"Teacher Spice": What should an artist in academia look like? Not like me, I've learned

I've heard comments about my appearance from fellow writers throughout my career, and I know exactly what they mean

Published April 14, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Woman with a pink dress and turquoise heels (Getty Images/YuriF)
Woman with a pink dress and turquoise heels (Getty Images/YuriF)

"You don’t look like an artist" is a dismissal I've heard since my 20s, when I first entered a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. It was actually the first thing anyone said to me, at the sign-in table for new students. When I gave my name to collect a lanyard and information folder, the person laughed. “You don’t look like an artist.”

I still remember what I was wearing that day because I had put such nervous and excited care into the decision: a navy-blue sheath dress from a consignment shop and gray suede wedge heels. For me, as I know is the case for many first-generation students from working-class backgrounds, school is serious business. The clothes that I’d carefully chosen reflected that attitude. Compared to the other new students, I realized, I was both overdressed and plain, but I’d wanted to look professional. Later in the day, another student would mistake me for an office worker and ask me where to collect their keys.

From my appearance — which is in many ways traditionally feminine — fellow writers have often come to a reductive conclusion: If I don’t look like an artist, then I must not be one. While this appearance-based assumption followed me throughout graduate school, nothing could have prepared me for how it would negatively impact my experiences as a new professor. Though many members of my graduate cohort would revise their assumptions after getting to know me, this has largely not been the case with faculty colleagues throughout my career.

For me, as I know is the case for many first-generation students from working-class backgrounds, school is serious business. The clothes that I’d carefully chosen reflected that attitude.

To me, it should be obvious that physical presentation is in no way a reliable indicator of artistic ability. The question of what an artist is supposed to look like, is, I think, a silly one, but because of the ways it has shaped my experience, it's one I’ve posed to myself as many times as I’ve told anxious students there is no “correct way” to be a writer — which is to say a lot. Like a lot.

Having considered this question across my years in the field, I believe the answer has to do with how one’s appearance can be used to code an individual, suggesting their memberships and alliances. Researchers in the social sciences have long recognized that people intuitively make assumptions about others based on their style of dress — often defaulting to unfair and unflattering stereotypes. In our current socio-political moment of exceptional division, distrust and anger, I now believe that my appearance allows miscoding. It can tell a story about me that I do not mean to tell, one that, in the fiercely liberal space of academia, inaccurately aligns me with conservative values. In my professional capacity, meeting a person for the first time, having not exchanged more than names, I am overlaid with a story that is dependent on assumptions about my identity, appearance and beliefs.

I am, of course, not alone in my traditionally feminine appearance activating a critique that spirals outward to encompass assumptions about political views and values. We see it in the controversy surrounding TIME’s decision to name Taylor Swift their 2023 Person of the Year. Though the magazine made a point to cite the unquestionable impact of Swift’s music globally, the millions of dollars she has donated to food banks and cancer research, and her rise from teen songwriter to international superstar, I have seen many responses that are mocking and dismissive. For some, Swift’s physical presentation and personality activate genuine vitriol. Opinion pieces describe her as “pleasant” and mean it as a dig. None of this is to say that Swift is undeserving of criticism, or has never been a bad actor, and it is unquestionable that she exists in a bubble of privilege. Rather, I am interested in how frequently critiques rely on elements of Swift’s appearance to insinuate that she is mediocre, unintelligent, and insincere. For two years, "Taylor Swift" was the nickname given to me by a small group of colleagues and graduate students, a shorthand evoking whiteness, blandness, a lack of intelligence, and the absence of any real artistic ability. I know that they believed I was too dumb to understand the insult. The truth is that I refused to escalate by responding. 

"Taylor Swift" is not the only name-calling I’ve experienced as an artist in higher education. A senior professor — a person I barely knew — used to call me “Teacher Spice” (as in, the lost Spice Girl), and regularly commented on my clothes and shoes. For a semester, we taught back-to-back in the same classroom, and they would wait as their class filed out and mine filed in, cracking jokes about what I was wearing that day. If not enough to establish a pattern — Taylor Swift, Teacher Spice — there is certainly a relationship between these two nicknames: pop, unserious, frivolously feminine. Several years ago, a group of students I had not interacted with went to a colleague to express their distress at my “tradwife style.” Thirdhand accounts are inevitably distorted, but I was told the students believed working with me would be unsafe. For all of our well-being, we decided this group should not be forced to interact with me, and they were not. The next cohort of students — who got to know me through the experience of taking a class with me — took no issue. We are, in fact, quite close. There is mutual respect and care.

Taylor Swift, Teacher Spice — there is certainly a relationship between these two nicknames: pop, unserious, frivolously feminine.

While I’m certain that people miscode me because of my appearance, I’m also sure that my somewhat traditional femininity would invite less negative attention if I were traditionally attractive. 2023 was the year of "Barbie," and the film brought a renewed awareness that the hyper femme can still be feminist. While "Barbie" received fair criticism for her proximity to girlboss-style white feminism, we more generally watched as women around the world — even those who consider themselves quite progressive — enthusiastically donned heels and pink dresses to pose in the Barbie Box at theaters and celebrate the undeniable beauty of Margot Robbie. For a moment, the traditionally attractive woman could be admired for her smarts and savvy.  But just as I don’t “look like an artist,” I don’t look like a Barbie. Though my presentation is traditionally feminine, I’m five foot one, wear a size twelve, have curly hair that tends to frizz, and sport a gap in my teeth. The sudden acceptance of Barbie was not an acceptance of me.

Part of the reason that I dress as I do is a matter of practicality. Yes, I’m short. Yes, I’m chubby. I’m also a 36 DD. I do not carry my weight “well.” My proportions make finding pants difficult. A blouse is nearly impossible. This is the reality of living in my body. Dresses spare me a daily struggle to clothe myself in a way that is both comfortable and professional. Besides that, my students regularly tower above me, and I can only reach halfway up the whiteboard. Truthfully, heels give me just a little bit of lift, and I feel more confident in them. It’s a boost I need.

The secondary reason I dress as I do is just as personal. I grew up working class, wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. When I started school, I was teased mercilessly for being “poor” and looking like a “boy.” Neither of these things is shameful to me, but that said, even as a child, I was attracted to what I called “pretty dresses.” Having worked so hard for my career as an artist and educator, the clothes I wear are now a gift to myself.

I love teaching, but my job as a professor — surrounded by artists and intellectuals — has obliterated my self-confidence. For years, I avoided publicity for any of my books. I rarely did events. I turned opportunities down. I did this because any positive attention for my work has consistently translated into attacks on my person. Now, I am trying to reclaim myself. I know I am a good teacher; I put my heart into the work. I know I am a good writer; I put my heart into the work. Despite years of bullying and belittlement, I have stayed in this profession because I believe education can positively change lives. I also believe that, at their core, those who choose to work in education, including the majority of my students and colleagues, are fundamentally good. Among their number are people I am grateful to know and feel lucky to work with. I just wish that the few who judge me on my appearance would make the effort to learn who I am instead.

By Jenny Irish

Jenny Irish is an associate professor of creative writing and author of "Lupine," "Tooth Box," "I Am Faithful," "Common Ancestor" and "Hatch."

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