What a scientist should look like

June 17, 2019 | Alyssa R.


“Let us choose for ourselves our path in life,
and let us try to strew that path with flowers.”
– Emilie du Chatelet, Physicist

I love dresses and bows, face masks and makeup.

When I get ready for a day in lab, I avoid it all.

It’s my first semester at MIT, and I wear a skirt nearly every day. I alternate my long hair between chic buns, French braids, and flowing freely — as I have my whole life. Slowly, as I become accustomed to my group, my work, and my building, I realize I am the only one. I am the only one in a skirt. I am the only one with long hair. I am the only one who doesn’t adhere to the uniform of unwashed jeans, unwashed face, a t-shirt, and fraying tennis shoes.

It’s easy to spiral to a long list of “only one” statements from this point.

A month into my PhD, I stop painting my nails.

I can’t help but feel like I have a billboard on my shoulders shouting, “THIS IS A WOMAN. SHE IS DIFFERENT THAN YOU.” Dressing femininely amplifies that shout. The fact that I am the only woman who has been admitted to my graduate program in the last two years (a badge of honor or a mistake?) amplifies that shout.

In November, I chop off my hair. “I’ve always wanted to,” I say. Maybe there’s another motive.

I notice my free time becoming more masculine. If I’m not in lab, Quantum Mechanics, or Statistical Mechanics, I’m on the climbing wall measuring forearm strength, bruising knees, and ripping skin.

I enjoy growing in knowledge and physical strength, but I wonder about the conspicuous lack of my old past-times. I haven’t been fusion dancing in months. I don’t know enough ladies to have a proper Ladies’ Night.

It’s the end of my first spring in Boston, and I wear one of the same two pairs of jeans every day.

My metamorphosis is so expectable that even I laugh. I know that I’m acting out society’s belief that feminine qualities are inferior to masculine qualities. These old tropes are held deep in our minds. By shying away from my gender identity, I help confirm the stereotype that only masculine people are respectable physicists.

I understand why I hesitate to present myself femininely. My brain believes masculinity gives me an advantage in how others treat me. I’m a new graduate student, and I haven’t yet “proven” myself. For now, and until I complete my course requirements and qualifying exam, most people around me have only first impressions to draw from. My brain micromanages my presentation to avoid gendered expectations and stereotypes.

This doesn’t bother me until I remember the women who will follow in my footsteps. I think specifically about the woman who will join my lab in the fall. I know nothing about her, but I tense at the potential that she won’t feel comfortable being herself. By avoiding who I am, I’m certainly not making the path easier for her.

Tonight, I’m going to paint my nails.

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