No Woman is an Island

We all dress ourselves.

A while back, a reader wrote to me to weigh in on an older post about outside influences on style choices. She asserted that, as a teen, she dressed as she wished and ignored the opinions of her peer group. She also felt that the generations moving through puberty and into adulthood right now are considerably more immune to peer influence … that kids these days don’t care what people think about how they look or dress. Furthermore, she stated that she felt no impact from outside opinions at all, be they negative or positive.

But in my opinion, everyone is influenced by the opinions of friends and peers and the outside world. Some women allow themselves to be overtly influenced by their peer group, and dress similarly to their friends and acquaintances. They go with the flow, fit into the mainstream, and are quite happy there. Some women dress “how they want,” which sometimes translates to dressing in unusual or outrageous clothes, or clothing associated with certain philosophies, cultural movements, or scenes. And more power to them for doing so, if it makes them feel strong and positive about themselves. But there’s often an element of rebellion in that kind of dressing, and that is outside influence at play. If you’re pushing against something, that something is influencing your behavior. Also there are generally a few other people in the peer groups of rebellious dressers who dress similarly. Again, these folks may be fitting in with a FAR smaller segment of the population, but they’re still fitting in.

As for not caring what people think, I guess I’m not sure that’s truly possible, either. Resisting negative comments is not the same as not caring. Those comments generally still hurt … or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, may reinforce behaviors and choices surrounding image and dressing. Resisting positive comments is not the same as not-caring, either. That immunity may be tied to poor self-image, often a result of hypervigilance about outside opinions. To truly not care about style and dressing, one would have to join a nudist colony. We all dress ourselves, we all make decisions about how to do so. We have taste, likes, dislikes, physical needs and preferences, and all of those things are expressed in our stylistic choices.

And none of that is BAD. It just is. Humans aren’t meant to live in isolation – physical or psychological – and accepting the influence of those around us is what makes us social creatures. We express ourselves through dressing, and that is never done in a vacuum.

Image courtesy Boden

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Originally posted 2009-11-25 06:43:00.

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33 Responses to “No Woman is an Island”

  1. Meli22

    well, I watched 'what not to wear' for years. Some people start out saying they don't care about how they look (and some violently!) and in the end they almost all say that it was their way of hiding their low self esteem. In the end, they felt better and liked the positive reactions they got from others when they looked good.

    having been a teen who dressed 'alternativly' with many freinds who did the same, I can say that many people who stand out do it because of three reasons:

    1. the varied reactions amuse them/they like it. Any attention is good attention to SOME people. look different to get attention.

    2. The rebellion is part of it too- many feel they are better than other people who 'fit in'. Obviously this line of thinking is flawed, but what teenager doesn't want to feel better about themselves?

    3. Their friends dress alternativly, so they do too. (that was me!)

    When an adult, however, continues these teeny-bopper ideas, we have a problem. It is time to grow up and open your mind to new possibilities. It is not necessary to do such things for attention or to stand out. Personal style is that- personal, make it your own, stand out, but do it in an appropriate way. If you like a look, do it! You don't HAVE to fit into a style catagory- of ANY kind. Do what you like!

    My friends and I dressed 'goth' before it was popular. not happy memories, the reactions I had to it from teachers and other students, but my personality won most people over. I only dressed that way because my friends did. I secretly admired the girls who had $ and dressed 'preppy'. Now I wear what I want, and it's a little of everything.

  2. Katharine

    Teens these days are immune to peer influence? Oh, HA HA HA HA!

    As far as I can tell, the Internet has only codified and spread rules that used to be local. If you want to be harajuku or scene or whatever, you can now find international eHow pages on how to do that.

    There might be a few more teens who are a bit more secure in their local weirdness because they now have Internet peers. But as far as I can tell, the kids in groups outside my local high schools are just as homogenous as kids in groups ever were. And the solitary kids on the edges stand out just as much, and are just as solitary.

