Makeup & Muckboots: Navigating Femininity and Fieldwork

by Julia A. Bingham (she/they)

It’s a long scramble from the truck to the shore, down a steep sandstone slope slick from last night’s drizzle. I’m with three other scientists, all men. We’re heading to an ecological experiment site on the rocky shoreline of coastal Oregon during the early morning low tide. The sky is a soft lilac, the stars are disappearing, and the ocean is a rough indigo streaked with gold—but my attention is centered on scoping out a suitable pee bush. 

I love hiking and backpacking, so I’m no stranger to the trail pee, but coastal fieldwork presents extra challenges. It’s tough to pop a squat wearing multiple layers under an enormous waterproof overalls and hefty jacket, fully exposed on a rocky ledge or shin deep in marsh mud, with colleagues and the occasional curious member of the public a few meters away. If I can’t find any suitably hidden spot, I can either hold it or trek all the way back to the parking lot, and possibly drive several miles to a public toilet. In these moments I find myself jealous of the men I work with who can usually just go stand behind the truck.

This is one pretty benign example of the ways I’ve felt my body or my gender play an active role in how I experience fieldwork. But over nearly ten years in field-based coastal and marine studies, a theme has emerged: my body and how I express my gender and sexuality as a queer woman influences my experience in the field, and vice versa.  

I’m an interdisciplinary marine scientist, currently a PhD candidate at Duke University. My research is about improving coastal conservation and fishery management through local communities’ knowledge and values, with a focus on equity. I’ve worked on rocky shores, mudflats, beach dunes, forested streams, salt marshes, underwater shallow reefs, and onboard small research boats.

Over time, I’ve become deeply familiar with the extra challenges that come with being female-bodied in outdoor fieldwork, and how scientific spaces can feel unnecessarily gendered and unwelcoming. I’ve also found myself wrestling with my own relationship to my gender and how I show up to my academic, professional, and personal worlds. 

Challenges faced by women and marginalized people in fieldwork

Struggling to find a place to pee or change a tampon might make for an entertaining story, but ultimately reflect a barrier of accessibility. Other fieldwork accessibility barriers are issues, too, including the physical demands of fieldwork, and the financial burden of travel and gear. 

Field gear itself is often unavailable in sizes fit to petite or curvy bodies, and when it is, it’s often limited to thinner, pinker, tighter versions with an even bigger price tag. When I got my field gear in undergrad, I needed my own set of the muckboots, bib overalls, and pvc jacket to stay dry and warm in the cold Pacific coastal fog and wave splash. Navigating availability and price meant buying the overalls and jacket in men’s “small.” The overalls and jacket were ridiculously oversized and restricted my mobility on slippery rocks. 

The oversized orange PVC jacket keeps me warm and dry, but also impairs my movement. 2015

Then there are issues around safety. Women are more likely to be harassed or assaulted while in the field, especially if conducting work alone. This is on top of the disproportionate rates of harassment by male peers and superiors that women already experience in academia. I have my own collection of experiences in this realm.

It’s also common for women to feel disregarded, devalued, seen as less capable, patronized, or otherwise be the target of sexism in science. Some women report being delegated to more ‘feminine’ roles in fieldwork groups (eg organizing the group’s food), and many find themselves feeling forced to choose between having a family and maintaining a career that includes fieldwork.

There are many intersecting dimensions of identity that complicate how people experience barriers in fieldwork: Race, class, sexuality, gender, and disability are just a few. Lack of support, accessibility barriers, discrimination, compounded with safety concerns in fieldwork all disproportionately impact the experiences of women of color. BIPOC are consistently left or pushed out of science and academia, experience high stress, racial profiling, and elevated rates of harassment and assault while conducting fieldwork and tend to be treated as less competent by peers and mentors. Rates of harassment and discrimination in the field are also elevated for LGBTQIA+ people. 

A recent survey of geoscientists found that more than half of respondents feel unsafe in the field; as many as one third have opted not to do fieldwork due to personal safety concerns specifically linked to their gender or sexuality. It’s no wonder, then, that over time, women and especially queer, gender nonconforming, trans women and women of color are less likely than cis men to continue conducting fieldwork later in their careers.

