The Scientist and the Make-Over

Jan 11 2011 Published by under Fashion (or not), Professionalism

Yesterday I continued my commitment to exercise by walking on our treadmill. The device resides near our big-screen TV with video recorder, so I can distract myself with the television while burning calories. My favorite show? TLC's What Not To Wear (WNTW).

For those of you unfamiliar with WNTW, the hosts (Stacy London and Clinton Kelly) make-over a fashion victim nominated by friends and family after secretly videoing the person for two weeks. If the victim agrees to throw out their wardrobe and shop by Stacy and Clinton's rules, they get $5,000 to spend on a new wardrobe. They also get their hair and make-up professionally done. Many of the victims have serious issues with body image to deal with. The most common victims include the barely-dressed bimbo and the frumpy mom.

Yesterday, I watched the dynamic duo take on a scientist!


Lizzie looks like she is ready to hike at all times (see before shot). She studies algae science and biofuels. Her career stage remains a bit unclear, but based on what her work friends said, she is finishing a post-doc and getting ready to enter the job market.

During the wardrobe review, her "conference presentation" outfit included black slacks, a button-down oxford shirt, and a mis-matched cardigan.

So what happened? First, everything she owned entered the trash (it's a symbolic trash can; they donate wearable clothing to charity). Much of the discussion focused on appearance in our society. Is celebrating beauty or caring about your appearance superficial, a sign of a weak mind? Or is it a realistic component of being successful? After all, people make judgments based on appearance; if you want to be a faculty member or an industry professional, you may get farther if you dress the part!


Lizzie ended up with a great suit paired with conservative, stacked mid-height heels. Her "after" wardrobe included tops and pants to get her through labs and lectures, and a few dressy pieces for those events in life.  Losing all her geeky message tees makes me a bit sad; they could have left her 2 or 3 for hiking! Ted Gibson pulled her wavy hair straight during the blow-out; while the style looks lovely and professional, I suspect something more wash-and-wear might be in the cards as Lizzie evolves her personal look in the coming months.

Women in science often feel that they are one of the boys; if they look attractive, they will not be taken seriously. Looking at the two photos of this scientist, I suspect the opposite to be true.

I also believe a message gets out to girls that interest in science and math are incompatible with pretty. A friend recalls shopping for new eye-wear and hearing a teenage girl squeal, "I can't wear these glasses; they make me look like a scientist!" Clearly, scientists would never pick out cute, attractive frames. For some girls, this is a deal-breaker. They like clothes and being pretty, and they are not willing to sacrifice those interests for a career in science. I would argue that the drive to ornament one's body and be attractive runs deep; after all, beads turn up at very old archaeological sites. Do we really want to fight this drive, or embrace it?

I'm not saying that women MUST dress in the latest fashions, but they CAN do so without sacrificing their other talents. There is room in science for women in platform heels as well as hiking boots. Mascara has never been demonstrated to reduce IQ!

15 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    Her before conference wear is..unfortunate.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I am very sad too about throwing out all the geeky message tees. You don't need to look elegant all the time. Giving a presentation, sure. But, what if you ARE going hiking, or working on your car? What about down days just hanging about at home? Sweat pants and T-shirts have a place in life.

    Hell, the 2 years I telecommuted, a bathrobe was work clothes for me...

    • WhizBANG! says:

      I, too, have a shelf of goofy tees for the treadmill and painting and laundry days and those days I just want to hang out on the sofa in sweats.
      "No Ion... It's a palindrome." Must admit, I never thought I would have heard that on national television!


  • Kaija says:

    I still remember going to one of my first conferences as a new grad student and being struck by an Italian woman who not only gave a very good research talk but exuded a sense of real style, from her professional conference wear that was fashionable and not frumpy to the way she carried herself with confidence. I thought "THAT is what I want to be like when I grow up" 🙂 There's lots of room for appropriate yet professional dress in academia outside of the "I'm wearing this boxy suit with hair in a bun and trying pass as a middle aged white man as much as possible" blandness.

  • FrauTech says:

    Yeah, but hasn't anyone faced the reverse? Where dress too stylishly and you aren't taken seriously scientifically? I'm on a project for school for a government organization and what they don't know is I work at a business casual location in addition to being a student. Occasionally I wear heels. I'm comfortable enough in them I can hoof around the shops at work if I need to or I wouldn't wear them. But we were visiting one of the government group's locations for a larger tour and I remember the representative saying sort of critically "wear comfortable shoes" and sort of looking at me, wondering why he always saw me dressed more professionally and impractically. As in, as an engineering student I was overdressing or looking too ambitious. That's the definite vibe I got there. That's not even stepping into all the dress inequality where I work.

    • WhizBANG! says:

      I personally have not experienced that sort of thing, but having MD after my name makes people expect me to dress up a bit more than the sciencey folk I hang with most of the time.
      In general, dressing professionally isn't a problem in my environment. It's only when you head down the bimbo/stripper pathway that you experience "the looks."

      Other engineering types out there have experience with this?

  • She cleans up pretty well, agree w/Bashir on the pre-makeover conference attire.

  • Kate says:

    Wow, that is one schlumpy suit. While the young scientist in question could have done far, far better with her original outfits (am I dating myself to think that a tucked in shirt might look better for a presentation outfit, she was heading towards a real style of her own. Plain, classic, undecorated... and what's wrong with that? Couldn't those weird fashion geeks have found her some lovely, soft slacks and a nice professional sweater under a jacket or something? Jeez. She looks a LOT more comfortable in pants.

    • WhizBANG! says:

      If you click through to the "evening look" on the TLC site, you'll see her looking very comfortable in a dress. The clothes she got were mostly slacks, jackets, and cardigans.

      I like WNTW because the victims must pick out their clothes, and they end up looking like themselves, only better. I wouldn't have gone with that particular suit, but Lizzie did. I think the jacket will look great paired with some solid trousers and an unfussy top.

  • FrauTech says:

    Haha you called them victims.

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