    I would also like to offer, for entertainment, this site:
    Go down the right-hand side, and check out the rules on "how to dress scene." "Scene is a very individual style. But be sure you follow these guidelines, or you will no longer be scene." The "rules" about how real scenesters don't describe themselves as scene, because that would make them posers, are fantastic.

  3. La Historiadora de Moda

    In academia there are a lot of people (both male and female) who claim to not care about how they are dressed. For the most part this is a rebellion against mainstream culture and society. Their argument is that what they wear does nothing to contribute to their scholarship or their teaching and that putting effort into cultivating a personal style is a waste of time and energy that could be better spent writing another book review, article, or course proposal. Their point of view is very prevalent in the academy, to the point where caring about fashion and dressing fashionably can make you be seen as a less than serious scholar. This is starting to change, as a newer generation who has decided what they wear has nothing to do with their tenure folder and that looking good can boost self-confidence and transmit a message of authority, organization, and nuance to colleagues and students has started to rise through the ranks of the tenure chain. Still, it can be risky for young (especially female academics) who need the approval of the older guard to get jobs, get promoted, and get tenured to be seen as caring about how they dress. That's one of the reasons that I blog using a moniker.

  4. Sal

    La Historiadora de Moda: Indeed! I've heard from fellow bloggers and friends who teach in university settings that an interest in fashion can create quite the stigma.

    But would you agree that academics who vehemently oppose fashion and fashionability are still pushing against those things, and therefore influenced by them? I feel like anyone who claims not to care how they're dressed may instead mean that they don't like clothes. Since we all dress ourselves, we all care to SOME extent. Sometimes that caring just manifests as dressing casually, simply, shoddily, or in some way that shows a disdain for showy clothing.

    Am I making sense? I feel like I'm veering off into Ramblytown now …

  5. Linda

    I think people EXIST who sincerely don't really care what they look like. I recently edited an article partly about a woman who had something like eight children and five MIT degrees and was getting back into her engineering career. I kind of cringed when I saw the picture that went with the story, featuring this woman in overgrown hair, ill-fitting bra, mid-calf-length too-big straight skirt, and I think socks and black sneakers, but damn, that lady has a lot going on! I'm willing to believe she was just trying to cover her nakedness.

    But still, I agree that MANY people who claim not to care what they look like, actually do care in a different way.

    And I had no idea until this morning that there was such a thing as "dressing scene."

  6. La Historiadora de Moda

    You are making sense, and, in my opinion, yes, they are pushing against these trends. Many of them are consciously aware of the statement they are making by shunning fashion. How that translates into dress varies. Some wear the same black jeans and t-shirt or button down every day. Some wear track suits. Some wear an ill-fitting suit that they bought in the 80s.

  7. Stephanie Vincent

    Its funny I was at the mall last weekend and I was laughing how all the teens were dressed sooo similiar. Lots of skinny jeans and ughs (i don't even know how to spell that!). I think "fitting in" is a natural part of growing up. Maybe its by trying to fit in that we figure out that we are different. How cool is it to be an adult and not have to think about your friends when you are getting dressed!!

    there is a difference between not caring what other people think, and just not caring and taking pride in your appearance. Who really feels good about themselves in baggy sweats (weekends, lounging around excluded)

  8. Sal

    Linda: Also, your example of the mom of eight with five MIT degrees? I'm gonna concede that she probably truly doesn't give a flying rat's ankle about style! Not even in a subconscious, reactionary way. I'm sure she picks her clothes based on their practical/comfort value, considering everything she has to juggle, but she might be one of the only people on earth who gives nary a thought to her wardrobe and just picks whatever is nearest the bed.

    Bless her, I cannot imagine trying to handle that much LIFE.

  9. Sal

    ALSO! (Boy, am I chatty today, or what?) Just wanted to reiterate that I am not putting this idea forth as any sort of judgment. Objectively speaking, I believe social humans are affected by the aesthetic choices of other social humans. I don't personally feel that it's bad or good to be more or less influenced, bad or good to react passively, bad or good to rebel against mainstream style … I'm just making observations and looking for input from my astute and thoughtful readers.

