For as long as I can remember, my evening ritual has always been dedicated to picking out what I would wear the following day. When my brothers would grumble about how long I take to coordinate (not match) a pair of shoes with a handbag, or a striped shirt with tailored shorts, I’d often joke that it’s because I don’t simply wear clothes, but entire ensembles.
I love fashion. I love the unique stitch detail of a shirt that others may not notice. I love the elegance of a rose gold watch and how it seems to go with just about everything. I love how a great pair of shoes can upgrade an entire look. But most of all, I love really big earrings.
I have a collection of hoops that often encourage strangers to cautiously ask if I’m scared they’ll accidentally rip from my ears and shoulder-length Zulu-inspired earrings that look more suited for a gallery than my jewelry box. Nowadays it’s almost impossible for me to leave the house without a pair of earrings. I feel naked without them; emboldened with them. Likely because they embody a confident persona that I only began to embrace much later on in my teenage years.
The confidence I so proudly wear today was initially challenged when I arrived at university to pursue my degree in Molecular Biology. Naively, I believed being in university would offer me the freedom to live without explanation. In my mind, I would continue to be a top achiever, whilst inspiring my classmates with my fun sense of style. I had the wardrobe, the funky hair (long on top and shaved on the sides) and the geekiest, but stylish pair of glasses.
It was a soft but constant whisper: you can either be pretty or smart, but not both.
Not long into my studies, I realised that there was a common sentiment held with regards to girls who made a conscious effort about the way they looked –– be it their make-up or their hair style. The class, in general, assumed that these girls spent hours faffing in front of the mirror and not much time learning why steam burns were worse than liquid ones or the classification of unicellular organisms in biology. It was a soft but constant whisper: you can either be pretty or smart, but not both.
This ridiculous idea annoyed me. I recognized that neither of these two elements, “prettiness” or intellect, are mutually exclusive. But that did not stop others around me from reinforcing the stereotype that, by wearing the styles I was accustomed to, I was not presenting myself with the appropriate seriousness of a scientist. I was not conforming to the dated but deeply-embedded stereotype that held that scientists were way too busy and even above frivolities such as ‘looking pretty’.
To many, going against this norm only meant that well, I wasn’t really a scientist or at least a very serious one. Crazy as it may sound, the subliminal message was that the larger my earrings or the more attention I paid to my clothing, the less respect I deserved in my chosen field.
These “pretty politics” go beyond my struggles as a budding scientist desperate to take up space in a field that already looks down on people of my shade and gender. It extends to women everywhere who early on, are made to choose between looking good and being smart –– and hence taken seriously. Women who, like the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, have to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they look ‘too feminine’ because our society inherently views femininity and all that stems from it as degrading.
Yes, society is all too ready to assign labels and box people into narrow categories in general. However, there is significantly much more cultural weight when it’s done to women. Society holds that we are supposed to be everything to everyone at all times, but nothing to ourselves.
It’s been a tricky road to navigate but as a black woman who has to endure the variety of stereotypes daily and face condescension from society already, I confront the challenge head-on. I will not be forced to ‘dress down’ as if wearing a gorgeous lip color and floral dress somehow camouflages my intellect. It doesn’t.
As I embark on my Masters’ research in a few days, I’m already planning what I will wear on my first day of a class in the company of my much older colleagues. I’m not quite sure what that outfit will be as yet, but rest assured it won’t resemble a shrinking wallflower in the least.