Public Perceptions

Unsurprisingly, this post on self-respect and dressing with care generated some FABULOUS discussion. One of the threads that sprung up pretty quickly in the comments touched on dressing for oneself as opposed to dressing to please the observing world. I don’t usually do this, but I wanted to highlight this side conversation by calling out some of the thoughts you folks contributed. To kick things off, Ally Bean said:

I dress with care in a way that pleases me. I do my best with the funds that I have, but I don’t worry about how others will perceive me. If I did that would I not be giving my power away to the opinions of others? Allowing them to judge my self-worth based on their pre-conceived idea of who I should be?

I responded by saying that in my opinion, projecting your best self is the most important action but that I don’t think caring about how you are perceived is some great surrender or crime against the self. No person is an island, and the perceptions of others shape our realities whether we like it or not. They influence our careers, our social and love lives, our daily interactions … we cannot escape the influence of public opinion, and we cannot make all of our choices as if we were isolated beings.

Problems arise when the opinions and perceptions of others begin to rule our feelings about ourselves, when what others think erodes our self-worth and self-confidence. Anything in extreme will eventually become unhealthy, and that includes giving too much weight to the preferences of other human beings.

But I believe that any person who participates in society DOES care about how she is perceived. There are levels, of course, but we all do it. And it’s not bad or wrong unless it begins to unduly influence emotions and behaviors.

Trystan added:

There’s a difference between “worrying how others will perceive me” and “caring how others will perceive me.” Worry leads to bending backwards to meet arbitrary standards, like buying designer clothes or trying to be painfully thin. Caring is the acknowledgement that you are participating in society and want to be seen as a worthy of respect.

Which I think is an important distinction: One path is fraught with anxiety and may lead you to make choices that align more with external pressures than your own desires, preferences, even health. One path is influenced by societal norms and does contain elements of conformity, but still allows for personal expression and individuality. Care, don’t worry.

Alice then added:

The point Sal is making has nothing to do with fashionable or trendy I think, it has to do with presenting yourself outwardly in a manner that is consistent with how you feel inside. For example, if you show up for an interview dressed in a t-shirt and gym clothes, it will be very difficult for you to demonstrate that you do in fact care very much about getting the job. Everyone uses these superficial ways to make initial judgments, so if you can’t escape them, it seems reasonable to keep them in mind so they don’t cost you opportunities. Clothes will never be enough by themselves to get you through life, but they shouldn’t hinder you.

So well put. Our society is a clothed one, and the first level of judgement is attached to appearance. Since you can’t throw up your hands and refuse to participate in that social norm, you’re best served to utilize it to your advantage. And that doesn’t mean being trendy or shelling out for designer duds. It just means dressing to show that you like, know, value, and respect your inner self.

In my opinion, everyone is influenced by the opinions of friends and peers and the outside world. I don’t think it’s truly possible to “not care what anyone else thinks” about you, your choices, your image, body, and style. To truly not care about style and dressing, you’d have to join a nudist colony or live as a hermit. I know those are both cliched examples, but I stick by ’em: Dressing is a social action, and to strip it of its power you’d need to go to some real extremes. 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 sean dreilinger

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17 Responses to “Public Perceptions”

  1. Di

    I love this topic – as I figure out how to navigate my own world, as a stay-at-home mom AND as I figure out how to answer my children’s questions – “Why do we wear clothing?”

  2. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    This topic is always worth revisiting, because it affects us deeply. We *do* care how we are perceived by the world, most of us. We are social animals and that’s how we evolved, by belonging to groups. (There are always outliers on the bell curve, but most of them are not reading fashion/image blogs.)

    That said, many women and men don’t give a fig for what’s in style. I know and love some of them. Cheers to them! Truly “not caring” about appearance is a warning sign to me (a psychotherapist) that someone may be depressed or otherwise troubled.

    • AJ

      This was exactly my thought when I was reading the recent post and comments on whether people who aren’t interested in style are made to feel bad about it. There was at least initially a lot of assumption that people who weren’t interested in style also didn’t dress appropriately for occasions, and that can sometimes be true, but I don’t think it always is. My mother, for instance, is not particularly interested in style. She only reads an article on fashion if it happens to be in Redbook next to the salad recipe she wants to try. She wears a lot of slightly oversized tees in her time off, and dresses in classic Lands End and L.L. Bean. You will never see a insensible shoe on the woman’s foot. Her closet is full of khaki and cotton sweaters. Her hair is in the same no-nonsense haircut she’s worn it in since I was born thirty years ago. She wears minimal makeup and jewelry.

      She is always dressed appropriately for the occasion.

      She wears business casual clothes for her job as a school librarian, she wears comfortable dresses or shirts and skirts for events. She would never come to a funeral in jeans (one of the examples given in the last post). She cares about her appearance, but she doesn’t care about what’s in fashion.

      • Jen

        Oh my God, that’s my mother to a tee. Except she’s a high school teacher. She has about five pairs of cotton pants in a straight cut, neutral colors, and she rotates those with Goodwill tops/blouses. She has dresses and skirts for church, but we joke that she’s worn the same black dress for her prom for 30 years. I tell her when she goes her wardrobe will go back to where it came from . . . Goodwill (macbre, perhaps, but we find it amusing).

        My brother, who has Aspergers’ Syndrome, has to be reminded to bathe, brush his hair, teeth, wear deo. He’s incredibly smart, but he. just. doesn’t. care. at. all. about. appearance. He wears solid t-shirts in about three colors–gray, black, navy, and jeans or jean shorts year round with either his tennis shoes or boots. If Mom didn’t buy his clothes, I truly worry that he would be in t-shirts and jockey shorts in public.

