[photo "Nikki" by Susan kae Grant]
When I was younger, all I wanted was to be pretty.
Mother looks at me, concerned: Are you sick?
No, I say. I just don’t have makeup on.
All day she is suspicious.
At the Women in Business conference in the tiny rural town of our college, Autumn and I, new advisors to the American Association of University Women, are proud of the seven young women who wanted to come.
Our school is the most diverse school in the state in the poorest county in the state, so we are always excited for opportunities like this to reach us.
Each speaker tells the same narrative: some college, marriage, children, and then, finally, pursuing their dormant dreams in their 40s or 50s.
One explains that she had the choice between going on a dig in Israel or getting married, and she chose to marry.
I have heard these stories before. They’re completely valid, but our group, to say the least, is not the appropriate audience. I try not to be angry. The students ask questions and engage just the same. I, seven years their senior, doodle in my notebook.
After the session ends, Autumn and I wait patiently for our students to ask questions or put leftover cheese and fruit into a cup for the road.
The conference leader approaches us, grinning: Are you two students?
We laugh. We get this a lot. No, we’re actually professors.
She says, perhaps too quickly: Well, you’re so pretty. No one would even know.
Google “professor.” Just for a moment, consider a wardrobe change.
Male Student says, You put effort in today, with a sly smile.
I chew on that comment for weeks.
There is an older student that roams my hall during my lunch break. He wears very short running shorts and tank tops. He has offered to carry a box and held the door open. These things do not bother me, but he always starts or ends a conversation this way: Always happy to help a pretty girl or It’s an honor to be around such a pretty girl. If it’s my colleague Sara and I scrambling to lunch, he comments, Great to be in the company of such pretty girls.
Last week, he knocks on my cracked office door. He asks to borrow a stapler. When he gets out his folder, I note that all the other documents inside are already stapled. He stands very close to my desk and my arms in his very short shorts. He spends too long there. He makes another one of his pretty girl comments.
Sara keeps her office door locked, even when she’s in it. I’m considering doing the same.
Every young female professor I’ve spoken to has a horror story in every direction—navigating desire and disgust—BAE and bitch. There’s rarely an in-between.
The conference leader meant it as a compliment. She did not mean to make us both boil with concern that she is the head of an important women’s organization at the state level.
She meant it as a compliment, but it was not a compliment.
I dream I dye my hair gray to become more respected, but even that is a trend now.
It’s weird to admit that I want to be pretty—want to be attractive, fit, desirable—but pretty does not hold that power I thought it did. I thought that I wouldn’t have to try so hard, and everyone would listen to me—that there would be some great undeniable ethos associated with presentation of the body and the brain.
No matter the intentions, the arms fold against the torso. The whole body becomes smaller. Sometimes, we are not prepared for battle.