An Impossible Math Problem

My 8:00 am math class is not the highlight of my day.

I am not going to lie and say I live for dragging myself out of bed and trekking in the freezing cold to discuss derivatives and vectors for fifty invigorating minutes four days a week. But it’s required for my major, so I somehow stumble to class in my pajamas, regrettably waking up before the sun glows on the horizon.

Most days, I am still too tired to do anything but stare blankly at the board. The most extensive math I push myself to do is “minute math,” counting down the time until I will be free to return to my bed. However, a few days ago I came to math more mentally prepared than usual. In my alert, observant state, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: my math class has a surprisingly small number of female students.

While I have spent a lot of time looking at the statistics for women in STEM fields, and have been impressed by the strides women have been making, I was still discouraged by the small number of other women in my class. Working towards a degree in the sciences is no easy feat, and attempting to make my own way in a male-dominated field is even harder. In difficult classes such as math, I just want another girl to commiserate with.

According to the article “Low math confidence discourages female students from pursuing STEM disciplines” featured in Science Magazine, “female college students are 1.5 times as likely as their male counterparts to leave science, technology, engineering and mathematics after taking the first course in a calculus series.” This conclusion was drawn from the results of a study that followed 2266 students at 129 universities across the country. Responses to survey questions led researchers to conclude that “a lack of confidence in mathematical ability, not mathematical capability itself, is a major factor in dissuading female students from pursuing STEM.

The researchers said that this result stemmed from the fact that women came into the course with lower confidence levels than male students. This sad fact does not come as a surprise, as another study determined that the confidence gap between women and men reaches its maximum when students are in the 10th grade. Of the girls graduating high school with low confidence in their math abilities, only 4.7% of them opted to major in a STEM field in college.

As Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College said in the article “What is contributing to the lack of STEM self-confidence in girls?”, to encourage more women in STEM we need to remove the stigma that “Women are just not good at math.”

The article continued, “Women can fight against the STEM statistics by not discounting their abilities, speaking up and finding an outlet that can cultivate their confidence.”

Well, I guess I can start doing my part by paying attention in my math class tomorrow.

Treadmill Talk: Overcoming “Gymtimidation”

As the bitter wind beat against my face in the early light, I was forced to face the chilly reality of life in State College: January weather is not conducive to long morning runs.

From the moment I stepped outside and lost all feeling in my fingers and toes, I knew it was a lost cause. I went back to my dorm and stripped off my several layers of sweatshirts and running tights. I was admitting defeat, succumbing to my formidable winter foe. As conditional with the terms of my surrender, I was going to have to trade the freedom of the open road to the confines of a treadmill. For the first time, I was headed to the gym.

Sure, I had heard the stories about the intimidation women feel at the gym. But until I set foot in the White Building for myself and began the seemingly endless trek to the exercise machines, I had no idea of the overwhelming power of the “gymtimidation” phenomena. I was so uncomfortable in this world of weightlifting men and elliptical fiends that I locked all of my belongings in a locker, not bothering to learn the combination. Don’t even ask if I remembered the number of the locker into which I frantically jammed all of my belongings. The answer is no.

After spending ten minutes working up the courage even to set foot in the gym, I slowly entered through the glass double doors and discovered a whole new world. I was surrounded by insane machines that mirrored medieval torture devices. I overheard pieces of conversations the focused on “arm day” and “deadlift” as I searched frantically for a treadmill. After waiting in line for my chance to prove my gym prowess, I was scared to start the treadmill. The monotonous pounding of feet running at the 7.5 speed setting mimicked my anxious heart palpitations.

I am not alone in my experience with crippling “gymtimidation.” According to the article “Have You Ever Experienced ‘Gymtimidation?’” in Women’s Health, twice as many women as men feel their workout confidence plummet when the decide to go to the gym. 44% of women cite the weight room as the biggest anxiety inducer, while another 14% blame the unwanted glances of men on their hesitancy to workout. Yet the greatest percentage of women noted they are most intimidated by the idea of looking out of shape or appearing clueless around the gym equipment.

While my first trip to the gym and ensuing case of crippling “gymtimidation” was almost enough to turn me off from the gym forever, I was determined not to give up. As noted in the Dignity Health article “Gymtimidation: Why We Fear the Gym and 6 Tips to Overcome it,” there are a variety of strategies to make subsequent gym outings a success. Find a source of motivation to make trips to the gym more productive and manageable. Find a friend to go with and set workout goals. Create a playlist to eliminate unwanted distractions. Wear comfortable clothes, even if they don’t impress other gym goers.

Bring it on, White Building gym. The cold may have defeated this girl, but “gymtimidation” never will.

The Allure of Sisterhood

The unending chants of “Kappa Alpha Theta!” reverberate through my ears as I make the cold trek back to my dorm from the dining hall.

