Clothes and geek feminism

I’ve been chewing over various things about clothing and geek feminism since our recent posts about clothing and grooming (Kylie’s, Terri’s first, Terri’s second). I still think I can’t address it satisfactorily, but I thought I’d lay out various angles in which we might think of clothing and grooming in geek feminism.


  • I refer to “geek women” a lot in this essay. All of these considerations apply to other people too in varying degrees, and sometimes more acutely. But given the nature of this blog I am focussing on geek women’s interests, and pressures on them.
  • This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of factors that figure into geek women’s grooming: it’s meant to be long enough to demonstrate that a lot of us have to care about it. Undoubtedly it is a somewhat privileged list too. You are welcome to raise additions in comments.

Clothing as labour. The vast majority of the clothing the vast majority of people reading this wear is made in factories in the developing world, by people working in dangerous and exploitative positions.

Grooming as make-work. Naomi Wolf, for one, made this argument in The Beauty Myth, that consuming women with endless grooming related chores and insecurities is a method of oppression. (I am barely read in feminist or cultural theory, undoubtedly hundreds of names could be listed here as having addressed aspects of this.) laughingrat raised this in our comments.

Clothing and grooming as geek interest. Some geeks take a geek-style (intense, analytical, open-ended, consuming) interest in various aspects of clothing and grooming. As examples of how you might do this, there are a lot of knitting geeks; there are historical recreation geeks who make and wear period clothing using period technology; there are people who study the semiotics and sociology of fashion.

Clothing as geek in-group marker and grooming as rejection of the mainstream. John writes in Terri’s comments that someone well-groomed in mainstream corporate style can be assumed to [be] trying to cover for a lack of competence in technical matters — or really want to be a suit. You often can’t, in this framing, be a geek and a suit both. You have to choose, and advertise this with your grooming.

Within geekdom, clothing is sometimes a pretty unsubtle marker of your allegiances. What cons do you go to? What programming languages do you prefer? What comics do you read? You wear shirts that allow this to be determined on first acquaintance. (This isn’t unique to geekdom of course, see also fashion labels and band t-shirts.)

Avoiding overtly female-marked grooming. Women in male-dominated workplaces often desperately want to avoid anything that might cause them to be (even more) othered because of their gender, especially since caring about grooming is frequently trivialised.

This may need to be balanced by expectations in some groups these same women move in by choice or necessity in which interest in grooming is required.

Grooming in order to own/celebrate your gender. This is important to many trans people. Conversely to the above about avoiding overt gender marking, quite a few geek women also choose to do this in order to point out that there are women RIGHT HERE in geekdom who can bring the geek.

Grooming as a marker of striving to “fit in” generally. If you have unusual grooming, or grooming that is marked as “other” or of a lesser group, people with power over you will read this as likely to be trouble or not one of us. Conversely, dressing like those people, or like their other subordinates, signals will do what it takes to fit in, won’t make waves.

Unusual grooming as marker of power. Alternatively, if you have power over other people, you can mark this by unusual grooming, or grooming usually disdained. Ingrid Jakobsen raised this in comments.

Grooming as marker of a ‘healthy, competent’ woman. For women especially, being groomed and striving to meet beauty standards is considered an informal indicator of mental health. Being considered poorly groomed or lazy about grooming can invite assumptions about being depressed or similar. (This is especially othering of women who do have mental illnesses, who continually receive the message that they shouldn’t have them, mustn’t display them, and will be in big trouble if they do, all while they quite probably have less energy to deal with the whole mess.)

And of course, a privileged woman might get annoying concerned questions, whereas a less privileged women might find, for example, that assumptions about her mental health play into questions about her ‘fitness’ have access to society, to care for her children and so on.

Grooming for self-esteem. Partly due to internalisation of the above, many women in particular feel happier, more confident and more powerful when they’re “well groomed” by mainstream standards.

Grooming which others female bodies. See the thing about conference t-shirts. Many don’t cater for curvy bodies. If they do, they often cater only for small curvy bodies. And they almost always assume a gender binary of curvy women who want curvy shirts, and square men who want square shirts.

Sexualised grooming. Women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as to be conventionally attractive.

Overly sexual grooming. At the same time as needing to be attractive, women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as not to be “asking for it”. (There is, of course, no middle-ground, see Rape Culture 101.)

Grooming for fun. Geek women may enjoy applying shiny, bright, matching, creative or cherished clothes and decoration to their bodies.

Grooming to get things done. Geek women may need to lift things, fit clothing to a prosthetic or mobility assistance device, run, avoid having a baby pull painfully at their hair, all kinds of stuff.

