribe are a move to counter the prescribed actual double standard. The end result isn’t supposed to be a complete switch of the prescribed double standard, but a happy medium with a wide range of genuine personal preferences.

    I really want to draw a diagram to summarise! Hopefully my text-only ramblings are reasonably coherant.

    1. Cessen

      [...]but at the same time it isn’t really preferable to have everyone ignore their appearance altogether.

      Depends on what you mean. Honestly, I don’t think anyone should be obligated by external social forces to care about their appearance. If someone is offensive-looking to me, I tend to think that’s my problem not theirs.

      But I also don’t think anyone should be obligated by external forces to “not” care about their appearance (I’ve definitely seen this happen before in geeky circles).

      Ideally what I would like to see is moving towards people being allowed to care as much or as little as they want about their appearance without fear of ridicule.

      1. Cessen

        (To be clear, when I say “offensive-looking” I don’t mean sexist/racist/etc. slogans on a shirt, or wearing black face, or things like that. I also don’t mean ignoring public health concerns in cleanliness. What I mean is not meeting my personal standards of appearance.)

        1. Katherine

          I meant more in terms of hygeine standards really when I was writing that. And thinking about stained clothes more than anything else (as that’s something covered by both hygeine and appearance).

  6. Jen

    I worked for 2 years at a non-geek job, and the other women working there CONSTANTLY commented on each-other’s appearance. As soon one of the woman workers walked in there would be this chorus of comments about her outfit – almost all complimentary, and it was done in a friendly way, and clearly the other women enjoyed this interaction. But I on the other hand, felt severely weirded out, to the point I didn’t want to go into the staff room. Mainly I wore trousers and a shirt (not blouse) and I wasn’t included in the conversation, but every so often (usually when the stocks of clean clothes were running low) I would wear a blouse and skirt, and I got this AVALANCHE of compliments. I was very weird because I pretended I liked the compliments, to be nice, but in reality I hated the clothes I was wearing, wished it was OK to wear less dressy clothes to work, and felt like there was this huge pressure on me to be more feminine, and more dressed-up, than I wanted to be. The unfairness of it really got to me – the men were alone, so why couldn’t I be?

    It was a real revelation to me to discover that in geek spaces I was free to dress the way I feel most comfortable. However reading about how some geek women who like dressing in a feminine way, feel under pressure not to do so, has made me realize that maybe geek spaces have the same amount of pressure to wear a certain uniform as other places, it’s just that the uniform is different. I think that sucks. If geeks really lived up to the ideal of substance over style, people would be equally welcome whether they wore a t-shirt and jeans or a ballroom gown.

    About men complimenting women on their appearance, I would like it if men who considered doing this asked themselves “what is my motivation for doing this?” If the answer is anything along the lines of “if I compliment her she’ll HAVE to talk to me/be my friend/go on a date with me/whatever I want her to do”, then no. Just don’t.

    Another question for people who compliment women on appearance, especially in the workplace: do you also compliment men on their appearance? If not, maybe you are helping create an atmosphere where women’s appearance is seen as important, or at least noteworthy, but men’s appearance isn’t. I don’t think that’s fair, and I think it’s a very short step from over-emphasizing women’s appearance, to under-emphasizing women’s skills and abilities.

    On the other hand it’s tricky because not all geek women are like me, there are geek women who like dressing up and talking about appearance, and an atmosphere that makes me want to scream with rage might be the atmosphere that someone else feels most comfortable with. I have no idea what the answer is, but I think that ‘treat everyone equally’ is a good start: if you compliment women but not men, or if you talk about different topics with male colleagues than female colleagues, then I think there is something wrong with that.

    As to men’s appearance mattering to women: for me, not so much. I would be put off if someone smelled badly or if there were large blobs of food attached to their clothing, but apart from that, I wouldn’t notice. With regard to smell, my personal theory about sweat is that new sweat doesn’t smell that bad, but old sweat can really stink. So if you shower once a day and only wear clothes once between doing the laundry, you can’t go too far wrong.

