When I first came to Large Urban University, my first full-time faculty position, I was routinely irritated by people insisting "you don't look like a professor" or "you're not old enough to have a PhD." I was 30, and that felt plenty old enough to be treated as a full-fledged adult. It is true that our campus enrolls a large percentage of adult students, and so the difference between faculty and students in terms of age is less pronounced than it might be on other campuses. But I was hearing this not from my students, who were more curious than insulting, but from clerks at the library, at the bank when I opened my checking account, etc. And of course after I indicated my age or proved my faculty status (2 forms of ID and 2 phone calls were necessary to get my faculty parking tag) then I'd be told "well, you'll be grateful when you're older that you look young." Does that excuse rudeness now? Hardly.
In addition to being chronologically younger than all of my colleagues, even the "young" cohort, it was also the case that I had a different look. It's not hard to appear hip or stylish in academia, when you consider what you're being compared to.
So, at the end of my first year, I was asked to lunch by one of my senior colleagues, a woman whose extremely business-like approach to the profession is matched by her Talbots wardrobe -- neat tailored dresses, pearls, that sort of thing. We were discussing a graduate student who'd been having trouble on the market -- he'd get interviews, but never get past that stage. I'd done a mock interview with him, and could see that his embittered attitude and lethargic affect basically ruined his chances with potential colleagues. Plus his hygiene wasn't the best. So Professor B. and I are discussing Student X and I told her what I had told him about trying to improve his body language and appearance for the interviews.
Professor B: Oh, I'm so glad you talked to him about his scraggly hair. I'd wanted to, but I thought he'd take it the wrong way.
Professor B: You know, I'm so bourgeois. And you, you're . . .
[Mel waits with bated breath as Professor B. scans her from top to bottom, seeking the right adjective.]
Professor B: . . . edgy.
I thought that was very generous, coming from Professor B. And so the word edgy became my personal mantra -- whenever someone criticized my youthful appearance, I simply thought to myself: no, I'm not too young -- I'm edgy.
And I think it must still be working. I recently heard from a former student that they had bets running as to whether or not I had tattoos completely covering my arms, thereby explaining my habit of wearing long-sleeved jackets to teach in. (The answer is no, not yet. Just one.)