…when femininity or queerness isn’t implicitly equated with weakness, when taking care of bodily needs doesn’t come with shame, we are liberated to be fully present in the field and actually enjoy our work.

Fieldwork is an invaluable and infinitely rewarding part of being a researcher—when it goes well. My overall experience in fieldwork and science has been resoundingly positive, but I benefit from many privileges: I’m a white bi woman who is very newly exploring being openly nonbinary. In many ways, my whiteness and my ability to pass as not queer keeps me safe. I’m a less vulnerable target for harassment, discrimination, and assault because I’m more likely to be believed than a student of color if I were to report an incident. I have the financial means and the physical ability to conduct fieldwork with minimal assistance. I also have a supportive and thoughtful doctoral advisor who allows me an enormous amount of autonomy in my dissertation research, and my undergraduate advisor was similarly respectful, patient, and encouraging. 

Maintaining a “man-up” attitude & masculine performance

Even though there are an increasing number of women and nonbinary people in many scientific fields, men are still the majority and many fieldwork experiences still seem to come along with a supremely masculine, machismo energy. 

In many of my experiences, and the stories shared with me by my peers, there’s been a general “man up and tough it out” approach to the fieldwork. We routinely swap stories about project leads who are men and make a masculine show of their fieldwork, to the extent that they may take unnecessary risks, resist delegating tasks requiring physical strength, make gendered “jokes” during the work, and have little patience for others. 

None of these patterns are inherently masculine, but I can’t ignore that they often are paired with stories of the same project leads treating students differently based on gender. Such ‘mentors’ tend to provide more professional attention to men and masculine peers during physically demanding fieldwork, while dismissing women and feminine peers or giving them too much personal attention. In one of my experiences, I had a project lead who was much more concerned with trying to set me up with his favored male student than with the quality of my work. I was supposed to feel flattered by the sexualized attention. When I attempted to report the professor, I was quietly sidelined from future products related to the project.

To best play the macho fieldwork game, I used to de-feminize myself in the field. To be clear, I did need to be my toughest self for some of the physical demands of the work. But I also genuinely felt it was even more important to be perceived as tough, and thought appearing soft or “girly” would work against me. (Hello, internalized misogyny!) 

Here, I’m wearing a pvc jacket to stay warm and dry while laying out a transect, a common sampling tool used in ecological surveys, along a jetty in coastal Oregon during low tide, just after sunrise. 2016.

If I didn’t come off as strong enough to carry the gear or resilient enough to weather the conditions or stoic enough to manage unexpected setbacks, I feared my male colleagues would view me as less capable of doing the work or less deserving of respect, and delegate me to less exciting tasks — or worse, not ask for my assistance in future fieldwork at all. 

I’d tuck my hair under a hat, avoid jewelry and makeup in the field, and mirror the behavior and body language of my male colleagues or other men encountered in the field. I’d shut down emotional expressiveness and I’d even project my voice louder and deeper than how I usually speak. I would also physically push myself. I worked through flare-ups of my chronic headaches, back pain, impaired circulation, and digestive issues—never ever voicing discomfort. I was afraid of validating stereotypes of women not being ‘tough’ enough for the field.

At the end of a group fieldwork day, I’d ultimately be more exhausted from my social performance than from the physical work. Eventually, I realized that much of my worry about how I was being perceived had a lot to do with my own ego and relationship to femininity.

Wrestling with my femininity

When I was five, I decided that my favorite color was no longer fuschia pink, it was sky blue. The boys in my elementary shool classes were insistent that pink was a “girly” color, and that “girly” things are gross, silly, weak, and boring. For years I rejected soft, floral, colorful, flouncy, frilly, pink, pastel things because I wanted to be strong and smart and cool, and allowed to play outside in the dirt with the boys. 

