If You're a Female Teacher, Chances Are Your Outfit Is Being Judged

Schools across the country are letting out for the summer, and that raw palpable energy reminds me of my time teaching English to middle schoolers, particularly in the early days of my career. At my first job interview, I handed my résumé  to the principal, hoping that he’d comment on my accomplishments, my experience, or even my 4.0 GPA.

Instead, he asked some generic questions about why I was inspired to teach. I answered him, noticing that while I was talking he was staring intently at my hair — a botched ombre I was already self-conscious about. I first cried when the hair colorist showed me a mirror, but on a teacher assistant’s minimum-wage salary, I couldn’t afford a fix before my interview.

I wasn't wrong to feel self-conscious — instead of responding to my career ambitions, the principal told me that if given the job, I would need to color my hair back to its natural dark shade. He explained that I was going to be a role model to the young middle schoolers looking at me each day, and that “included appearing refined.”

He hired me, but that wasn’t the last time I heard something about my appearance. A few months later, that very same principal sent the school secretary running after me down the corridor with a sweater in her hands. The sweater was meant to cover exposed skin a few inches south of my neck — not cleavage, just my décolletage. After that, I felt like my appearance was constantly under scrutiny — and over the years, I’ve realized that I’m not the only one.

Regulation and judgment of teachers’ appearances happens around the world and in all types of schools—public, private, and charter. And while it’s nothing new for women (especially women of color) to be  judged for their appearance at work, women in the education field are hit with criticism from all angles, including from their students, administration, and parents. Communities online are overflowing with teachers commiserating about being told they were too cheerful, or needed to smile more; they wore too much or too little makeup to be taken seriously; they’re too short, too pregnant-looking; and chastised for allowing their shoulders to show.

A 2018 study published in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics found that female educators face gender bias and are more likely to receive appearance-based comments than their male counterparts. Professors Kristina M.W. Mitchell and Jonathan Martin, who teach at Texas Tech University, authored this study. They looked at students’ formal evaluations of professors (which universities often use to make decisions about a professor’s tenure, promotion, and salary) as well as reviews that appeared on Ratemyprofessors.com, and found that “students tend to comment on a woman’s appearance and personality far more often than a man’s.” On Rate My Professors, 11 percent the students surveyed commented on Mitchell’s appearance, and seven percent commented on her perceived incompetence. None commented on Martin’s appearance or incompetence. Mitchell and Martin had starkly different evaluations, even though they taught the same courses using the same syllabus and assessments.

“Women are evaluated on a different set of criteria,” Mitchell tells me. “We’re not on a level playing field because the criteria used to judge us isn’t even the same.” Mitchell also says that gender bias and appearance-based commentary from students can apply to teachers in primary, elementary, and secondary grade levels, not just to university professors.

Take, for example, comments that are shared on Teacher Misery, an anonymous Instagram account that allows grade school teachers to vent about the many challenges associated with their profession. In one email posted to Teacher Misery, a principal admonishes a teacher for "coming to work with hickies on multiple occasions.” What motivated this email? A middle school student had accused the teacher of showing up to the classroom with a hickey on her neck. The student’s parent found out about the alleged hickey, and reported it to the principal. The teacher was mortified, having to explain to her boss that her very sensitive skin sometimes becomes inflamed and red.

The creator of Teacher Misery, a high school English teacher who goes by the pseudonym Jane Morris, posed the question on her feed: “What are some outrageous comments about your appearance [that] you [have] gotten from students, parents, admin…?” Hundreds of teachers responded.

“Admin told me ‘I didn’t look happy enough’ walking in the hallways…and that’s unprofessional,” noted one commenter. Many others nodded their heads in virtual commiseration. “I was told that I’m too negative-looking and that I need to smile more,” another wrote. Others were told that they appear too cheerful. “I got feedback from student evaluations that I…smile too much in class.”

Some criticism even calls into question a teacher’s professional capabilities.

