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NMSU Social Scientist Studies How Dress Helps Define Identity

LAS CRUCES -- From scrutinizing drag queens to prom queens, Jane Hegland has made a scholarly career out of people-watching. Good observation skills have come in handy for this New Mexico State University social scientist who studies the relationships between the human body, dress and identity.


"My overall interest is in dress as a form of nonverbal communication," said Hegland, an assistant professor and researcher with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "Dress helps to create our identity and, in turn, our identity influences how we dress."

The word "dress" to Hegland means more than just the jeans people pull on in the morning. "It's any body supplement or modification," she explained. "In other words, it's everything we put on and do to our bodies -- whether permanent or temporary -- that alters our natural state, including jewelry, makeup, body piercing, tattooing, shaving and even eating disorders and body-building."

Her research often centers on how gender and power relate to dress and appearance. In a recent project, Hegland challenged the notion that women "ask" to be raped by the way they dress. "For some time, this evidence has been inadmissable in the courts but much documentation shows that the issue inevitably comes up and forever taints the opinion of the judge and jury," she said.

Hegland interviewed 41 women, ages 19 to 60, who had been raped. She found that while dress may convey messages like "sexy" and "sensual," it does not convey verbal or physical consent to having sex. "This research blows that ridiculous notion out the window," she added.

Ironically, 27 of the 41 women Hegland interviewed had significantly changed their appearance after being raped. For example, they cut their hair, gained weight or started wearing dark, baggy clothes. Hegland said the women hadn't even realized they had made the changes until they were asked about it. She said the women were attempting to make themselves invisible or nonsexual.

She said her work with the rape survivors has been both her most challenging and rewarding research so far. Findings from the study will be available as a chapter in a book entitled "Appearance and Power," to be published this year by Berg in Oxford, England.

Other research projects have focused on such topics as the ritual of high school prom -- where society's rules of gender-appropriate dress and appearance are followed -- to the phenomenon of male-to-female cross-dressing -- where all the rules of dress and behavior are broken.

Hegland even continues her practice of "people-watching" at the movies. She and her colleague, Nancy Nelson, from the University of Minnesota, have studied the dress of such characters as Marge, the pregnant police officer in the 1996 movie Fargo set in the chilly Midwest.

"Marge's appearance does not present cues as to sexual difference," she said. "Rather, it points to a kind of visual gender ambiguity."

In November, Hegland and Nelson presented a paper at the State University of New York at New Paltz about how dress is used to portray gender in Fargo and another movie, Orlando.

Hegland also takes her interest in dress and identity into the classroom. On the first day of an introductory course, she hooks students' interest with an exercise in which they are asked to write down their first impressions of student volunteers based on how they are dressed. Students are usually pretty accurate in their assumptions about the age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, occupation, religious affiliation and favorite movies, types of music and pastimes of the volunteers.

"Students are surprised and intrigued, even stunned, that they expose so much about themselves by the simple act of dressing," Hegland said.

She has boiled down the significance of all her "people-watching" to a simple sentence that she shares with students and others interested in her work: "Wherever we live on this planet, getting dressed each day helps us tell others who we are, usually without speaking to them."