Re-post: Clothes and geek feminism

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 20th June 2010.

I’ve been chewing over various things about clothing and geek feminism since our recent posts about clothing and grooming (Kylie’s, Terri’s first, Terri’s second). I still think I can’t address it satisfactorily, but I thought I’d lay out various angles in which we might think of clothing and grooming in geek feminism.

Notes:

  • I refer to “geek women” a lot in this essay. All of these considerations apply to other people too in varying degrees, and sometimes more acutely. But given the nature of this blog I am focussing on geek women’s interests, and pressures on them.
  • This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of factors that figure into geek women’s grooming: it’s meant to be long enough to demonstrate that a lot of us have to care about it. Undoubtedly it is a somewhat privileged list too. You are welcome to raise additions in comments.

Clothing as labour. The vast majority of the clothing the vast majority of people reading this wear is made in factories in the developing world, by people working in dangerous and exploitative positions.

Grooming as make-work. Naomi Wolf, for one, made this argument in The Beauty Myth, that consuming women with endless grooming related chores and insecurities is a method of oppression. (I am barely read in feminist or cultural theory, undoubtedly hundreds of names could be listed here as having addressed aspects of this.) laughingrat raised this in our comments.

Clothing and grooming as geek interest. Some geeks take a geek-style (intense, analytical, open-ended, consuming) interest in various aspects of clothing and grooming. As examples of how you might do this, there are a lot of knitting geeks; there are historical recreation geeks who make and wear period clothing using period technology; there are people who study the semiotics and sociology of fashion.

Clothing as geek in-group marker and grooming as rejection of the mainstream. John writes in Terri’s comments that someone well-groomed in mainstream corporate style can be assumed to [be] trying to cover for a lack of competence in technical matters — or really want to be a suit. You often can’t, in this framing, be a geek and a suit both. You have to choose, and advertise this with your grooming.

Within geekdom, clothing is sometimes a pretty unsubtle marker of your allegiances. What cons do you go to? What programming languages do you prefer? What comics do you read? You wear shirts that allow this to be determined on first acquaintance. (This isn’t unique to geekdom of course, see also fashion labels and band t-shirts.)

Avoiding overtly female-marked grooming. Women in male-dominated workplaces often desperately want to avoid anything that might cause them to be (even more) othered because of their gender, especially since caring about grooming is frequently trivialised.

This may need to be balanced by expectations in some groups these same women move in by choice or necessity in which interest in grooming is required.

Grooming in order to own/celebrate your gender. This is important to many trans people. Conversely to the above about avoiding overt gender marking, quite a few geek women also choose to do this in order to point out that there are women RIGHT HERE in geekdom who can bring the geek.

Grooming as a marker of striving to “fit in” generally. If you have unusual grooming, or grooming that is marked as “other” or of a lesser group, people with power over you will read this as likely to be trouble or not one of us. Conversely, dressing like those people, or like their other subordinates, signals will do what it takes to fit in, won’t make waves.

Unusual grooming as marker of power. Alternatively, if you have power over other people, you can mark this by unusual grooming, or grooming usually disdained. Ingrid Jakobsen raised this in comments.

Grooming as marker of a ‘healthy, competent’ woman. For women especially, being groomed and striving to meet beauty standards is considered an informal indicator of mental health. Being considered poorly groomed or lazy about grooming can invite assumptions about being depressed or similar. (This is especially othering of women who do have mental illnesses, who continually receive the message that they shouldn’t have them, mustn’t display them, and will be in big trouble if they do, all while they quite probably have less energy to deal with the whole mess.)

And of course, a privileged woman might get annoying concerned questions, whereas a less privileged women might find, for example, that assumptions about her mental health play into questions about her ‘fitness’ have access to society, to care for her children and so on.

Grooming for self-esteem. Partly due to internalisation of the above, many women in particular feel happier, more confident and more powerful when they’re “well groomed” by mainstream standards.

Grooming which others female bodies. See the thing about conference t-shirts. Many don’t cater for curvy bodies. If they do, they often cater only for small curvy bodies. And they almost always assume a gender binary of curvy women who want curvy shirts, and square men who want square shirts.