“I once had a parent request their child be removed out of my class because I had tattoos, so I must be a bad teacher,” wrote one commenter.  Another added “I was told that I was too short to be taken seriously as a teacher.” Young teachers are often asked to make conscious efforts to look older, to lend themselves a respectable level of gravitas in the eyes of parents and students. One Teacher Misery follower wrote that when she was a student-teacher, a principal told her,  “If you just wear some makeup, parents will take you seriously,” while another was told to “tone down” her makeup by setting aside the maroon lipstick she favored.

Sometimes the sexism is even more palpable. “A male student-teacher wore a Hawaiian T-shirt unbuttoned to his nipples every single day. He never had a single comment,” writes one teacher. “The one day it was super hot in school…I took my little sweater off, I got told off for showing my shoulders.”

There is plenty of criticism targeted toward teachers’ specific body parts, too. One commenter said “a seventh grade student told me that I needed to use some Shake Weights like his mom, because my arms were flabby, and they jiggled when I wrote on the board.” Another woman wrote that a colleague suggested that she get a breast reduction because her breasts might be “distracting” for kindergartners.

Morris, who has also authored Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes & Other Bullshit, bore the brunt of appearance-based comments from students when she was pregnant. She even has a chapter in her book titled “Your Ass is Getting Huge and Other Things Kids Said to Me When I Was Pregnant.” Some of these comments from her high school students include: “You must be having a girl, because when it’s a boy it sticks out like a basketball, but when it’s a girl you just get fat all over,” and “Are you afraid to have that baby? It’s gonna, like, destroy your vag!”  

And Morris believes that a subconscious gender bias can explain why students are more likely to cross a female teacher’s boundaries than a male’s. While teaching is viewed by many as a historically feminine profession, students and parents seem to inadvertently trust and believe in men doing this job more.

“As far as how kids see us, they subconsciously respect men more, and the bigger, more masculine teachers definitely have fewer behavior problems,” Morris tells me. “For women on the other hand, no matter how deep and commanding our voices are, it just doesn't have the same effect.”

Dr. Nadia Lopez is the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the education consultant behind The Lopez Effect, a teaching methodology that she says helps bring success to students in the classroom. As a teacher, Dr. Lopez was used to hearing inappropriate comments — but even in her executive position as a school principal, it still happens. A parent once approached her to tell her that she looked “too young” to be a principal. Dr. Lopez also recognizes that a male colleague would be less likely to receive a remark like that. “Male teachers are considered firm and seen as disciplinarians,” she tells me.

Other educators I’ve spoken with acknowledge that students’ inappropriate comments toward teachers could be a recent problem. Reminiscing about her past, the teacher behind Instagram meme account TeacherWayofLife says, “When I was growing up, I surely would not have asked my fifth grade teacher who had a PhD why she hasn’t gotten a haircut recently or whether or not she had a gym membership.”

But times have changed.

“Students nowadays…seem to have no limits when it comes to judgment and blurting out exactly what is on their mind.”  But unlike Morris and Lopez, the anonymous educator behind TeacherWayofLife does not attribute these comments to subconscious gender bias. Instead, she says that all teachers, regardless of gender, are susceptible to inappropriate treatment. “I’ve seen both males and females receive the wrath of student’s rude comments,” she continued. “The only people who remain vulnerable are the ones who feed into the questioning and humor their students with defensive answers.” Instead she wonders whether the “openness of social media” in all of its oversharing and trolling glory could be to blame.

Parents, and, in some cases, administration, must be aware of this appearance-based commentary. They can and should be role models for students who may not be aware of gender biases toward teachers. And even simply being aware of gender biases can help to mitigate them, according to a study that was published last week in PLOS ONE.

In the meantime, let the teachers you know enjoy sweet freedom this summer — from grading work, from planning lessons, and from fielding inappropriate comments about what shirt they’re wearing or how pregnant they look. Summer will be over before you know it, and for better or worse, all eyes will return to the front of the classroom. 

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