“You don’t look like a tromp-around-in-the-woods type.”
It was 2012, and after four years in an Environmental Studies undergraduate program and a few summers spent in various eco-jobs, I was more than familiar with the expected look. Luckily, the boy commenting was a cute prospective graduate student from Washington D.C. at my grad school interview weekend and not, say, my future advisor who was about to hire me to “tromp around in the woods.”
Some might say ecologists have no style (see: sandals with socks), but I disagree. The prototypical ecologist has a lot of style, you just won’t find it in next month’s Vogue. What my fashion-forward Aunt would call “crunchy granola” is a style all its own, and its perfect balance of practicality, environmental sustainability, and feminism seems to render it irresistible to nearly everyone whose résumé once started with “summer field technician.”
Picture this: Chaco sandals, maybe hiking boots, cargo pockets, and oversized button-down shirts (so good for the field, why not wear them all the time?). Skirts must be flowy. Hair and face natural. Jewelry, scarves, and other accessories are acceptable, but should be purchased from the local craft fair or your super-cool international field site (definitely not from the mall). Actually, nothing from the mall unless it’s from REI or another outdoor outfitter. Bonus points if everything you own is from the thrift store.
Let’s be clear that I’m not bashing this style in any way—it’s just not my style. On Halloween, I dressed up as an ecologist since it’s such a deviation from my norm. I giggled at my reflection all day.
The best part of ecologist fashion is the mindset behind it. Millions of young girls in America grow up learning they have to be skinny and pretty to valuable, but more and more people aren’t having it. Gone are the days where June Cleaver exists to vacuum her living room in heels and pearls. That’s the best. Ladies, throw out your uncomfortable shoes and makeup. Who run the world? Girls!
Nobody at work (i.e. ecologists) even noticed my ecologist Halloween costume. And I’m thankful. Nobody cares what I wear to work, because that’s not what I’m there for. (Although a few commented that I "didn't look well" or "looked tired." Thanks a lot, guys. Fellow mascara-wearers will understand.)
The ecologist-feminist view turns ugly when not conforming to Pinterest’s fashion expectations which becomes, itself, an expectation. What happens, then, to the women who still like to wear makeup? Do you lose your feminist cred if you put effort into your appearance?
I have literally felt guilty for shaving my legs. I whitened my teeth recently and actively tried not to tell anyone at work. Science tries hard to make itself welcoming for women, but in a crowd that leans toward non-conformism, it's hard to find your place if you don't conform. To the non-conformism.
I recently visited the first ecologist I ever worked for, who happens to be a close friend, rockstar human, and a really stylish lady. She’s new enough at her current job that she’s still trying to establish a good reputation. We attended a smattering of her work functions, from field tours to a formal dinner. I never knew what to wear. Neither did she. As she put it, “what do I wear to be sure I can be taken seriously as a field biologist without losing my Meg style?”
I didn’t know the answer. I thought back to when I got dolled up for my oral comprehensive exams, an obvious choice given the confidence boost that looking nice had always given me. When I showed up to my exam, it occurred to me that my female committee members might actually judge me more harshly because of my girly appearance. Intelligent people can’t possibly care about their looks, right? Maybe you should’ve studied more instead of curling your hair this morning, eh Anna?
The obvious and cliché message I could share now is to always be yourself and not care what other people think of you. But that’s hard advice to follow when some of those other people are in control of, for instance, deciding whether you pass your dissertation defense, get the job, or otherwise advance in your field ecologist career. It's hard when your appearance is something you could change easily.
It can be uncomfortable to be the odd one out. Even when "people like you"-- whatever this means to you-- aren't directly turned away, you're less likely to stay in a career, a job, heck even at a restaurant if you don't fit in.
There are a lot of women in science now, but as far as I can tell, there aren't a lot of different types of women in science now. How many smart girls leave science because they look around and don't see any people like them?
A version of this article was originally published here and was reprinted with permission.
Anna Groves is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, studying the restoration of native prairie landscapes. She loves telling anyone who will listen about science, nature, and her experiences in this weird place we call grad school. As she writes her dissertation, she procrastinates by looking for jobs in science communication and science policy, singing soprano in the Lansing Women's Chorus, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and planning to go running tomorrow.