Thursday, May 24, 2007

How We Look and Who We Are: Part 2

I never questioned my belief that a well-executed makeover was an unmitigated force for good until six months ago, when I got cable TV for the first time in my life and started watching What Not To Wear on TLC. There were new-to-me episodes every day, so I got a heavy dose all at once. And I started to notice something.

Everyone sort of looked the same after their transformations. Sure, each woman had a different hair cut and color and most flattering skirt length, but the overall effect was so sanitized and homogeneous. This troubled me.

Were you a biker chick? Now you're a catalog model. Computer geek? Catalog model. Missionary barrel? Catalog model. Japanese schoolgirl? Catalog model. Art student? Catalog model. Call girl? Catalog model.

I found myself seriously dismayed at how much this was occupying my thoughts. All this thinking led me to a few conclusions:

I have wasted a lot of energy in my life by fretting over the fact that I feel like the way I look doesn't reflect who I really am. To a lesser degree, this goes for the way my house is decorated too. It's like I would have a disclaimer sign hanging around my neck if I could. "I know I don't have cool hair and I'm just wearing kind of lame jeans and a plain T-shirt from Old Navy, but I'm a really interesting person." This is silly, silly, silly.

These women who were made over let go of the personas that their clothing was creating for them. Did this make them less "them?" At first I thought so, but now I think it's the opposite. Is it so bad if people don't immediately put us in a particular category just by looking at us? If I dress like I only hang out in biker bars, people who aren't dressed like bikers are going to assume we have nothing in common. And I'm going to have a narrower view of how I fit in to the greater culture as well. There's still a place for personal style in all this. I just now think that our experience will be broader if we're not trying so hard to send signals as to who we are with the clothes we wear. Let's do a little work to get to know one another.

I happened to stumble across a post by Joe Carter (hat tip to Wittingshire) who was thinking along similar lines. Although his ultimate point was that bloggers tend to undermine the content of their blogs by focusing too much on expressing themselves with the aesthetics of their blogs, his example is quite pertinent:

"To see what I mean, look at the dress code of the modern teenager. One of the biggest challenges I faced on recruiting duty was explaining to teenagers what I call the paradox of uniformity. They believed that expressing themselves by how they wore their clothes, hair, makeup, or jewelry helped them to stand out from the crowd. Instead, it merely provided signals about their chosen subgroups.

Whether the signals provided clues about class (rich kids wear expensive clothes), sub-culture (skaters sporting funky haircuts), or interests (a t-shirt of their favorite band), they provided a useful means for the teens to pigeonhole themselves into their chosen stereotypes. (The extremes of nonconformity often lead to the most extreme conformity. Have you ever seen a "Goth" that didn't look like every other Goth since the 1980s?)

Paradoxically, forced standards of conformity (such as wearing a military uniform) cause people to send and receive signals about personality in ways other than dress. The individual personality traits of people in the military tend to stand out more for their colleagues because they are not camouflaged by the normal civilian clothing signals."

I can't tell you how many mornings I spent in high school gazing into my closet in utter despair, fervently wishing that my school required uniforms.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know humans are creative by nature, and I don't think it's BAD to enjoy expressing oneself by carefully curating one's appearance. It's just not EVERYTHING. (Please take note, hipster parents whose children sport 70's hair-dos and $50 t-shirts. But that's another post for another day.)

Just as with most things in life, there remains a tension as one tries to find a balance between two extremes. (FYI: one of the things I MOST anticipate about Heaven is the cessation of the lifelong struggle of discerning and maintaining this balance. I'll get it just right.)

I'll end with this observation: The VERY very best artists of all sorts are almost without fail not the ones who look "artsy." They look like they shop at JC Penney.

Just sayin'.


Danica said...

So . . . Gypsy . . . are you a closet nudist?


Gypmar said...

Well, if by "closet nudist" you mean someone who would prefer not to be nude outside of a dark closet, the answer is yes, absolutely.

But, no, I don't think we have to go that far. And it's only on REALLY crabby days that I daydream about universal uniforms for all the citizens of the world. I guess crabbiness brings out my inner fascist.