The letters after my name grant me a small selection of inferior superpowers. Cheaper car insurance. Better tables at restaurants. And the ability to go to very important meetings dressed quite casually.
In the land of animal behaviour and welfare, we don’t really do suits. This week I met the CEO of a very well known animal welfare charity in jeans and a shirt. I met a Board of Trustees in a summer dress. And in all four of the meetings I had this week I didn’t wear make up once (which I possibly should have done because stress spots are popping up on my nose).
The thing is, my colleagues complimented me on looking smart, and we all commiserated with one another about how we don’t own smart clothes. It’s just not in our nature. Oh sure we can look nice, but we’re not good at smart.
When you start at Glasgow Uni, at least back in the early noughties, you had an initial meeting with an advisor. Mine was a lovely microbiologist named Ailsa who wore amber jewellery and beautiful silk scarves. I sat in her office with three other students and clutched my maps of the campus on my lap. One by one she asked us what we planned to do our Honours in, all the time telling us that we could change our course right up until fourth year. Most people never took the Honours they started with, according to her.
What was I planning on? Zoology. She laughed when she heard and told me to buy a woolly jumper. “That’s what we call the zoology lot. The Woolly Jumpers.”
I still think that should be the name of my band. In the zoology museum of the University of Glasgow there was a truly staggering array of woolly jumpers. There’s also a lot of handmade jewellery, a lot of interesting tattoos in unusual places, and people trying soap hair shampoo from Lush.
I tried the soap hair shampoo from Lush. I have thick, dark hair that feels greasy within hours of washing. I used the soap shampoo. I tried the no-shampoo at all approach. I tried the compromise ‘natural type’ shampoos from Lush. I tried the shampoos from the independent little sellers in the studenty areas of Glasgow. In the end I went back to the shampoo that comes in plastic bottles. Greasy hair triumphed over my ethical concerns.
Working with animals and in the fields that I do, vanity becomes a very strange thing. How can you take pride in your appearance when you wear a pair of mucky overalls and steel toecapped boots? Is it appropriate to wear a summery skirt to the office if you might have to jump to the farm? Sometimes you can pay the price for a little bit of style. Once I was rocking a chunky knit jumper over a denim mini skirt one day when I had to pop to our beef unit. I slung some overalls over the top and completely forgot I had hiked the miniskirt up to do so. When we’d finished I was animatedly chatting to colleagues while stripping from the overalls, miniskirt still around my waist.
I have half a dozen little fashion faux pas to mention. Like the undergraduate student of mine who used to move cows with one great dangling earring (she only ever had one – it was when I realised I was no longer ‘down with the kids’), or the time I decided to wear a smart skirt to a conference and ended up sitting in a non-air conditioned lecture theatre sweating through a dry-clean only skirt beside a very important gentleman from another well respected animal welfare charity. Or the time I accidentally wore a top that had very large arm holes and exhibited my bright red bra to my brand new workplace. Or the time I was sitting in my supervisor’s office and pulled a swan louse from my hair. I could go on.
I’m not sure we make it easy on ourselves either. Most of us were the weird kids at school who wanted to know why home economics didn’t use free range eggs, or cried because they missed their dog when they were at camp. All our lives we learned how to pride ourselves in our differences, and I think there’s an element of that pride which tempts us to reject the more classical notions of ‘looking good’.
If you think I’m tarring the good name of scientists unfairly here, I can count two incidences in the past few months where scientist friends of mine have outright criticised or expressed shock at some basic sartorial choices I’ve made (basic in the dictionary, rather than the Tyra sense). At a sushi restaurant, I defended an £80 hairdressers bill to some of my very good friends who laughed at my expense while we all ordered a strange dessert we knew we wouldn’t like just to taste it. At tea break, a month or so later, some colleagues broke off on a discussion about how much they’d spent on their bikes to ask me how I could justify what I’d paid for a Shellac manicure.
In our field we place terribly arbitrary values on what’s considered appropriate. It’s fine to order tempura battered ice cream just to try it (don’t, it was disgusting), but it’s eyebrow raising to have nice nails for a few weeks. We will happily turn up to a meeting that could hold the key to millions of pounds worth of funding in a pair of jeans, but we wonder why the world thinks scientists are scatter brained and odd balls.
My superpower is the power of not needing to care about my appearance. But like all good superheroes, sometimes I try to hide my power. Sometimes I like to look good. Sometimes I like to retro it up, or blow out my hair, or get Shellac, all because I can.
And if you like a little bit of Fluffy Fashion in your life sometime, may I recommend one of the most stylish women I know who launched her Etsy store last week. HauteDog Couture is a geeky, handmade collection of dog collars and other pet accessories. It’s a new store, just starting out, but Armita is one of my favourite people and is a demon with a seam ripper, so check her out!