    Also I think that since teens are in a stage of life where style is just beginning to be a primary identifier, I think they can be more susceptible to strong feelings about peer influence than adults. But we're ALL affected by the styles of those around us, be we 15 or 50.

  10. fleur_delicious

    I agree, Sal! And here's why:

    There's no such thing as a cultural vacuum. We grow up, we live, surrounded by aesthetic and practical and ideological and moral (and on and on) choices made by other people.

    We may not track trends, but we see other people (and their bodies) in clothing. Perhaps our parents raised us to wear whatever we liked and not worry about gender types or being in-fashion, etc. but you still saw what other kids wore at school. Even if you didn't care, those messages, those ideas, those colours and cuts and silhouettes are everywhere – and the senses are taking them in.

    Do some people truly not notice at all? I think your woman with the five degrees is the perfect example. But I think that, for the vast majority of the rest of us, we are moving in these currents of culture – whether we swim with, swim against, or maybe just kind of tread water and wait (I'm sitting out the "skinny jeans," for example; they just don't look good on me), that's still influence and it's still participating in this big cultural machine.

    and that's all I'll say. No such thing as a cultural vacuum.

  11. shizzknits

    such an interesting discussion! Sal, I think you're right in saying there are some people who just don't give a 'rat's ankle' as to what they are wearing. I know that for the first year after my super-colicky – cried 8hrs a day – never napped DS was born, clothes and style were not a priority. Keeping DS from crying was! I know I left the house numerous times wearing whatever was on the floor next to the hamper, be it wrinkled, smelly, mismatched or whatever. As long as I was covered I didn't care. Really. Didn't. Care.

    But about the time DS turned 15 mos. (and I finally night weaned him so I could get more than 2hrs of sleep at a time), I started to look at myself and in the mirror and say "WTH?" My sister (super stylish) came out and we shopped for a whole new wardrobe to fit my new post-baby body.

    I think at the time, I was just so overwhelmed (like the lady with the many kids and MIT degrees), that style fell to the waysaide. Also, for me, style involves creative energy- something what was sorely lacking during my son's first year. I am a pretty creative person and have painted, written and photographed a lot over my life…but there is almost NOTHING like that from that year. I just didn't have the energy!

    I also agree that for many people, 'not caring' what they wear is a shield for low-self-esteem. They feel too big, or too short, or shaped 'wrong' to fit into mainstream clothes and so it's easier to say "I don't care" than to face another fitting failure in the store.

  12. crispybenfranklin

    As a sociologist, I really appreciate this post. No action can really exist outside the social context that creates it. Even attempts not to care are responses to what it means to care and are frames as such.

  13. Rosie Unknown

    I sometimes worry that I wear things simply because I want to stand out, but as some of my style is becoming slightly more main stream over here, I have realized that I just dress how I do because I like it.

    For a while I did think that I wasn't influenced by other people, but now I know that I spend way too much time reading blogs and looking at clothing to not be a huge, for lack of better words, fruit salad of styles.

    Great post!

  14. childfreelife

    The people I know who have literally not cared about what other people thought of their looks were very unusual people.

    These people I am speaking of did not comb their hair or wash it often. Usually wore sweats all the time and badly fitting t-shirts even though the occasion called for something nicer.

    I think an absolute lack of caring shows in bad hygiene not unique personal or rebellious style. Rebellious style is a different type of caring, you want to feel independent, and be a little outcast. Not caring at all means you wouldn't mind if people felt sick from your b.o.

  15. kristophine

    Research social psychologist. I started getting my hair cut and wearing button-up shirts about a year into my degree because dang, you read about four of the studies on social perception and it becomes pretty obvious that not only do we judge a book by its cover, but those judgments can have profound effects on quality of life. And there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of studies on how the way we look influences how people treat us. I don't want to change my face, but I can change my clothes.