While I am not involved in sorority recruitment, I feel as if I am living vicariously through the countless young women who have traipsed past my window this past week, making their way to the sorority housing located next to my building. The height of their heels is enough to give me vertigo at the mere thought, and I shiver when I see their outfits. How long must it have taken them to get ready? Most of the time, I’m still in my pajamas.

Having witnessed this army of young women ready to bare their souls in order to join the sisterhood of their dreams, I could not help but ask: What is the allure of sorority life that has women longing to define their college experience with three Greek letters?

According to the article “The Psychology Behind Why Girls are so Willing to Join Sororities,” there is an assortment of reasons girls feel compelled to seek out a Greek home. For incoming freshman students, a sorority provides an easy way to make friends, as members pledge to be “sisters for life.” Women who join sororities also have a more developed sense of self-confidence, as many women reported after college graduation they emerged from their Greek life experience with much higher self-esteem. This boost in self-assurance could stem from many aspects of sorority life, including encouragement to get involved on campus and maintain a strong GPA, or being elected to a leadership position within the group.

For many pledges, reasons for joining could be rooted even deeper in their ideological identities.

 Greek life for some young women can be intertwined with their family history, specifically if their grandmothers, mothers and sisters were all members of the same sorority. Also, many young women struggle with the tumultuous and at times unsettling adjustment to college. Longing to establish a sense of identity, they find their new homes within a sorority, associating the group with a sense of stability. For girls who felt uncomfortable in the dynamic social environment of college, they suddenly have a community of sisters ready to welcome them with open arms.

 As I read more about the reasons young women are attracted to Greek life, I could not help but ruminate on my own high school experience at an all-girls school. I had never drawn this parallel before, but suddenly one clear truth dawned on me: my high school years were comparable to sorority life. We paid our dues (tuition), had a dress code (our uniforms) and even our own song. The school was over one hundred and fifty years old and rife with traditions, as all students became laced in the legacy of her sisters that came before her. While I did not recognize or appreciate it at the time, I was forging connections with some of the most motivated women I had ever met. There was something special about this inherent bond between women, and remembering this I could finally understand why girls stood in the freezing cold in their cutest outfits to impress their future sisters.

While three Greek letters will most likely never be listed in my Instagram bio, I have a newfound respect for the young women who seek to join a sisterhood.

Week 5: A Wiser Woman

So I took on the college fashion world, and lived to tell the tale.

I hung up my yoga pants and donned the jeans, retired the Nike’s and strutted in sandals and sacrificed a few extra minutes of sleep to prepare the perfect, fresh-faced look.

But now, as I sit here in sweatpants in the comfort of my dorm, I am forced to ask myself two pressing questions: Was this experience worth it? Would I do it again?

The answer to both is absolutely.

Going into this experience, I was admittedly skeptical. I had always been comfortable with myself and my look because that was the environment I grew up in: one where girls were content to look like they just rolled out of bed, with hair that had not been brushed in days or ragged, old sweaters. When I got to college, I noticed the time and attention other girls put into their appearance. I was excited to try and mirror their composed, pretty looks, but I did not believe trying new looks for a few days was going to have a major effect on me.

I was wrong.

Through this experience, I have gotten a taste of what it means to be a woman today. The pressure to be perfect; the expectations to look flawless; the delicate balance between being assertive and demure; the obligation to appear composed, even if my life is scattered in shambles around me.

In all honesty, accepting the burden of expectations that comes with being a poised woman was a daunting challenge. While there were many standards that I felt were unreasonable for women to meet, embracing all of the caveats and pressures that come with being a woman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Yes, I experimented with my style and gained some new make-up skills (thanks YouTube tutorials), accomplishing what I initially set out to do. But in reality, I learned so much more; for me, this experience expanded far beyond the superficial notion of surface appearance.

I learned to walk confidently with my head held high because women who believe in themselves garner the respect and belief of others. Some days, it’s okay to look and feel like I am falling apart, but only if I promise to pull myself together for a better tomorrow. I recognized that those who judge how I look don’t matter, and those who do matter won’t ever let me down.

Most importantly, I recognized the significance of supporting other women.  At an all-girls high school, I was always taught that women rule the world, so to see the difficulties and judgement women face in the real world was disheartening. But we are stronger than those who hold us back, and together women can overcome any obstacle.

I still wear my Nikes and sweatpants. Some days I look like I just rolled out of bed, and I still put my hair up into the standard ponytail. Occasionally, a dress or cute sweater will creep into my wardrobe, but these new fashion pieces are not what stand out the most in my post-social experiment personality.

The results lie in the way I carry myself, more confident and comfortable with myself because as a woman I am enough.

Week 4: The Winter Woman

Baby, it’s cold outside.

On Tuesday morning, the frigid wind whipping through my open window was a rude wake-up call. Gone were the days of jean shorts and tank tops; this was sweater weather.

