Do you sometimes feel like you are an unstylish academic or scholar? Dr. Helen Kara can relate, and she tells it all in this article.

Writing for this blog has given me a whole new kind of impostor syndrome.

Not the usual kind, where I feel like a fraud for a skills-based achievement, but the kind where I actually AM an impostor.

I don’t belong on this blog because I am not stylish.

Dictionary.com defines ‘stylish’ as ‘characterized by or conforming to style or the fashionable standard; fashionably elegant; smart or chic.’

This is so very not me.

I don’t think anyone has ever described me as fashionable.

I have occasionally been described as elegant, probably because I am tall. I am neither smart nor chic.

Let me give you some details.

I take very little notice of fashion; I dress for comfort. I don’t wear make-up, partly because I have reactive skin but mostly because I can’t be bothered.

I don’t wear jewelry because its dangling and jangling irritate me.

If I’m wearing clothes that are clean, with no stains or holes, I consider myself well dressed.

I wash my hair with baby shampoo, condition it with cider vinegar, let it dry naturally, and cut it myself when it gets too long.

I clean my face with biodegradable baby wipes and moisturise with Neal’s Yard eye cream and Simple face cream.

I have two brands of bubble bath which family members buy for my birthday and Christmas gifts, and one brand of liquid soap that serves for handwash and shower gel.

That is the sum total of the products I use.

Being stylish requires time and money, and I prefer to spend mine on other things like writing and travel.

This is my choice, not a judgment on others who make different choices – though it bothers me a bit when people seem to feel they have no choice.

I have one time-poor friend who spends an hour every morning on her hair and make-up, and another friend who always says she’s broke yet makes frequent visits to the hairdresser, nail bar, and beauty salon.

unstylish academic 2

I’m not sure how much of these friends’ adherence to fashion is really a proactive choice to allocate scarce resources to activities that make them feel good, and how much is some kind of social compulsion.

I have no time for magazines or advertisements that seek to sell products and services by making people feel bad about how they look.

But if people enjoy playing and creating with clothes, make-up, accessories etc, that’s great.

Doesn’t work for me, though, because being stylish requires activities I don’t enjoy.

I don’t like shopping other than for food or books.

I buy clothes online, or in charity shops, when the ones I own wear out.

I have one handbag that I replace when necessary.

And don’t even talk to me about ironing. Not happening.

If I took the Project 333 minimalist fashion challenge I would have to buy more clothes.

The challenge requires wearing only 33 items of clothing, accessories, jewelry, outerwear, and shoes, for three months.

This does not include wedding rings or other such personal jewelry that you never take off, underwear, sleepwear, home loungewear, or workout clothing.

The last three months I’ve been dressing from 23 items: one pair of boots, three pairs of leggings, two skirts, two pairs of jeans, eight t-shirts (worn two at a time for warmth), two wraps, two scarves, one jacket, a warm coat and a raincoat. This is not a challenge, for me; it is an easy life.

I think we can safely conclude that I am not stylish.

But does that mean I have no style?

Here dictionary.com gives us ‘a particular, distinctive, or characteristic mode of action or manner of acting’.

I think my way of acting is quite characteristic of me.

I choose clothes from the colours I like best – blues, pinks, purples – so they mostly go together. (One of my aunties refers to me as her Cerise Niece because of my fondness for that particular shade of deep pink.)

My personal style fits with my lifestyle of low material aspirations, valuing relationships and experiences far more than commodities.

I’m not sure this is particularly distinctive; I know quite a lot of other people with similar values. But it does seem like a kind of a style.

Some women disapprove of my style.

Maybe some men do too, but they’ve never told me. Women have, in scornful tones.

“You’re not going to go grey naturally, are you?”

“Don’t you mind people on the beach seeing you in the same tankini all the time?”

“You’d look much better if you wore some make-up.”

The sisterhood can be a bitch.

It saddens me that some women can’t respect and support my choices as I try to do with theirs. And such comments do nothing to entice me towards complying with fashion.

My style also fits with my independence.

I am not an academic, I’m an independent scholar, researcher, and author.

I do academic work, so my style also fits with one academic stereotype, the one where we’re all supposed to be far too cerebral to be interested in transient phenomena like fashion.

Yet an increasing number of academics of all genders are counteracting this stereotype: for example, check out @bestdressedprof, @thedoctorette, @beardedprofessor, and many others on Instagram.

In my view, stereotypes are not stylish.

Compassion is stylish and listening, and kindness.

Also, some kinds of clothes, homewares, and cars are stylish… not that I’d have any idea which ones!

I’m with Sissix the Aandrisk, in Becky Chambers’ terrific book The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, who described the meanings humans give to clothes as ‘a complicated business’ (p.274).

For some people, that complexity is beguiling and fascinating. For me, it’s exhausting and irrelevant. If you’re in the first category, let’s agree to differ.


Dr Helen KaraDr. Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods. Her most recent book is Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015).

She is not, and never has been, an academic, though she has learned to speak the language. In 2015 Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods. Her next book will be Research Ethics in the Real World (Policy Press, 2018).