In college, that fraught relationship with my femininity lent itself to confusing frictions across multiple dimensions of my life. I found myself working hard to be attractive to the male gaze in the social realm through some elusive balance of softness, docility, and sexiness, while still ‘one of the boys’ in science classrooms, labs, and in the field. I reflected others’ ideas of how a scientist should behave in one world, and what a potential date should look like in the other. The dissonance between the two performances was bewildering, exhausting, and terrible for my well-being.  It was also terrible for my friendships with other women. 

It wasn’t until my first year of grad school that I really started to unpack my relationship to my gender. The catalyst was a particularly bad burnout, spurred on by a confluence of physical and mental health challenges, including a bike accident resulting in a concussion and a broken wrist, and back to back sexual assaults from two male peers. I finally sought counseling, where I eventually began to realize how much I was hurting myself with my heavily gendered self-editing.

Several years later, I’m still navigating what feels most like “me.” One aspect of this is to intentionally bring the masculine into my social world, and the feminine into my professional world—including fieldwork.

Reclaiming the feminine in the field

As I rediscovered my love for “girly” things like dresses and flowers, and as I started building relationships in the queer community—eventually realizing I’m queer myself—I found myself angry, saddened, and confused that I felt I had to leave being a woman out of my identity during fieldwork. 

I resented that I had learned to view my own softness and emotionality as weakness. Every time I devalued “feminine” traits like sensitivity and expressiveness in the field, I was reinforcing a belief that those traits are gendered or negative in the first place. 

Even if the consequences of being perceived as feminine during fieldwork were real, I wasn’t helping myself by using so much energy to present a curated version of myself. I also wasn’t helping any of my peers or students by setting an example to play along. I knew through personal conversations that some of my women and nonbinary peers felt similarly to me, and I wondered how many of the men around me in the field were also putting on a more “manly” show. Were we all worried about losing respect and field cred if we let our sweeter, gentler, more emotional selves show? Were we all just pretending together? 

I started to experiment. I began bringing more of my femininity into the field, and standing up for myself when encountering gendered barriers. I speak more openly about my needs, and I try to let my enthusiasm (and frustration) show more openly. I wear mismatched sparkly studs when fieldwork makes dangly earrings impractical. I have a variety of go-to braided hairstyles so my long hair stays out of the way while still bringing me feminine joy.  Sometimes I’ll go weeks without eyeliner, and sometimes I’ll wear mascara in the marsh and lip color in the lab. Who says makeup doesn’t go with muckboots?

Playing with and feeling frustrated by femininity in fieldwork has helped me to embrace my own identity and queerness, and empowered me to be more of my actual self in my professional and personal life.

Re-femming myself does occasionally present really uncomfortable and challenging experiences. But it’s also liberating to choose to present the way I want—even if it isn’t always in a feminine way. When I’m most comfortable, alone or with my closest friends, I rarely think about my gender at all.

Phelps Mtn, NY, 2020

I wish I could say that this caution-to-the-wind, just-be-yourself approach is the relationship I have with my gender expression all the time now, but that’s not true. My insecurities about bending too far from the norm still flare up frequently, and I still worry how I am perceived by colleagues. I’m working on it, but it will probably remain true for a long time.

Gender as a strategic tool

Even if uncomfortable or tiring, I do believe it pays to be conscious of how your gender is perceived in the field. Gender performance can be a strategic tool, albeit a very personal one. Here’s how I choose to use it:

In unfamiliar research environments, I pay attention to how other women dress and behave to gauge what is acceptable (read: safe) in that space. In my current people-centered research, there’s less of a need to be physically tough, but I still frequently attend to how I’m perceived. 

While conducting interviews, I balance showing up authentically—which most people do respond well to during conversations—with trying to de-feminize myself when I get a sense that the interviewee sees me as a ‘young woman’ first, and a ‘competent researcher’ second. I amp up my softer feminine side while observing a meeting space because I’m typically more easily ignored that way, so the meeting is more likely to proceed as it would without my presence. 

I still sometimes take on a wider stance and a louder, deeper, rougher voice when I tag along with fisheries managers on fieldwork so that they might take me more seriously. I also drop occasional ecology jargon into my vocabulary so that they know that, even if I am now participating as a social scientist, I have sufficient background experience to understand their work. 