This rapid change in the weather added a new element to my foray into the fashion world. I could no longer simply focus on looking put together, but rather I needed to make sure I could stay warm on my long treks to class. My ensembles could not just be flirty and fun, they needed to be functional too.

Unfortunately, I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

I opted for a flowy pink sweater and tight black leggings.  However, as I opened the door to my dorm and stepped out into the elements, the crisp, cold air tore through my outfit. Within seconds, I was shivering. My sweater was more stylish than warm, and the cutouts along the sides of my leggings left me exposed to the cold morning breeze.

In my battle to look the feminine ideal, I had met with an unexpected enemy: the early whispers of winter.

As has happened quite frequently throughout my experiences for this blog, I was met with a question this blustery October morning while freezing on my way to class. How is a professional woman supposed to dress to impress in the cold weather? Does she change her attire, or simply bare the elements?

A woman is typically expected to don an outfit along the lines of a modest dress and tights, but at what point, or temperature, can this uniform be changed? But in changing her clothes, does a woman lose her professional reputation?

This seems to be the burning question for many women, according to the Boston Globe’s article “A steady flurry of fashion statements.”

Barbara Moran, a senior science writer at Boston University Research News, said, “Do I need to carry clothes and shoes to work every day for the next three months? Or do I just accept that I will look like a slob for the next three months?”

When asked about her winter work attire, Lauren Beckham Falcone, an on-air personality for the Loren and Wally Show, said, “I’m wondering how little I can get away with before I am ‘spoken to.’”

Ellie Foster, a student and employee at the Berklee College of Music, summed up the feelings of all women debating their winter clothing when she said simply, “I want to be taken seriously.”

Foster highlights one of the biggest hurtles women face in the workplace. Many women already struggle to feel equal to their male counterparts, and having to wear clothes that do not match the caliber of their positions may make women feel even less valued. If they appear to others to be a “slob” or like they need to be “spoken to,” how will they garner the respect of their peers?

What’s a girl to do in the winter? Wear her puffy L.L. Bean coat and snow boats, only to be perceived as unprofessional? Or nearly freeze to death in her subtle pea coat and sky-high stilettos?

It’s not just the cold outside a woman has to dress for, but the frigid judgement of the workplace as well.

Week 3: The Tired Truth

“Ladies tell ‘em ‘I woke up like this’ we flawless.” -Beyoncé

If only this were true every day.

When I woke up this morning, I was anything but flawless. A disheveled mess, I slept through my alarm three times, only rolling out of bed with mere minutes to spare before my 8 a.m. math class. While I had been planning on attempting a unique hairstyle this morning to compliment my new fashion and make-up choices, the lack of time dictated that dressing up was out of the question. On went the yoga pants, dirty sneakers, and mundane t-shirt. Forget the cute hairstyle; I donned quite possibly the messiest ponytail in existence. But as the saying goes, when one door closes another door opens, and I was not going to lose this opportunity to gain some new insight for my blog.

As I trudged to all my classes that day, my outward appearance mirrored my internal feelings of sheer and utter exhaustion. I typically try to maintain a collected façade, but today I simply could not do it. As my composure continued to deteriorate throughout the day, my groggy mind began to develop some questions. I am only a freshman in college, with a workload much less significant than that of a woman in the workforce. If I can barely keep it together after a few nights of minimal sleep, how can a female professional be expected to look like poised perfection on a daily basis?

According to Radhika Snaghani’s article “It’s sexist to tell a woman she looks ‘tired at work-and here’s why,” “Chances are if a woman has a totally bare face, she’ll be told by both her male and female colleagues that she looks exhausted, hungover, or ill…People are so used to seeing made-up women at work that an au natural face seems anything but natural.”

Snaghani continued, writing that women feel “there’s an unspoken pressure to ‘look good’ – something they think men don’t experience. While the most that can be expected of a man is to be clean-shaven and wearing a tie, women often feel they have to pluck their brows, wear high heels, and perfect the ‘natural’ make-up look.”

Why is looking tired a crime? And how can women be expected to live up to these standards on a daily basis? I could barely hold myself together while I was in my classes for 4 hours… I cannot even image how fatigued women can be expected to stay serene and confident during an eight-hour work day.

This experience today changed my perspective. Just as I was becoming more comfortable in my coordinated, pristine outfits and made-up complexion, this day reminded me that every once and while we all need a break. A woman is expected to be composed at all times, and if her physical appearance is lacking in any area it is assumed she is unprepared or unprofessional. But why can’t we all just listen to Beyoncé? She reminds us that we all wake up flawless, and I am starting to think she is on to something.

Week 2: The Makeup Revelation

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” -Coco Chanel

Easy for you to say, Coco. You don’t get up at 6:30 a.m.

