An Engineer’s Guide to Glowing Up

Just because you’re a bad-ass mechanical engineer doesn’t mean you can’t look good while doing it.

(I am kind of sorry but not really for the extremely self-gratifying subtitle)

Half the time, I intentionally wear terrible clothes to work.

I work at a small startup robotics company where I’m currently the only full-time mechanical engineer. And boy, my job is messy. On any given day, I could be laser-cutting plastics, dealing with our temperamental 3D-printer, sending dust and metal shavings flying everywhere while drilling, milling, or filing, and, messiest of all, end up splattered in some kind of greasy cutting fluid because I’m machining some large metal parts.

Why hello there cold-saw, enemy of all my shirts.

For a long time, I struggled with the idea that intelligence and competency was linked to masculinity, and masculinity linked to a sort of unkempt roughness. Especially as a mechanical engineer, not only are 99% of my colleagues men, but machine shops often seem to be full of certain types of men. They wear Carhartt aprons and steel-toed boots; they focus on the sensible as opposed to the aesthetic. Or rather, the aesthetic that’s chosen is one that seems sensible and intentionally lacking in “aesthetics”, which by itself becomes an aesthetic. It’s this sort of rough, rustic, unfinished vibe — raw denim, exposed rivets and screws, flannel, leather in natural colors, exposed stitching. Just scroll down the pages of for perfect examples of exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s obvious why this aesthetic is chosen — “practicality!!1!1!!” But I later realized, the sort of intentional unfinishing, that look that’s sort of vintage, that’s sort of hand-made but professionally so, is still an aesthetic choice. It actually isn’t always the most purely practical choice.

These cultural choices are deep-rooted and have real effects and implications on who or what feels comfortable in those spaces. It’s interesting — you become molded by the community and the culture of your occupation until you start imitating these aesthetics or other cultural cues too, further normalizing the norm. This can have all sorts of effects for people that prefer to present more feminine, or just differently, than the cultural standard of the industry. It goes all the way down to the roots of society: children.

I grew up thinking that “being a girly-girl” was just about the worst thing possible. I renounced frilly dresses, even though sometimes I might have actually wanted to wear them. But “girly-girls” were not smart, they always were just thinking about boys, and I wanted to be smart and grow up and go to MIT and be a scientist (back before I knew the difference between a scientist and an engineer), and scientists did not wear dresses. Interestingly, this sentiment did not come from within my family. My father used to always tell me “but you can do both!” and he was right.

I would think those things as young as the age of 6 or 7.

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Me as a Baby Engineer. Very un-girly.

Just because she wears glitter doesn’t mean she can’t do math.

Last year I wrote a post called “Some F Words” on the MIT Admissions blogs, where I talked precisely about how presenting more feminine is culturally and socially perceived as, basically, presenting as “dumb”. This is obviously problematic for all sorts of reasons, but I think one of the most important is that it makes it very easy for women to further the opinion, too. I did for a long time, after all, assuming that girls who wore makeup or frilly dresses all probably spent too much time on those fashion-y things to be spending time on H4RdC0R3 SciEnCE!!!! It’s clear why it’s easy for women to further this opinion and social norm — it feels like there are consequences for not doing so. Last spring I went to the bay area for an interview and met up with a friend of mine, Dayanna, who graduated a year above me. We ate dinner and talked about how, at different jobs she held, she felt she had to suppress her femininity in all sorts of varying ways at varying levels. She is an extremely accomplished computer scientist who graduated from MIT, and she was worried that if she wore a sparkly skirt or more colorful makeup, her coworkers would throw all that aside and not take her seriously.

Again, even for the argument that this masculine, rough, raw aesthetic is simply “practical” and “necessary”, it still is just an aesthetic choice. Take this summer for example. It’s hot. My machine shop initially did not have air conditioning. I was not about to walk in there with raw denim pants, a flannel, and a heavy work apron, although these are durable materials that could withstand all the things I (literally) throw at them. Instead, I frequently wear this:

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(PC my friend Josh for this photo lol)

Where tough, thick materials provide protection, I would argue that flexibility, breath-ability, quick reaction time, and not dying of heat stroke are all equally important factors. The “athleisure” sort of aesthetic that’s become so popular today is a great example of this, and sort of what I’m wearing here. I have these great Lululemon track pants (pretty sure it’s this one but in black) and I wear them so often I’m considering getting another pair of something similar. I have thick leather sneakers on, but they’re fun and have a blue, floral pattern (got them at an outlet so probably discontinued but here is something similar). On top, simply a plain t-shirt that isn’t too expensive and I don’t care too much about. I do prefer certain cuts of t-shirts though; this one (and many others that I own) is the cotton box-cut tee from one of my favorite brands, Everlane. A slightly cropped cut that I love, inexpensive, high-quality, and from a brand that champions transparent pricing and sustainability. What more could you want, really?

At work, I do have a thick work apron that goes over this outfit for when I’m doing more heavy-duty things. I tie up my hair of course, and there are no loose items in this outfit, safety hazards that could get caught in machines. Maybe you could say my pants should really go all the way down past my ankles to fulfill the typical “long pants” safety requirement, but I’ll just be sure to get longer track pants next time.

Interestingly, I’ve seen other machinists wear lighter clothes for the summer too, but they are always something like Hanes crew necks, khaki cargo shorts, and what always looks like hiking boots or dad sneakers. How are these two outfits any different, really, in terms of practicality? (They are very different in terms of aesthetic though, IMO, and khaki cargo shorts don’t technically meet the long pants requirement either, so there).