    1. Cessen

      About men complimenting women on their appearance, I would like it if men who considered doing this asked themselves “what is my motivation for doing this?” If the answer is anything along the lines of “if I compliment her she’ll HAVE to talk to me/be my friend/go on a date with me/whatever I want her to do”, then no. Just don’t.

      To be honest, I don’t think the motive actually matters unless the person being complimented is a mind reader. If it makes women uncomfortable, don’t do it.

      Typically when I have complimented women in the past it’s because I want to boost their self-esteem, as body image issues are pretty nasty for women in our culture. I like to provide reassurance that they are attractive human beings. But if it has the effect of making them feel like their appearance is what matters most about them, then clearly it’s something I should stop doing.

      Another question for people who compliment women on appearance, especially in the workplace: do you also compliment men on their appearance? If not, maybe you are helping create an atmosphere where women’s appearance is seen as important, or at least noteworthy, but men’s appearance isn’t. I don’t think that’s fair, and I think it’s a very short step from over-emphasizing women’s appearance, to under-emphasizing women’s skills and abilities.

      That’s a fair point.

      I don’t compliment men on their appearance because it’s generally not considered appropriate for men to do that to other men except in a few limited circumstances (such as if their appearance is out the ordinary). Otherwise I probably would, especially other guys that I feel could use a boost. I actually have complimented men on their appearance when it’s out-of-the-ordinary. But it’s generally just not okay to do by social norms. But of course this doesn’t change your point, it only explains why it happens.

      The thing about complimenting women is precisely that the motive, genuineness, and context of the compliment are not something that the woman in question can be at all certain of. So these days I generally avoid complimenting women on appearance. Clearly body-image issues need to be dealt with in other ways (like shifting media portrayal of beauty, for example).

      1. attie

        The thing about complimenting women is precisely that the motive, genuineness, and context of the compliment are not something that the woman in question can be at all certain of. So these days I generally avoid complimenting women on appearance.

        That’s probably a good idea. You never know what stuff they are carrying around on this fraught issue. Personally, I have been teased so much during adolescence that my gut reaction to any compliment is to immediately assume that they are making fun of me. At some point, it took someone explaining to me that the girls asking me where I had gotten my hat and saying ‘it looks like a Ralph Lauren’ actually meant it and were not just back-handedly making fun of me to even entertain the idea that people might like my appearance. That was my click moment where I understood that the bullies where gone and that the world was no longer out on a crusade to destroy my self-esteem, and I take both compliments and street harassment a lot better nowadays, but from anyone but my close friends it still engages the immediate ‘fight or flight’ response. As a way to make me feel better, compliments fail utterly and completely.

      2. John

        Likewise, when I’ve complimented women on their appearance, it’s been to boost their self-esteem; I’ve only done it when it looks like someone’s made a specific effort about her appearance — really, more of an acknowledgement that they’ve done so than anything else. And it would normally be to a friend. And likewise, these days I’ve generally stopped doing it anyway.

    2. John

      But I on the other hand, felt severely weirded out, to the point I didn’t want to go into the staff room.

      It sounds like a form of `phatic communication’ — when it appears in intensive forms I find it anywhere between irritating and terrifying. It has the form of communication but the role of social grooming (I tend to think of it in such terms as monkeys picking fleas off each other) and I think it can be very invasive of personal space. I’ve realized after further thought that when it seems that (quoting Keith’s post) “social graces are not going to be at their best” I probably expect to be more comfortable, because I find it embarrassing to do much talking about nothing. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. To me, this seems intuitively to tie up with appearance and expectations arising from experience.

      I now wonder whether this is a core part of the geek / non-geek divide: that geeks are typically comfortable when they know they won’t be expected to talk with no real content, and non-geeks are typically more comfortable when they know it’ll be alright to talk with no real content (e.g. when just starting in an environment in which they haven’t yet acquired the content)? (NB all generalizations are false!)

      I guess there might be some gender distinctions here, probably as to the topic used as the base for such conversation. Could it be that what Jen experienced was the [stereotypically] female equivalent of men talking about sports, for example?

      I know that small-talk techniques can be learnt, but for those to whom they don’t come naturally, it can be a relief to find a group of people who just look like they’re going to talk about `something interesting’.

