Quick links: Breaking Election Invest Bitcoin Syria North Korea Hot clicks Scandal Topless
www.paywallnews.com Only News Behind Paywalls
New York Times / Life - Entertain

How I Learned to Look Believable

Sometimes all you can control is what’s on the outside.

Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Jason LeCras for The New York Times

On the morning of March 31, 2016, I put on a pair of Gap jeans (the ones without holes); a beige silky top I’d bought at the Gap outlet in Sedona, Ariz., where I had briefly lived; and a short-waisted gray zip-up jacket. I parted my hair on the right, as I always do, and put it up in a messy bun. I never wear makeup, so I also didn’t wear makeup. Later, of course, I would wear makeup. I was on my way to deliver an 11-page account of sexual harassment by my former graduate school adviser. I wanted to look good. I also wanted to look credible.

For going on TV, make sure to show as little skin as possible by wearing a conservative black turtleneck. These worn-in loafers also demonstrate your lack of camera-readiness, and therefore your reliable honesty. Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Over the course of the last year and a half, since filing that report, I have been asked to participate in a number of legal, semi-legal and legal-adjacent events. Among the processes that can be involved when a person files a sexual harassment complaint in an academic setting are the following: investigation interviews with a Title IX coordinator; appearances at school-sponsored forums where a person may hide in the back while attempting to keep her heart rate manageable as she listens to lots of powerful people proudly talking about what a great job they’re doing despite the person making accusations hearing nothing from any of them and quite frankly having no idea what’s going on; newspaper photo shoots; television appearances; short impromptu speeches in front of a crowd of fellow students who had just learned their professor was accused of sexual harassment; meetings with a lawyer; meetings with the lawyer’s partner lawyer; meetings with a number of lawyers, some of whom may be moderately annoyed with you; meetings with the department chair, who will refuse to speak to you for inexplicable reasons; and, finally and perhaps most important, six hours in front of a group of faculty who will watch, calmly, as you are excoriated. As your emails are read out loud to you, with a special emphasis on your use of exclamation points. As you are asked, triumphantly, about that time in your early 20s that you dated someone older than you.

Over the last year and a half, I have needed a lot of outfits. I have also needed to be consistent. I have needed to be ready, at every moment, to be seen as both a poverty-stricken graduate student and a reliable adult. As an accuser, I need to be a news-team-ready correspondent and someone who certainly wasn’t doing this for the limelight. I didn’t know any of this when I started. I learned this all on the full-time job that is being an objector to sexual harassment in America.

Don’t wear this flower-patterned Banana Republic skirt with a top that shows a little midriff; the combination of Georgia O’Keeffe symbolism and skin would be a little too much. Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Some of what I learned to wear I learned on my own, by thinking to myself about what I needed to exhibit. Some of it — you must always put your hair up and never show any skin — came from a politically savvy friend. She is the reason I’m wearing a black turtleneck on four news shows. I refused to be photographed at home, or sitting down. I wanted to project strength, and also a kind of neutrality.

But at the time, I just wanted to be credible. Strong. I didn’t want to look like what I imagined a victim looks like. I didn’t want to look so downtrodden that I would look obsessed with being a victim, as it was suggested. I didn’t want to look so feminine and girlish that I wouldn’t be taken seriously; I’d seen the way young-looking women are treated. And yet, I didn’t want to look too aggressive, too much like a “rabble-rouser” with an “agenda.” Of course I had been cautioned about that.

For that photo shoot I wore the same jacket that I wore to report. I did try to expand my wardrobe, going to J. Crew the day before the shoot. Saying, in the shop, “I need something that looks like I’m destroying the patriarchy,” didn’t lead us in a lot of helpful directions, and, besides, I didn’t want to wear a blazer — particularly not a freshly pressed new one. That would make me look like a rich person, not a beleaguered graduate student. It has been important to show that I am but a simple lowly student. It takes a measure of hapless powerlessness.

I have not been as powerless behind the scenes. When I realized the university wasn’t doing anything on its own, I hired a lawyer to help exert a little pressure. The first time I met with her, I wore orange suede J. Crew loafers. My friend Jessie Conradi came with me. She’s a lawyer, too; she was also wearing loafers. We took a picture of our shoes, posted it to Instagram and tagged it “loafers of justice.”

One of the things that’s been most challenging is the confidentiality that a legal proceeding requires. When I couldn’t outright say what I was doing, I could at least post loafer pics. I also wanted to show my lawyer that, hey, I might be crushed under the weight of the patriarchy but I can also be, you know, fun. I’d seen too much skepticism around victims. Felt the ripple in the air when a woman starts telling her story. Sure, we might believe that she’s been harassed. But the later effects of being harassed, the subtler, more insidious and downstream effects — the way in which I started to wonder who was with me and who was against me; the lack of trust I could feel myself developing for almost everyone I encountered in the halls of my former department; the shame I felt at being told that my former cohort had mostly abandoned my cause; my double shame at using words like “shame” and “abandon” — are the forces my clothing is fighting against.

Definitely do not wear this Banana Republic cocktail dress on TV or anywhere on campus; the neckline, the body-hugging stretch and the length bring it a shade too close to “overtly sexy,” and you always want to stay “just plausibly sexy enough to look like you could have been harassed but 100 percent weren’t asking for it.” Jason LeCras for The New York Times

When I filed my complaint, I had already been through a life-threatening, and public, illness. Being a sexual harassment complainant felt, often, like just too much. No wonder I wanted to seem like the coolest cucumber in town.

I learned many things about the law, one of which is that there comes a time where a case may move to litigation, or not! Sometimes that decision comes as a collective choice. On a Thursday night in October, after meeting with my lawyer and going over my experiences, I stopped at the Westfield Center in San Francisco. Michael Kors, first — I got my purse there, and I believe it makes me look like a real grown-up. I walked in, ignoring the studded fur vests, and was asked if I needed help.

