One of the stereotypes about scientists is that they (we) all look like slobs. Think about your stereotypical nerd image (yes, I know not everyone fits a stereotype, but they do exist for a reason): clunky glasses, slacks that seem to defy gravity to be worn miles above the natural waist, tattered tshirt, exposed tube socks rising out of a pair of white comfort sneakers designed for old men with arthritis…
Chem majors in general aren’t an especially well-dressed bunch. And perhaps it’s because we don’t really have to be. We spend much of our time in the lab hiding under lab coats. And it’s not practical to wear nice clothes in the lab anyways. Safety regulations require close-toed shoes, and recommend against shorts/skirts – any exposed skin is seen as an opportunity for injury. And nice clothes don’t often stay that way for long. Often, chemists can be distinguished by the holes in the fronts of their shirts right around waist level (where the torso comes in contact with the edge of fume hood/lab bench when you’re not paying attention and lean in too far).
Occasionally I receive complements for being well dressed, but with subtly judgmental undertones – whether or not they are intended. “Well, don’t you look fancy today.” “Are you wearing real leather/silk/cashmere?” “What are you dressed up for? Are you going out somewhere?” While I appreciate compliments just as much as the next person, compared to the hipster-chic architects, or preppy designer-label sporting business majors, I would classify myself “not-a-slob” at best. I avoid sweatpants, sweatshirts, and sneakers (which makes a surprisingly noticeable difference). I do simple and low maintenance, comfortable yet put together, not so much super-trendy and fashionable. Basically, I’m not an especially well dressed Cornell student, but I’m a fairly well-dressed chemistry major. And people notice, if not always in a good way. Sometimes I feel like I’m being judged for the amount of time and effort I put into maintaining my appearance, or at least I feel consciously over-dressed when I walk into a chem class or the chem undergrad lounge wearing makeup or something ‘nice.’ And maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
It’s like scientists shouldn’t care about “superficial” things like appearance. They’re above it. Sometimes it almost becomes a point of pride. If you have time to go shopping on the weekend, or to put on lipstick and mascara in the morning, clearly you’re using your time for the wrong things. The girl who matched her scarf to her dress can’t be taken as seriously as the girl with the math olympiad tshirt. A manicured appearance gives off signals of “shallow” and “superficial” rather than “professional.”
However, I believe that physical appearance is a valid form of self-expression, and that it does have an effect on others’ opinion of you. Yes, the professional awards you’ve won or papers you’ve published should more than speak for themselves, but when you meet someone, especially for the first time, you notice what they wear – how they choose to present themselves. When I dress well, it’s because I care what others think of me. While I do want my academic achievements to take precedence, I’ll take all the help I can get in making a good impression.
And then there are various lesser reasons why I want to look good. Vanity (I won’t deny it). An acknowledgement of my current youth and my mortality. I’m 20. I won’t always look this good, why not take advantage of it? And then, especially on days when I know I’m going to be super-busy, knowing that I look put-together means I have one fewer thing to worry about.
I’m not advocating that everyone should go and buy out the J. Crew catalogue; a nice wristwatch, a well-fitted pair of dark jeans, and a chic wool peacoat all make subtle but not unnoticed statements themselves. You don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to make yourself presentable. And please, if you’re going to comment on the fact that my nail polish has changed colors 3 times in the last week, your next question had better be “Where did you buy that sparkly black one? It’s really pretty,” not “How the hell do you have time to do your nails so often? Don’t you have better things to do with your life?”