      1. Helen Huntingdon

        That’s one of the things I like about hanging out with male engineers as opposed to other men — they can easily be deflected to topics I like to talk about instead of sports, since they can just as easily do the dominance/posturing/whatever bits with tech talk as with sports.

  7. attie

    I run the whole gamut from ‘dress-up doll’ to ‘yanked the last clean clothes from the bottom of the drawer, consisting of a faded college tee and some shorts that were originally a pyjama’ depending on my daily mood. I’m in academia, and I haven’t had any problems with it yet. The fact that no one ever comments on my clothes really helped to make me comfortable, and on ‘dress-up days’ I will sometimes bring up my clothes myself if I want to know what other people are thinking. (Mostly, they’re thinking “what, you actually bother checking that your two socks are the same?” but that’s another tangent.)

    The only situation where I find it totally OK to comment on my clothes is if I am wearing a t-shirt with a message, and you comment the message and not my appearance. For instance, if I am wearing a Germany jersey, you may say “Oh, sorry for your team’s loss” while pointing at my torso. If I am wearing a tee from some kind of franchise, you may say “Oh, I loved that Manga!”

    I also react better to neutral comments than to compliments. “Oh hey, you’re wearing all blue today!” will earn you a “Yeah, even my socks match, look!” whereas “That top really suits you” will put you straight in the why-are-you-looking-at-my-breasts-you-creeper corner.

    As for male attire, I don’t really care either way (unless you’re my boyfriend), but PLEASE PLEASE make sure that your t-shirt’s ironic slogan is not sexual in nature. I’ve run across a co-worker from a different department wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a bed and ‘I PULL OUT’ on it, and wow do I hope I never, ever see that person ever again.

  8. spz

    re appearance of men: if you just want to survive the work day, it doesn’t matter how well your clothes fit (clean and no unintended holes should do), but if you want to impress a woman to start a romantic relationship with you, successfully concealing any last shred of physical attractiveness may not be in your very best interest. :-P

  9. Helen Huntingdon

    The main reason I don’t want to hear comments on my appearance is sheer mind-numbing boredom. Five seconds of logical thought would make it clear to a guy that’s not a good approach — if you’ve heard my occupation, you know there have been a lot of years of me surrounded by lonely men, which should tell you that any compliment on my appearance that you come up with, I’ve already heard several dozen times, and I’m painfully bored with the whole topic.

    I mean really, if I don’t know you, why in heaven’s name would you think I would be remotely interested in what you think of my appearance? It makes no sense. It makes even less sense in a professional context even if I do know you.

    As for geek men needing to improve their appearance, I’m curious as to the context of the remarks that are being asked about. If you want someone to consider the possibility of being attracted to you, yeah, you need to clean up.

    When someone I don’t know well asks me on a date, during the asking and on that first date I’m well aware I can’t learn much about the person. It’s not hard to deceive just about anyone for that space of time. So by the end of it, the only thing I really know is, did they behave with respect? There are all kinds of ways to show a respect or lack of it to someone you don’t know. Clothing and grooming make one of them. If you ask someone for a chunk of their time, and then show a lack of respect for that time by turning up a mess, don’t expect them to take it well. They shouldn’t.

    By this point, it’s also painfully obvious to me when a guy zooms in on me based on how nicely put-together I am myself that day. If he looks all schlubby but tries to chat me up anyway, what runs through my mind is “flaming hypocrite — avoid at all costs”.

  10. John

    I’m interested to find that much of the commentary has been about male geek hygeine, as well as about remarks. I’d been wondering, when I asked the questions, whether there would be any comments suggesting dressing to hide one’s geekiness, and am quite relieved that there haven’t been any (yet!)
    But another strand of `appearance’ occurred to me over the weekend, as I was wearing a suit and tie for a formal social occasion, and that is posture — I realized that I was still in a tee-shirt posture, and quickly tried to remember filmed role models (on the spur of the moment I picked Daniel Craig’s performance as James Bond as the base for how to sit and stand in a suit; now I’m online again a quick Google search suggests he’s a fairly popular model for that). So, is the `geek slouch’ also offputting?

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