Even my outfit is a far cry from a sparkly skirt, but if my track pants were hot pink or glittery, would that change my ability to do my job effectively? Definitely not. Would it change my software engineering friend’s ability to do her job, mostly at her desk, effectively? Super definitely not.

Look, I understand that sometimes you need to follow the cultural norm or whatever, e.g. “business casual”, which has no practical purpose but serves essentially as signaling to other people. In more corporate environments, how you dress is not only to physically cover or protect your body, but also a form of communication. Your outfit is talking to other people — it may say, “I care about this meeting/presentation”, or it may say “I care about you as a client”, or even simply “I care about this industry [like investment banking] where this is the cultural standard”, and business casual or business formal clothes — dress shirts, blazers, suits — are the agreed-upon outfits for saying, “I care about or respect this thing”. This is so prevalent that superiors sometimes don’t feel the need to dress as nicely because they are not in danger of being perceived as disrespectful. (Source: this NYmag article, where a junior associate at Goldman Sachs should wear a Rolex, but a CEO’s watch, strangely, should be a Swatch.)

The part that is so jarring about many jobs in STEM is that people are particularly vocal about not having these sorts of workwear-signaling requirements. So many engineers will say things like “I’m so glad I don’t have to work a job wear I where a suit” and “at AmazoogleBook, you can really just wear whatever you want” without realizing how there are still cultural norms at play that feel limiting to many of their coworkers.

So where does “Glowing Up” come in?

I have learned to unlearn a lot of these weird conceptions I had growing up as a child, and now I feel comfortable simply being the person that I am. I’ve discovered that I’m still just, by nature, not a super feminine person, and I don’t particularly like skirts or dresses most of the time anyway. I think on the spectrum of femininity, I’m somewhere a little bit left of androgynous.

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A helpful chart I made!

But I’ve come to realize that cultivating a personal aesthetic is about happiness, and you should feel free to put in as much effort in as the joy you will receive from self-expression. I wear makeup occasionally, but not everyday, because I don’t think I personally derive enough happiness from it to be worth a daily effort. I pretty much never do my nails partly because of my job — as soon as the workweek starts they would be a chipped mess. But I can appreciate well-done makeup and nails on other people, and if it’s worth the effort for you, go for it.

I do care a lot about skin and hair care though, and I derive happiness (and health, I would argue) from my various maintenance routines, which I would occasionally record on my tumblr.

I started my “glow-up” on this front about the time I wrote that admissions blog post, last year. I really enjoyed seeing the results of a continuous effort in self-care (no more pimples, yay!) and it just felt calming and meditative to go through the motions of my routines each day. Ironically, it can become a pretty nerdy pursuit actually (I’m on both r/skincareaddiction and r/asianbeauty regularly) involving ingredient analysis, controlled experiments, and copious research. I knew it had become another one of my nerdy obsessions when I found myself reading articles about niacinamide in the American Journal of Dermatology (you know, I highly recommend this one if you’re interested and want to incorporate niacinamide into your routine, though it’s actually from the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists).

As for hair care, I will forever have my dear friend Kayla to thank for donating samples of products that didn’t work for her to me. She was the resident Natural Hair Fairy in our sorority house and would leave products in front of the doors or in the bathroom caddies of people she thought might have better luck with them ❤. It was through her that I discovered my favorite hair care line, TGIN, and also started following NaturallyCurly on YouTube. I mostly just stick to one product line mainly because my skin care routine is so crazy that I keep my hair one relatively simple (Kayla is the exact opposite of me in this regard).

I’ve also grown to really appreciate quality clothes. Clothes has also, believe it or not, become a nerdy obsession, even though fashion seems like the furthest thing from nerdiness. When I saw this cool NY Times interactive about which occupation is exactly opposite yours, I got this:

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I beg to differ. (Well ok, maybe specifically being a model is pretty different, but fashion as an industry can be just as math-y, design and data-oriented too!)

I am fascinated by the clothing supply chain, and especially the fashion industry’s impact on the environment. I religiously follow any updates on changes in the global order of clothing manufacturing, such as H&M moving their production line to Ethiopia. I’m working with a few friends on a research project specifically about clothing and Ethiopia, and the exciting, new, modern-traditional fusion that’s happening in clothing design there. I appreciate good quality materials — silk, cashmere, leather, wool, even well-made synthetics. And I try to be as conscious as I can — sometimes just as conscious as my budget allows me to be (sigh)— about the carbon footprint of the clothes I buy. I try to buy as few clothes as possible and replace them less, and to see clothing as an investment, things that will last for years rather than months. This will sound lofty and artsy, but I would like my closet to be a collection of compatible, thoughtful pieces, rather than random cheap things I picked up on a whim. To this end, I have a color palette I stick to, certain cuts that I like, and I now genuinely enjoy getting dressed each morning. The fewer-but-better-things mentality (fueled by brands like Cuyana and people like Marie Kondo) allows me to spend a little bit more on each piece, because overall I buy fewer pieces. And lastly, I just like supporting small initiatives (I work at a startup myself after all). To that end, my favorite brands (note that for budget reasons I have not actually purchased from all of them) which fulfill categories of good design, sustainability, practicality, and (for some of them) being small and new, are:

  1. Everlane
  2. Aday
  3. Able
  4. Kit & Ace
  5. Cos
  6. Lululemon (yes I know this is a basic af choice, but fight me)

Brands I’d admire but for whatever reason (usually price) haven’t purchased from yet are:

  1. Cuyana
  2. Amour Vert
  3. Oliberte
  4. Senreve (this is an MIT startup!! see, fashion is for nerds too)
  5. Ministry of Supply (so is this!!)

And why should this be shocking coming from a mechanical engineer? If there’s anyone that appreciates good design, it’s me.

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MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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