“But you look so well!”: (Un)professionalizing chronic pain through academic dress


As an academic with fibromyalgia, a non-apparent chronic pain disorder of unknown etiology, I dress to manage both the pain of wearing clothes and students’ and colleagues’ perception of my pain behaviors. My dress practices often complicate the performance of academic professionalism, as I wear sweatshirts, racerback T-shirts, gendered form-fitting clothes, and blouses accented with hardware, mesh, leather, and cutouts that reveal my tattoos, as well as conservative attire. I select my outfits for comfort, temperature regulation, and feelings of adequacy and competency, but the queer punk or sporty style associated with many of my clothes (Hebdige, 1979; Toffoletti et al., 2018) conflicts with norms of academic dress. I visibly become a deviant body in multiple ways: The game of academia, in which “good” players acquire capital by performing the rules by which that capital is attained, stigmatizes nonconforming dress practices implicitly and concretely. The scandalized sidelong glances of an old white man department chair. The white woman colleague who takes me aside as a kindness to say students are paying for a professional education, not instructors who teach in loungewear or biker clothes. A white woman department chair informing me that students will be distracted by my tattoos. Two white men at two different conferences asking if I was a dominatrix. Reminders by senior colleagues, men and women alike, that regardless of my disability status, professional academics are the ones who abide by an implicit dress code.

I dress to strategically modulate my pain awareness and associated feelings of competence, toughness, and acuity, and to triage sensations so I can better perform my academic duties. Irritating at best, agonizing at worst, workplace clothing for the fibromyalgic academic is—unlike makeup, shoes, jewelry, or hairstyle, all of which can be changed or removed over the course of the day—a commitment made in the morning that can only be minimally altered while at work. That said, body modifications impinge on how many layers can be removed, and clothes that suffice in the classroom might form an inappropriate identificatory narrative in a department meeting or at an academic conference. Skin exposure and clothing style must generally respect the careful boundaries drawn by the professoriate around gender, race, sexuality, and ability, focusing attention on the mind and not the body, on Western dispositions and not international cultural meanings, on a felt presence that is sexless and defanged.

My clothing assemblages must serve as a disciplinary self-fashioning that most suitably encodes “academic identity” (Devereaux et al., 2009, p. 3), with the least amount of pain and with an aesthetic that imbues me with a sense of postfeminist empowerment (Donaghue, 2017) and that creates bodily sensations that distract me from pain. Additionally, pain being intersubjective and affectively contagious (Morris, 1998; Halttunen, 1995), my clothing doubles as your protection. My disorder may not be infectious but its affective intensities are, provoking spectatorial sympathy or mirror pain in viewers and reminding them of their own corporeality.

Ultimately, I argue that the academic performance of embodiment is detrimentally preoccupied with disappearing bodies, particularly non-normative ones. For the fibromyalgic academic, whose body can’t be dismissed, campus sartorial practices must be inflected to accommodate nomadic intensities and reframe colleagues perception of chronic pain and brain fog as trivial and surmountable, not debilitating, discrediting stigmas. My dress practices contend that the life of the mind does not erase the body, that academic dress codes are never neutral or universally applicable, that the embodiment of stigma is practically as well as aesthetically motivated, and that legibility through clothes has pedagogical value.

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