    And the way we present ourselves is an expression of how seriously we take the context we're in. At a job interview, you dress to look like a responsible person; people who don't bother to are probably less responsible. So, while some manifestations of instantaneous judging are immoral in my opinion–racial judgments, for example–some visual cues do give us valuable information. (Of course, then you get into the problems associated with assuming that dominant culture=good and that people in a marginalized group just need to "try harder" or assimilate better. I am, however, not equipped to discuss those problems.)

    My sister is an anthropologist, and don't even get her started on cultural context. She would definitely say that no one acts, or even thinks, independently of society; the way we view the world is intimately shaped by the language, traditions, and mores of our culture. Western society values individualism, which may make it easier to FEEL as though we're acting independently of our society, but the very fact that we value that independence is a product of our environment.

  16. LPC

    I do think the social contract exists, whether you try to abide by it or not. The thing is, if you decide you don't care, someone might care about your not caring, and you are likely to care that they care that you don't care. People, as Sal points out, don't exist in isolation.

  17. Claire

    Looking back now at my high school days, I laugh in wonder at my obliviously funny little outfits (which I loved), and wacky "sense of style". I actively thought through the subject of looks/dress/makeup in relation to my peer group at 14, concluding that I would probably be happiest if I based my behaviors on my own thoughts about the matter. Other opinions were certainly observed/noted/acknowledged but just not relevant. It was a very rational/logical (rather than rebellious/emotional) process, and I bathed blissfully for years in sea of secure self-expression. In and after college, I became more cognizant of ideas of fashion and looking one's "best self", but always in the context of what made the inner me feel good.

    Perhaps the confusion is because we all have differing meanings of the term. To many, "not caring" definitely has a negative, defiant slant, including things like poor hygiene (which is obviously not healthy for a person and was not part of my teenage definition of "not caring")…
    What's a better term for what I'm/we're trying to capture here? Maybe, "happily impervious" or "mindfully immune"?

    I have always wondered what internal force generated that thought process and logical conclusion, because it has given me the most rock solid foundation of self-esteem on which to lean, as far as this issue goes. I can sympathize with, but not relate to the loathing of the body or hyper-self-consciousness that so many women (and men) feel daily. Perhaps in the same way, folks who haven't experienced this sense of profound positive self-image cannot as easily perceive how one can "not care" in a healthy, non-rebellious way…
    Or maybe I should say, be mindfully immune?

  18. Sal

    Claire: Fascinating! And I can totally see it. So many of our decisions about dressing have to do with acceptance – either wanting it, actively NOT wanting it, wanting it but not realizing that we want it, and on and on. But someone who is truly secure in her self image could allow bits of that outside influence in, yet monitor it and make decisions about how to react to it. Someone who is more reliant on outside input – for acceptance, feedback, something to push against, whatever – would be naturally more affected by it. Consciously or subconsciously.

    I’d still wager that you were somewhat affected by outside opinions and influences, since what you wore was drawn from what was available to you for purchase, and that was determined by market demand. Also it sounds like dressing in a state of mindful immunity made you feel really, genuinely good about yourself … was any of that comparative? As in, you felt happy with your choices and liberated in your ability to do what you wanted, as opposed to peers who dressed more mainstream? Not trying to undermine your argument, I’m genuinely curious.

    Also, when you got to college and assimilated a bit more, did you feel deflated? Why do you think it was at that time that you let a little more outside influence in?

    Thanks for sharing a different perspective so thoughtfully and respectfully. You've made me rethink my stance!

  19. Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP

    Very true! Teenagers these days may not dress to gain the approval of adults, but they will be wanting to get the approval of their peers, not necessarily all of them, but the ones THEY admire.

    We all make choices about our appearance, even the 'non-choosers' are making a choice.

    Great and thought provoking post!


    I'm guilty sometimes…I seem to dress to impress others! Confidence isn't one of my virtue…getting there soon I hope!
    Wonderful Thanksgiving Sal!!

  21. Jael Paris

    I used to substitute. All the kids wore jeans, Sketchers, and expensive hoodies from Abercrombie. Then they would complain that uniforms would ruin their individuality.

    I dressed strangely because I loved vintage a good decade before it was cool. The more people told me my clothing choices were strange, the more I wanted to wear them.