Sexualised grooming. Women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as to be conventionally attractive.

Overly sexual grooming. At the same time as needing to be attractive, women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as not to be “asking for it”. (There is, of course, no middle-ground, see Rape Culture 101.)

Grooming for fun. Geek women may enjoy applying shiny, bright, matching, creative or cherished clothes and decoration to their bodies.

Grooming to get things done. Geek women may need to lift things, fit clothing to a prosthetic or mobility assistance device, run, avoid having a baby pull painfully at their hair, all kinds of stuff.

There are a great many intersectional things I have not addressed here, as a white, wealthy, abled cis-woman. A very very incomplete list would be: considerations about grooming to match your gender identity, considerations about grooming to satisfy people policing your gender identity, minimising grooming in order to preserve your spoons, grooming to honour and be part of your ethnic identity, grooming to meet beauty standards designed for white bodies and white faces, trying to find cheap clothes that won’t be judged in job interviews.

This huge list is just a set of things you could possibly be trying to signal or adhere to or avoid with your grooming. Hopefully this illustrates some of the tensions for geek women: for example, they are called upon to dress in both the feminine, careful style that signals “healthy and competent” but also in the masculine-coded casual style coded as “knows what the hell she’s talking about when it comes to [say] science” and also in something that won’t get them hassled as being unattractive in the street but also not hassled as too attractive…

I hope this has helped break down grooming and clothing as a geek feminist issue, or rather, massively multidimensional tightrope, a bit more. When women, and members of other marginalised and othered groups, consider their appearance, these are the kind of factors that go into it. Of course, in order to be accepted as geeks, we’re supposed to do all that and not care about clothes, right?

5 thoughts on “Re-post: Clothes and geek feminism

    1. Mary Post author

      Sorry, spoons is jargon used by people with disabilities. It means an energy unit, essentially. It comes from this article: But You Don’t Look Sick.

      Thus, in this context, someone might choose clothes carefully if they can, for minimum fuss and pain putting them on.

      1. Adelene

        ‘Spoons’ are also used in reference to other limitations besides physical ones. For example, someone might choose clothing to minimize the mental spoons lost to sensory issues that can vary from day to day, or arrange their wardrobe so that any top plus any bottom makes an outfit, to avoid having to spend spoons on figuring out what to wear.

  1. Rick

    For those who may not have found out about it yet, a recent development since the original post: Sarah Dopp is trying to start a peer-to-peer market for gender-variant clothing:

    Not a store where I sell to you, but a service like Etsy and Ebay where we sell to each other, in a focused, supportive community. And while we’re at it, we also trade all sorts of tips and inspirations on how best to look the way we want, gender-be-damned.

    You know what I’m talking about. Tuxes for hips and breasts. Size 16 extra-wide high heels. Custom alterations, custom orders, custom tailoring. Hot unisex indie designer labels. Hand-made t-shirts. That awesome skirt from your closet that doesn’t fit you anymore. A good chest binder. That amazing jacket you found at a thrift store for $5 that you want to resell. And while we’re at it, let’s bring in styles from every subculture that celebrates androgyny, which is pretty much all of them.

    More: Gender Playful Marketplace

  2. Erika

    Thought provoking as usual! I have been considering a lot of these issues recently as I experiment with some grooming-related social engineering.

    Never having worn makeup in my life, I decided to start wearing a basic lip stain* when I went out in public. I’m surprised at the markedly more positive reactions I get. It’s clear that a woman wearing lipstick/lip stain “belongs” in a way that a completely un-made-up woman does not.

    Even if I’m wearing sweats and battered sneakers, it seems that people are a lot more cordial and friendly**. My theory is that a woman wearing lipstick and sweats is perceived as dressing down, whereas a woman wearing no lipstick and sweats is perceived as just a slob.

    * It’s like lipstick without the yuck. Basically a Sharpie for your lips. I chose a brownish color, which I have been advised is widely considered the default color.

    ** Confirmation bias, self-reported, caveat caveat etc.

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