I hadn’t really learned from my J. Crew experience and tried a similar opening gambit. “I need something that will help bring the patriarchy down,” I said. The helpful salesperson pointed me in the direction of a tight black knee-length dress, dotted with metallic studs. “Maybe for after, when it’s all done,” I said.

I tried the same line at Club Monaco, where I found better reception. “I need something that’ll make me look credible, but not superrich,” I said. I hoped I wasn’t insulting the place (I grew up in Canada, home of the original store; I’m incapable of insulting it). My vaguely enthusiastic interlocutor — I wish I could have told her more, but the law prevented me — brought me a pair of black dress pants that were short enough to work on my actually kind of short legs and a gray V-neck sweater with black blocks on the sleeves. The gray and black were just exciting enough to say, “Hey, I’m a person with personality!” The black pants were just professional enough to show that I was taking things seriously.

“These’ll work,” I said to her. At home, I added a white collared shirt — Banana Republic — underneath and then, to show that I hadn’t been completely subjugated by the deafening silence in the aftermath of the initial investigation’s completion, my Banana Republic polka-dot loafers. After years of being a J. Crew-only girl, I’d both turned 35 and realized that Banana Republic was actually where it’s at.

You know where else it’s at? The Alexander Wang bootees with rose gold that I bought for myself at the beginning of the semester, when I knew it would be a tough couple of quasi-legal months. They were my Wonder Woman-inspired boots, my “I can do this” boots. They were the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for myself, and that includes my wedding dress. Yet I’ve mostly left them in my closet. I wish that we lived in a world where I could both wear high-heeled gold-detailed boots and be utterly reliable and credible, but the patriarchy is still too strong. Talk about a narrow path to victory.

The right outfit for recounting your experiences in front of assorted lawyer types. The well-fitting Theory blazer, white collar and gray sweater makes you look like someone who takes these proceedings seriously. Jason LeCras for The New York Times

The coup de grâce, though, was in November. The protocol for sexual harassment cases at the University of California, Berkeley that are found to have violated the faculty code of conduct is that the defendant is charged with a sanction. This can include dismissal. This happens after the completion of first a Title IX investigation and then an internal investigation. Then comes a letter from the vice provost, followed by multiple opportunities for settling or a variety of face-saving resignations, including that of Geoff Marcy, a Berkeley astronomy professor.

This is all outlined in the very helpful Academic Senate manual, which I have read many times in an effort to find the answers that no one employed by the university will give me. It is my understanding that these hearings are basically like courtrooms — where the plaintiff is the administration and the defendant is the accused. When the University of California professor Blake Wentworth was fired, it was after an Academic Senate committee hearing.

I can’t say whether I participated in such a hearing, but I can say that on the morning of Nov. 2 I carefully showered, sprayed my hair with leave-in conditioner, put on my VPL-free underwear I’d bought the year before at Uniqlo, put on those same Club Monaco dress pants, and took the black and gray sweater out of its drawer.

But what shirt? The day before, as seems to be habit, I’d gone to Anthropologie and Madewell in Berkeley. Anthropologie didn’t find me any clothes, though I did buy a $7 sea salt bath bar and four face masks. (It’s good to have pearly bright skin if you’re ever in a position where your credibility may be at stake.) At Madewell, I bought a short-sleeved gray flannel collared shirt and a black button-down printed with gold stars. I obviously wanted to wear the star shirt — if nothing else, this experience has brought me face to face with my own brightness — but it was too bulky for the sweater. And you know what they say about harassment victims with visible shirttails: They’re lying.

The wrong outfit. The star shirt is delightful but distracting. The metallic Michael Kors sneakers make you look more like a fun person out for a Mall of America hike than a speaker of truth to power. Jason LeCras for The New York Times

I played it relatively safe and went with a classic, a purple checked J. Crew shirt I’d bought years before; I discovered, once I posted it on Instagram for something else, that it’s known as #thatjcrewshirt. And, again, those polka-dot loafers.

That day I recounted my history as a drug addict, something I’m very open about but seems never to fail to entertain at least some lawyers; I recalled within earshot of a group of assorted faculty that yes, I had brought my husband home with me the night I first met him, and I was glad that I’d chosen the clothes I had. I was glad that I’d put my hair up in a low bun, that I’d carefully parted it to the side. I was glad that I had my perfectly fitting, $169.50-but-on-sale-for-$99 Club Monaco pants, and I was also glad that my shirt collar was a little wrinkly. It showed that I’m not a perfect victim.

I’m not even very good at performing being a perfect victim. We don’t always know exactly what to say and how to be, we don’t really get a lot of training for how we should act, and we’re figuring this out as we go along, and we have done things before and will do things again later that don’t fit perfectly into a narrative. Mostly, it shows that we are not a tide of anonymous women making allegations, that we are not interchangeable.

My own legal case was settled in December of last year, but the disciplinary case with the university continues. As I write this, I’m wearing black jeans, a denim shirt, a gray cashmere sweater and a denim jacket. If you could see me now, do you think you would believe me?

This is a great everyday outfit for those campus days when you have no idea whom you might run into. The double denim is relatable and approachable, the shoes just this side of professional, and the high-necked Michael Kors top provides almost as much coverage as a turtleneck. Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Eva Hagberg Fisher is a writer, educator and Ph.D. candidate in California.

Photos by Jason LeCras for The New York Times. Produced by Danny DeBelius and Rumsey Taylor.

Photos by Jason LeCras for The New York Times. Produced by Danny DeBelius and Rumsey Taylor.