There are a great many intersectional things I have not addressed here, as a white, wealthy, abled cis-woman. A very very incomplete list would be: considerations about grooming to match your gender identity, considerations about grooming to satisfy people policing your gender identity, minimising grooming in order to preserve your spoons, grooming to honour and be part of your ethnic identity, grooming to meet beauty standards designed for white bodies and white faces, trying to find cheap clothes that won’t be judged in job interviews.

This huge list is just a set of things you could possibly be trying to signal or adhere to or avoid with your grooming. Hopefully this illustrates some of the tensions for geek women: for example, they are called upon to dress in both the feminine, careful style that signals “healthy and competent” but also in the masculine-coded casual style coded as “knows what the hell she’s talking about when it comes to [say] science” and also in something that won’t get them hassled as being unattractive in the street but also not hassled as too attractive…

I hope this has helped break down grooming and clothing as a geek feminist issue, or rather, massively multidimensional tightrope, a bit more. When women, and members of other marginalised and othered groups, consider their appearance, these are the kind of factors that go into it. Of course, in order to be accepted as geeks, we’re supposed to do all that and not care about clothes, right?

13 thoughts on “Clothes and geek feminism

  1. Alice

    Looking forward to seeing further discussion of these points. There are a few double-binds here:
    Sexualised grooming vs Overly sexual grooming: Look hot, but not too hot.
    Avoiding overtly female-marked grooming vs Grooming in order to own/celebrate your gender: Does one accept the impossible challenge of “fitting in” in a male-dominated workplace, by striving to obliterate (or at least downplay) being a woman, or be overtly female to combat the general invisibility of women in tech?

    The reactions to the Computer Engineer Barbie announcement, funnily enough, somewhat echo these double binds: “… Barbie’s look may be somewhat off the mark” (in terms of Barbie’s outfit being seen as ‘impractical’ or (as I read it) too feminine for an engineer), and “Computer Engineer Barbie is, like most (if not all) Barbies, wearing high heels, which seems a ridiculously uncomfortable shoe choice for a job where nobody really cares what you’re wearing so long as it’s decent” (ha ha)
    vs “Say, is that a Tokyoflash watch? You’re hipper than I thought you were! Kidding — look at yourself. You’re wearing a binary shirt with circuit board sleeves.” (I’d recommend against reading the comments on that one.)

  2. Meg Thornton

    Grooming doesn’t just cover the eternally vexed issue of clothing.

    I’m female, nearly forty, fat, and I have pale skin and dark hair. This includes facial hair, and as I get closer and closer to menopause, I’m finding more and more of this is coming in bristly, long, and coarse. Given I’ve had a long-term rejection of the whole “beauty myth” thing (mostly along the lines of “I don’t want to be part of a club which doesn’t want me as a member” – see “fat” above) I tend not to spend large amounts of time on self-grooming for everyday. I don’t wear makeup, I dress for comfort, I don’t shave my arms or legs, and most of the time I don’t bother with anything more than dealing with the worst and most obvious examples of facial bristlyness. The most I do is groom the hair on my head (and these days, that tends to be either a plait or a bun – very much set and forget). Mix in the depression with this, and what tends to happen is that as my mood gets steadily worse each cycle, I do less and less about the facial hair… to the point where I’ll have to go somewhere or meet someone, when there’s a mini-orgy of plucking to get things down to a level where it’s passable as “acceptably feminine”.

    Every single time, I wind up wondering whether I shouldn’t just give in and buy a razor and start shaving on a regular basis. Every single time, I end up in a resentful, irritated discussion with myself about why the hell I’m doing this, and why I’m putting myself through so much inconvenience and annoyance on a regular basis. Every single time I’m tempted to just ignore the whole mess, and see whether someone comments. And every single time, despite all of this, I wind up spending about twenty minutes hunched over the magnifying mirror (and wondering why nobody’s ever invented a counter which is at a convenient height to prevent me from winding up with a crick in my back as a result) plucking out the most egregious offenders, and swearing at the fact that I’m female.

  3. Lea

    I have a bunch of ability-related grooming issues, which tend to wax and wane like anything else disease-related. At one point, I could only wear skirts or pants that were very wide and flexible, because I had to have access to my knees to constantly adjust my elastic bandages. Right now, I’m cutting my hair, which I swore I’d never do, because brushing it actively hurts some days. Shoes are a kettle of fish best not got into; classically feminine shoes are verboten even if I felt inclined towards them.

  4. Restructure!

    What a great, geeky list of angles on the issue.