As my alarm rang early Tuesday morning, I was tempted beyond belief to stay in bed. Just five more minutes would be okay, right? Wrong. My makeup bag was calling, and I had an obligation to answer.

Encouraged by the coincidental boost of confidence I gained from last week’s outfit, I again slipped into a casual, yet tasteful, ensemble of patterned shorts and a black shirt. But my fashion decisions were not this day’s focus. My choice of clothing was merely a precursor to the main event: my makeup.

While I was doing my makeup, I was transfixed by my reflection in the mirror, noticing features I did not typically worry about. Does every woman have circles this dark under her eyes? Does this color clash with my skin tone? All of these imperfections, however, paled in comparison to one obvious flaw: the bright sunburn lining my face, impossible to hide with concealer or foundation. Usually, these slight failings did not bother me. Yet as I was finishing my makeup I almost felt it was my duty to correct all of my visible shortcomings, that by deciding to augment my appearance I had agreed only to present my best self to society. Any blemishes would not be acceptable.

After I left my dorm and headed to class, one fact became distinctly clear to me: I did not enjoy wearing makeup. Wearing makeup had the adverse effect of my change of fashion. While in a different outfit I felt free to express a more colorful and vibrant facet of my personality, in makeup I felt as if I were hiding something, as if I did not want people to see what I really looked like. I felt more self-conscious, especially because people noticed and pointed out the change in my appearance. Did this mean I did my makeup wrong, or badly? Or was it a suggestion that I should wear it more often?

Throughout this day, I recognized that makeup is an integral component that factors into someone’s perception of another. As the New York Times article “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand” states, makeup can “increase people’s perceptions of a woman’s likeability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness.”

As Bobbi Brown, a cosmetics line founder, notes in the article, “[With makeup] We are able to transform ourselves, not only how we are perceived, but how we feel.”

Makeup did change how I felt. As I internalized the different reactions to my changed appearance, I could understand why over 60% of women in the United States describe their natural appearance as “fairly average and nothing special,” according to SkinStore.com. I recognized the emphasis placed on appearance, and could resonate with the feelings of inadequacy that plague women who go out without a full face of makeup.

I went back to my dorm and washed all my makeup off. If a girl is to be truly classy and fabulous, she must do it on her own terms.

Week 1: An Introduction to College Couture

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde

Not today, Mr. Wilde. Not today.

Because today, I do not feel like myself at all. In fact, as I slide into my pristine red shorts and tightly fitted black top, I feel as if I am a completely different person. And I don’t entirely hate it. But this is just the beginning…

After spending four years at an all-girls high school, I was surprised to discover the array of fashion choices on display the first day of college. Girls went to class in cute dresses and full make-up; I looked like I just rolled out of bed. I suddenly found myself thrust into an environment where my sweatpants and sneakers did not seem to measure up.

Following my recovery from this culture shock, I developed the premise for this blog. I vowed to swap my Nike’s for sandals and my yoga pants for a classic pair of jeans. I found the straightener sitting on the top shelf of my closet and decided to test it out. My unopened bag of make-up? Well, that would be my next project.

Through this blog, I will relay my journey as I attempt to match the style and mannerisms of my female peers. I aim to explore the role that a co-educational environment plays in the way a woman looks and behaves and also to communicate the challenges, but also the benefits, of exhibiting the accepted image of feminine beauty.

To initiate this project, I started with a very simple assignment: wear a presentable outfit. I opted for an Old Navy ensemble, complete with red shorts and a black top with a low-cut back and cropped sleeves. While this outfit may seem casual, trust me, it was a step up from my usual attire.

As I walked to my first class, I felt a sense of excitement I had never experienced before. I was eager to show off my new look, even though I had never really considered what people thought of how I had dressed previously. There was a new-found confidence in my stride, as if this classic outfit made me feel more comfortable with myself and my appearance.

This confidence was not a short-lived phenomenon; for the rest of the day I was more willing to engage with my peers and talk to new people. This outfit was not just a new look for me, it seemed to come equipped with a new personality.

While I was surprised by the quick changes the outfit rendered in my personality, these feelings of self-assurance associated with clothing are not unique to my situation. According to a Huffington Post article entitled “How Clothing Choices Affect and Reflect Your Self-Image,” mood, health, and overall confidence can be altered depending on a person’s outfit. Professor Karen J. Pine said, “When we put on a piece of clothing we cannot help but adopt some of the characteristics associated with it. If I’m in casual clothes I relax and am tomboyish, but if I dress up for a special occasion it can alter the way I walk and hold myself.”

As author Lisa Stariha of the book The Body Empowerment Coach said, “To feel more beautiful, confident, and strong, you must change out of the yoga pants and put on clothes that give you power.”

I don’t think I am ready to give up the yoga pants just yet. Baby steps.