I have also upped my safety game now that I conduct a lot of fieldwork solo. I attempt to androgenize my appearance and I tuck a knife and whistle into my pocket when entering an unfamiliar outdoor field site alone. Some of my women peers carry pepper spray and other types of self protection precautions in their own solo fieldwork as well. 

It’s only while working with trusted peers and colleagues or while leading a group of students in a familiar space that I switch from gender performance for safety to gender performance for self-expression. I do something similar with sexuality, too. I’m only recently becoming more open about my queerness outside of my friendship circles, because being perceived as anything but cis and straight by some of my colleagues seemed like a whole bucket of worms I didn’t feel ready to open.

Looking at barnacle samples over a tide pool during a research assistantship at University of Oregon. 2016

Playing with and feeling frustrated by femininity in fieldwork has helped me to embrace my own identity and queerness, and empowered me to be more of my actual self in my professional and personal life. It has also helped me to be a more self-reflective academic, which is instrumental in my current work with Indigneous collaborators where relationality (often perceived as a ‘feminine’ practice), reflexiveness, and awareness of my impact as a white person and careful thought about my research practices is fundamental to conducting ethical, equitable, and relational research.

It’s also infinitely rewarding to see young women and queer students thoroughly enjoy themselves on a class trip to the field because they feel comfortable with me as their TA.  I want to empower my students to bring their authentic selves into the classroom and the field; we are better scholars when we are not distracted by having to present in the ‘right’ way to feel safe or accepted. 

It’s worth it

I love fieldwork. Fieldwork pushes me to go outside my comfort zone in a way that has helped me grow immensely in my confidence and self assurance. Fieldwork fuels my tenacity, my boldness, and my curiosity. Fieldwork helps me get in touch with that inner child that never lost their love of playing in the mud and trying to make friends with plants and creatures. Fieldwork helps me find my limits. It helps me decide which fears to navigate and overcome, and which ones to listen to and build boundaries around. Fieldwork has facilitated and deepened some of my most valuable relationships. Fieldwork is fun. Fieldwork helps me figure out what makes me feel most like me

It is essential, in my opinion, that these positive experiences are accessible to anyone who wants to do outdoor work. Knowing where to pee, having tampons and pads on hand with other field supplies, building an inclusive and affirming field team culture, and keeping firm personal boundaries and robust safety practices as a part of fieldwork protocol helps to mitigate risk and reduce the ‘othering’ that women can feel in the field, especially newer students.

When mentors and colleagues create a welcoming space, when femininity or queerness isn’t implicitly equated with weakness, when taking care of bodily needs doesn’t come with shame, we are liberated to be fully present in the field and actually enjoy our work.

Those of us with experience, privilege, and power to enact change can work to make fieldwork more accessible for others. We can take the time to figure out how our identities relate to our fieldwork and challenge the unnecessarily gendered dimensions of field research. We can make fieldwork a more relational and mutually supportive and collaborative space through our softer selves. We can disencumber our curiosity that drives our scientific interests from trying to be masculine enough to be included. And we can make fieldwork a more diverse, expressive, and fun space to revel in the mess and the muck by encouraging each other to bring our most authentic selves to the field.

While en route to my current field site on Vancouver Island this past September, I stopped over in Seattle to see my friend Jesse. Jesse is beautifully, wonderfully, infinitely and androgenously queer. They have been an invaluable source of love and support for me for nearly a decade, and I consider them a role model in authentic self-expression. It was the first time we’d seen each other in over two years, and we’ve both grown further into ourselves over that time. Jesse told me I was serving them Lara Croft meets humanities professor vibes, in the best way. And I think that is exactly the level of academic feminine badassery I’d like to keep carrying through my career and all the fieldwork to come.

  1. Susan B says:

    Wow. You’ve gone way further into the field than I did when I was in college/work in the early 1990s but everything you wrote rings so true to me. That saddens me that there still is all this 30 years later, but I’m heartened that you are publicly speaking it and continuing your journey. Thank you!

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