    My default is “Grooming to get things done” (or “utilitarian” clothing) which is linked in my mind to “clothing that I can afford or already have so that I don’t have to buy new clothes”. However, “utilitarian” clothing is also linked to “Grooming as a marker of striving to fit in” (conformity), which, in geek communities, is conforming to not wearing suits (which is ironically perceived as “grooming as rejection of the mainstream” for geeks). An example of the no-suit geek uniform being oppressive is when I run out of clean regular laundry but I have some clean business-like clothes hanging in the closet (for interviews and other special occasions) and I have to decide between looking like a suit (bad only because it makes you look non-geek and I’m already female); wearing the other non-preferred irregular clothing (too small, uncomfortable, etc.); and considering (re)wearing the unwashed clothing items.

  5. Erika

    Wow, now that you lay it all out like that… no wonder “I just wear sweats and whatever’s clean(-ish)” is at the top of my list of why it’s awesome to work from home.

    Freelancing is hard, but at least it lets me opt out of the grooming minefield. It’s nice to be able to spend that mental energy on, like, WORK.

  6. deborah

    This is a really good list of all the complications, why we need to worry and why we mustn’t worry and why worrying won’t help us. I wanted to throw in one brief example of disability-based grooming problems: I have to carry incredibly dorky looking bags because of my disability, and I know I look ridiculous walking around, and I know I don’t look like a professional.

    There’s a reason I’m wearing a microphone in my little avatar; I’m trying to reclaim the way my disability forces me to dress as something that’s about grooming and choice. Just as my glasses (adaptive technology I use 100% of my waking hours) are stylish and hip, I’ve been trying to turn the microphone that I wear about 50% of my waking hours into part of my personal style. It’s not easy, though.

    1. Mary Post author

      Thanks for providing a reference on that.

      A note in general (not aimed at Erik in particular): references to “having spoons”, “saving spoons”, “managing spoons” etc are specific to the way disabled people managed their energy budget given both additional difficulties society places on them by being inaccessible and any energy demands from their impairment. It’s not a term for abled people’s hassles with their energy budget due to over-commitment, caretaking, shift work, etc.

      1. jac

        I understand that the “spoons” shorthand is reserved for people with disabilities, but I am hazy about the way people are defined as qualifying to use the term. For example, at what point does an otherwise able bodied person’s chronic exhaustion, illness and depression which has been brought on by years of over-commitment, caretaking and work rate as a disability? Who gets to make that call?

        1. Mary Post author

          Disability activists rely on self-identification, so, the person themselves does.

          The objection to using “spoons” I’ve seen is by people who explicitly affirm that they don’t identify as disabled, but still want to use spoons as a metaphor for their energy budget. I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t identify as disabled by virtue of exhaustion due to these factors and I’m really sorry it came across that way, I can see the ambiguoity.

          I meant to say that if you don’t identify as disabled, disabled people protest about the use of “spoons” by you, even if encountering energy budget problem like those given. I didn’t mean to say that energy budget problems like those can’t be disabling for some people.

  7. John


    I think that “Clothing and grooming as geek interest” and “Grooming for fun” are probably instantly recognized and welcomed by other geeks as acceptably geeky, and very distinct from “Grooming for status”.

    Possibly “Quirky grooming” helps with combining being geeky and groomed? For example, there’s only one woman in the Krav Maga self-defence classes I go to, and she’s always immaculately and elaborately made-up, but no-one takes her fighting ability any less seriously for it; there’s nothing about metallic green eyeshadow, for example, that diminishes her obvious skills at several fighting styles.

    1. Mary Post author

      I intended this post more as an analysis post than a howto post. “Quirky grooming” might allow some women to satisfy the different constraints of ‘passing’ as both a geek and whatever parts of this list she needs/wants to satisfy.

      But the point of this is that there are a lot of constraints on a particular person’s dress, that she* herself probably doesn’t break down all the time and that onlookers certainly can’t. Do you know if the ‘suit’ wants to break into management, or if her family and friends growing up repeatedly told her she was lazy and ugly unless she dressed like that**, or if she’s trans and doesn’t want to dress just like she did when she presented as a gender that wasn’t hers, or if she’s found that unless she dresses immaculately (by mainstream definitions) no one takes her disabled non-white self seriously? Or some combination of the above or something else entirely?

      This post is intended to illustrate why you can’t know that, not unless you are her. Hence, extending the list of acceptable geek outfits to include non-mainstream eyeshadow colour choices isn’t really where this post is going.

      * Pronoun chosen because we’re talking about women here. But people who use different pronouns also have to negotiate this.

      ** Social norms aren’t always enforced subtly.

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