  22. Audi

    I agree that not being affected by negative comments and not caring what people think are two very different things. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who really and truly does not care what other people think of their appearance; they may not act on it, either because they lack the skills, the incentive, or the money, but they probably care nonetheless.

  23. Hanako66

    I agree with you, people always care about their appearance…I find it hard to believe that anyone, especially a teen, doesn't!


    Since when have teenagers ever dressed to gain the dis/approval of anyone other than their peers?

    As I pondered this discussion I know for certain that my tendency to wear jeans and a t-shirt comes from my fashion experiments in grades 7, 8, and 9.

    We had very little money for clothes, but when I got to junior high suddenly kids were wearing really expensive and quite distinctive items. I watched some of the poorer kids (and tried it out myself a few times) who wore designer knock-offs of these distinctive pieces. They were trying to fit in, but they always looked kind-of cheap and sad.

    That's when I discovered that I could spend less money on a lower priced pair of jeans and a plainer t-shirt, look presentable, feel decent about myself, and avoid looking cheap and sad. I realize now that this is deeply rooted in my sense of style.

    I am currently trying to break out of it slowly. I am both practical and dramatic, and I want my clothes to reflect that.

  25. Claire

    Hey Sal!

    I was actually mulling that exact same point about being limited by what was available to buy (just ran out of steam/time!). That time of my life was mostly the domain of my beloved TJMaxx and thrift stores (by choice). I was aware of money early as a kid and remain on the frugal side to this day in total contrast to my sisters (my parents were lucky – husband too, I guess!) However, I was also fortunate enough that my grandma could sew clothes, and we had wonderful occasion to go out and pick buttons and fabric and ribbons and create the clothes I imagined right out of my head!

    Sorry to digress… anyway, I think I was really in my own world when it came the personal appearance thing. In retrospect, I had no concept of "fashion" (as I know it now) whatsoever. I didn't perceive my peers' or friends' ways of dressing in labeling terms like "mainstream" or "preppy" or "alternative" or whatever trend was going on when I was in high school (90-94), or even as "cool" or "uncool". I didn't really think in terms of comparing myself in that way at all, I think partly due to the fact that I have close to the antithesis of a competitive nature. The mindful immunity was cultivated organically and almost unknowingly, from those initial thoughts and musings early in high school. Only now can I analyze and wonder at it (and be thankful). Also, your word "liberated" really resonates. I felt contentedly free and unencumbered, not in a comparative sense, but more in the joy-of-self-acceptance/self-actualization-a-la-Maslow way.

    It was truly miraculous in college when I started to become aware of fashion as we know and love it; I was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole of budding awareness in regards to "personal style". It's like I opened a toy chest and I've never stopped playing and digging in. It was a new discovery, and there was no deflation, only elation. I can only attribute it to maturity, growing up and noticing new things. And it is absolutely fascinating to me how personal style is one of those things that seems to evolve and evolve and change and never quite rest, you know? Kind of a fun-filled enigma!

    I just want to qualify by saying all this is definitely in the realm of body/appearance/self-image. I was never this healthy so early regarding issues of my dysfunctional family, academics, boys, illness, and all the other things life throws at you. So, thanks for facilitating this visit down a happy and informative memory lane… hope I managed to answer your questions along the way! 🙂

  26. bekster

    Sal, I completely agree. Even those who may consciously decide to reject outside influences still know that they are being perceived by those around them, and I have a hard time believing that they don't feel good when they think that others think they look good (even if they are not mimicking the styles they see on others).

    I also agree that none of this is bad. This is just how things work, and the sooner we admit that, the happier we'll be. No one likes to be stereotyped or cast into a role, but I believe it is true that people are happy when they fall into their roles. They just like to think that they have control instead of someone else forcing it on them. Someone may say, "I dress like this because I want to; I don't care what anyone thinks," because they don't like the idea of being controlled by society. However, if they decide "on their own" to do whatever it is that society is suggesting to them, they will feel good because they think they are in control. Either way it doesn't matter. They are still in society and it will behoove them to figure out how they fit into it (and "rebel" still counts as a role) instead of acting like they are independent of society. (Even if such a thing were possible, if someone really could cut themselves off from all influences of society, what a lonely thing that would be! I love fashion and style, but give me people over all of that any day.)

