I know this is something I’ve written about a lot, but apparently there is something about it that I’ve not quite been able to put into words, because it continues to bug me. Not in the sense of being mad about it, but in the sense of having not being able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
The matter in question is the power of presenting perceptions, and to what extent they should be employed or kept honest, and what keeping honest is.
It really fascinates me. It fascinates me how the uniform has power. My brothers commented that simply by donning plain white aprons while working on food for the wedding we helped put on recently, everyone instantly began treating them like they were professionals and in charge. Their skills and capabilities had not changed in the slightest, but lo, the power of the apron!
Student uniforms; organizational uniforms; sports uniforms; olympic uniforms; graduation uniforms; military uniforms; even just a good suit. We like to say “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but really we do. Our brains go through so much sorting and processing to try to understand who we should respond in any given circumstance with all it’s complex variables, and a lot of the data we take in is through our eyes. There was a cool study one time that showed how we take context so drastically into account: the same hand, the same glass, the same position, all presented with still photos. But by the settings the frame was shot, we rapidly interpret whether the glass is being raised in toast, raised to clear the table after a meal, or raised to throw as a means to do harm.
And I know it. I could pull up a long list of examples, but my most recent one was just the wedding I just went to, and it was almost palpable to me how much power one is perceived to have when one is well dressed. There are countless examples of people dressing differently and getting totally different reactions or assumptions about who they are. These examples are almost always presented in the moralizing light that we’re all so wickedly biased and judgemental, but I always feel as though a great point is being missed.
You have the power. You have the power to dress yourself. You have the power over your presentation. You get to decide what people see. You can wear that classy dress, you can wear those slouchy jeans, you can wear the long skirt and the head scarf. Or not.
But when people do grasp this point, the invariably seem to spill into “oughts.” So you ought to present yourself well. So you ought to worry what people see when they see you. So you ought to make an effort. But I don’t like that conclusion either. I don’t see this as a duty of which is often derelict, but rather a curious and profound opportunity for art.
That sounds far too grandiose. But I don’t think that you “have to” or “ought to.” I think that you can, and that it’s a skill. And that just tickles me pink. It’s an illusion, just as much as putting a portrait on a canvas; it’s a story, just as much as a slim little novella; it’s an act in a fleeting scene; and it’s music in the sense it can make you feel such a shocking range of emotions. You don’t have to; but you can.
To me, the question is: aware now of the power, what shall be done with it? Some people turn to conformation: if you move to this country, dress like people in this country dress. Some people turn to rebellion: defy the current culture with an alternate message. And these are rightly so called expressions. As expressions, there isn’t a “right” or a “wrong” but a question of who you are, and perhaps more than anything it is really a confusion of who I am that keeps hanging me up.
I don’t have anything wrong with my current stock of jeans and t-shirts. I am pretty okay with what they say or don’t say about me, which mostly is summed up in the thought that on the day to day, what matters is just that my body is comfortable and covered. But there are times when I glimpse the magic, and I wish I was a more practiced changeling. I wish I had more skills and materials for painting my face and arranging my hair and becoming a different person, if only for a few hours. I wish I had interesting enough clothing in enough depth of closet to be able to tell totally different stories when I felt the occasion called for it.
I wish and I wash, because sometimes I wish I had a whole hat collection to wear, but other times I’m honest and admit that I don’t really like calling attention to myself so I’d probably never wear them in public. “Not liking attention” is a valid expression, so don’t yell at me for it. What stylistic changes can I affect, and still come across as honest? Where is the line between liking something, and liking something on me? Man, when you nail that spot of deliberately put together but not fake, understated but powerfully present, and perfectly suiting who you are–that’s some sort of rush. It feels good.
I know that as with any other skill, it’s something that some people have more of a knack for than others, but that anyone can get better with it if they actually practice. But my jealousy when I see someone who has hit this sweet spot is not that they know or have the means to do something I cannot, but that they know what they wanted to do.
Defined events help guide me. Wedding reception at the yacht and country club? Well, okay then. Tomorrow morning? Um, I don’t know? Which just seems so sad to me because it’s such a wasted opportunity. Not that I have to work that art every single day, but the fact that I can both recognize it as an art and then be incapable of figuring out how to hone that art on any kind of regular basis is to me a disappointment. Of course, there are plenty of things I’d like to get better at, from music to drawing to sewing to a multitude of other things. But for most of those things, I can grasp what the “next step” might be. Yet for this art, which I perceive to be both powerful and beautiful, I can’t seem to figure out my approach, in part because I believe it to require a certain amount of authenticity in order to be beautiful. “Faking it” doesn’t help, because the artful part of it is different ways of presenting yourself. So you need to be in it.
I don’t that I’ve gotten any closer to resolving the issue for myself, but I feel like I have at least defined two of my greatest frustrations. The first is that I don’t think it’s given frank respect it deserves. Appearance seems to be considered to equal shallowness, while art is considered to have great depth. It’s almost as though we are willfully struggling to not admit the extensive effect that appearance can have, and without respect, it remains a shallow field, which it ought not be.
The other is that I don’t know myself. I hate that feeling. I hate the feeling of being a stranger in my own body, and I feel like if I could break through that, so much would happen. The tension of self-consciousness and uncertainty holds me back from swimming (too tense to learn well), singing (vocal cords constrict), learning new skills (inherent hesitation of looking like the fool), dressing and even just carrying myself with the confidence of one who knows who they are, regardless of what humble station they might possess in this life. It kind of makes me mad, because I feel like, of all the things we don’t get to know in this life, we ought to be able to at least know ourselves. And yet so very often that doesn’t seem possible.
Being angry doesn’t help anything, but it might be helpful for me to honestly admit that might be part of why this keeps bugging me. If nothing else, I might have grasped more food for the thought.