The Importance of Appearance in a Visual Fandom

Sean Kleefeld has an intriguing post about how difficult it can be for women to pick the right outfit for a geek event:

they can’t dress too nice when going to a comic shop because then they get comments questioning their fan status. The whole “fake geek girl” bullshit. They can’t dress too slummy either because then they get mistaken for part of a bad crowd, and their fan status is questioned from the other direction. They also can’t show too much skin because there’s then the potential for being on the receiving end of generally sexist/misogynist behavior. They have to look pretty, but not too pretty, geeky but not too geeky, sexy but not too sexy… If they don’t hit the sweet spot right in the middle of all these disparate directions, they run into problems from the men present.

It’s a good point — although I wish Sean had gotten pictures or at least described the outfits they wound up wearing. (When you’re discussing fashion, we have to have some idea of the clothes!) Comic fandom, in particular, is based around visual culture. We’re taught to evaluate content by how it looks, so it makes sense that we’re factoring in a person’s appearance (not beauty, but how they choose to present themselves) when interacting with them.

Yet as he — and the women he talked with — points out, this can be an obstacle and an annoyance. I doubt guys pay as much attention to which t-shirt they’re wearing to the comic shop. It’s a time and attention penalty for the girls, taking effort that could be better enjoyed elsewhere, and getting it “wrong” has the chance of very unpleasant side effects.

I had a similar internal debate recently. My workplace, a software development group, is very casual when it comes to clothes, with jeans a staple. Most of the employees are male, and many wear shorts on days like yesterday, when it was over 80 degrees outside. I decided to wear shorts as well, for the very first time ever to work. (Previously, my jobs have either been not quite that casual or overly air-conditioned to the point where you wouldn’t want to.) But then I had to find a pair that was appropriate, by which I mean not too short. The guys just wear cargo shorts, but women’s come in different lengths, and two inches can make a lot of difference. It was nice to have the freedom to wear shorts, and I’m sure I was thinking about it more than anyone else I worked with, but it wasn’t an unencumbered privilege.

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