  27. emma wallace

    I totally agree! In high school, I had friends that didn't like something because it was "too popular" and I'd try to explain that they are in the exact same mind frame (just opposite) as those who like something because it is popular.
    What an interesting post!

  28. Maria

    Considering my department at university, I think that there are quite a few people who do not care about how they dress – simply because they do not recognize clothes as a reflection of their personality and can thus act outside the cultural context.

    In some ways, I think it's a bliss to be judged on a purely professional basis, however, others are being considered shallow just because they do care about shoes and dresses (on top of being female…).

    It's odd how people can ignore the impact of their own looks, but react so intensely if others care about style. Any sociologist around with a good explanation? ;o)

  29. bluerose

    Of course we are the sum of our experiences, and they normally come from the outside world. But I think your thesis of people dressing to (dis)please others mostly applies to younger people. As I get older, I more and more dress from an "inner" aesthetic. More to complete the picture I have of myself. And generally I find that "rules" don't resonate with me at all.

  30. Rebecca

    I've enjoyed the discussion….don't have a lot to add. I find the subject very interesting. Not sure I read anyone's assessment of where the issue of personal "taste", perceptions and preferences enter in….

  31. Brittanny

    This is my favorite quote: "Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I've ever known." – Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

    I remember in high school dressing somewhat like what was the style and nowadays at 26 I still dress by what's popular. Not because I want to fit in but because if I go into a store and all they have is what is the latest trend, that's what I'm buying.

    I am definitely influenced by the people I hang out with. I'm a photographer and lately my two closest friends are the personal styling manager at Nordstrom (who happens to plus size) and an alternative model (who happens to be size 0). I draw inspiration from both of them every time I hang out with them. As being a plus size girl myself who finds it hard to find stuff that is stylish and that fits me properly, when I find another girl like me who looks amazing, I have no problem copying her style. My size 0 friend is obsessed with everything black and gray and I'm noticing myself leaning more towards those colors.

    I don't think it's bad that I'm influenced by my friends. As a fashion photographer I am aware of what's going on and in style so of course I will take that into consideration when I go shopping.

    In response to the original email you received, I do think that by dressing however they want, she is being influenced by outside opinions because she is doing the opposite of whatever she thinks is expected of her. I know of people who say they don't care how they dress and in turn dress like bums, but that was their choice to dress that way, which to me means that outside opinion had some impact on that choice.

  32. Bianca

    Ah this is very interesting. Not so much for myself – I know what image I want to present to others and dress towards that. 100% percent no shame in it for me at all.

    As for the teen angle – I think they don't have much to work with…As a parent of a jr. high age child, I herd her directly over to the juniors dept of the local Kohls, JCPennys, Aeropostale etc and then as she wanders all over in circles looking for one of two special gems that best suit her personality, I send back the ones that are too snug, too short, too oversized or just overall inappropriate in MY mind for a young person….She usually ends up making due with hoodies, colorful skinny jeans, "statement" tees and then a cacophony of accessories, since I tend not to edit those too much. I do wonder how much freedom we give teens to choose their own looks in the first place, between the juniors stores/depts stocking 5 "styles" (preppy, girly, rocker, sporty or hip-hop)and then parents further editing, its hard to blame it on the kids and their peers as some of the previous posts have noted. 🙂

    I can however attest that the teens I know personally are very self-centric. I know my daughter goes WAY out if her way to find things that are unique looking, as do most of the other kids in her school. They want to be the only one with XYZ. Now, this may be because they wear uniforms, and in her district will wear uniforms all through HS, so perhaps their self-expression is more valuable to them, as they get so little of it. That would be an interesting study.

    And I am afraid I have rambled now, and responded out of context.

    Thank you for the interesting post!