        My dad wears an interesting array of Hawaiian shirts and khakis.

        And I’m a daily reader of fashion/style blogs. Go figure.

  3. Bubu

    I think if a compliment from someone on your appearance makes you feel good, then that there alone is proof enough that the opinions of others DO have an effect on you. The effect can be bad or good, but it is there. I don’t think we should rely too heavily on the opinions of others, good or bad, but rather dress and do most of what we do to align with our own inner selves. But I think it is somewhat disingenuous to say we don’t care, because we are social, relational animals who do in a lot of ways define ourselves vis a vis those around us.

  4. Dee

    Great points! Great topic! (thats all I have time for this morning…)

  5. Carolyn

    While I think these are very valid points, I personally believe that for most people, the focus should be on the standards set by society and not concern themselves with dressing for other people. Making sure clothes fit properly, having clothes in good condition, dressing professional for an interview, all standards to demonstrate that you care about yourself. However, being accessorized, perfectly done makeup, wearing designer brands, all things that should be done for yourself, if you choose to do them.

    In every engineering job interview, I never wore a suit, but always looked professional. My colleagues expressed concern each time because suits are the standard for interviews. But as an engineer, I’ve never worn a suit to work and I’ve never met an engineer who has, so why try to impress someone at an interview with one?

    I guess my point is that other people have the ability to set the tone of your style, but there are very few situations where people will ding you for not wearing something specific or being styled a certain way.

  6. Peter

    This is a fantastic topic and one I think about a lot. To me, it all comes down to a question of degree: How MUCH do you care what other people think; How MUCH do you invest in trying to control others’ perceptions of you through your clothes? I think most of us know how to dress in a way that won’t raise any eyebrows but that doesn’t cost us too much in terms of compromising our own sense of self.

    As you so aptly say, Sal, we live in a society and there are certain norms. But those norms have relaxed to such a degree (esp. for women, relative to what they were a century ago — no more corsets, or floor sweeping skirts!) that it shouldn’t be that big a deal to meet them. I’m a big believer in dressing well to show of respect toward others, not that I always do it! But just as I wouldn’t enter a church without a shirt on, I think — unless I’m going running in 90 degree heat — I should show my respect toward others by not dressing in a way that most people would consider inappropiate: no shoes, a ripped T-shirt, what have you.

    It’s a form of civility and respect for the public sphere — something woefully lacking in society today.

  7. Andi

    I don’t think it’s possible to not care about your appearance; as Patti says, that’s one of the signs that someone is depressed or apathetic. However, it is very possible to not care about style and simply do what needs to be done to get through your life. I’ve also spent time with people who have chronic conditions and often, their “style” is determined by what doesn’t hurt or cause obstructions for them. So style is optional while self-care is not.

    I also think there can be issues with style where it becomes tyranny. I sometimes have moods when I would like to be ignored or receive minimal attention for my appearance, and that’s considered “bad” for my mid-thirties age. As if I’ve given up on the concept of being sexy and desired because for today, I want to walk around without being accosted or having someone comment on what I’m wearing. I used to look forward to being older (50s-plus) because I thought I could just go for comfortable tracksuits and get on with the stuff I really wanted to do. However, we keep moving the appearance bar so even people in their 70s and 80s need to be “stylish.” Honestly, sometimes I resent it. I don’t exist to decorate your environment! Of course, when I’m wearing a heavy metal t-shirt and a neon green zebra skirt, I’m going to get comments whether I want them or not.

  8. Mel

    “…presenting yourself outwardly in a manner that is consistent with how you feel inside”

    Demonstrative story about this:

    My brother & I were attending our nephew’s garden wedding at our other brother’s new house. The invitation said that this was a garden wedding, suit/tie not required (notice it DIDN”T say suit/tie forbidden). I took that to mean you could wear a suit/tie if you wanted, but you didn’t have to.

    It was being held in the evening which in my mind required something more dressy than if it had been held in the afternoon. The reception was under a huge tent in the garden, with appropriate wedding decorations and a dj/dance floor.

    The house is very formal, as is the garden. The bride had a traditional dress, the bridesmaids were wearing knee-length pink dresses with pink flip flops. The groom & groomsmen were wearing black camo bermuda shorts with black polo shirts.

    We were trying to decide what to wear. We both felt that we wanted to honor the institution of marriage, honor this marriage, as well as show respect for our other brother – the groom’s dad…who wasn’t happy about the wedding party attire, but whatcha gonna do.

    We’d all been raised that you dress up for a wedding, so we were having a hard time dressing down too much.

    I would have liked to wear a floral dress of some sort, but never found one that fit. I ended up wearing dove gray dress capris, dressy Bandolino gray sandals, and a coral tank covered by a sparkly beaded floral sweater/cardigan thing. And some fun jewelry.

    My first brother looked exceedingly handsome in navy slacks, white shirt, burgundy tie, gray blazer. He’s very tall, very tan, very good-looking, has lots of salt/pepper hair. He looked fabulous, but not overdone (in my opinion).

    It’s also what he had…his other clothes are work jeans & work shirts, too casual for a wedding of any kind. His girlfriend wore a simple black sheath with pearls and black heels. They looked great together.

    We were outwardly showing how we inwardly felt….happy, respectful.
    We were happy to be there, happy to celebrate this wedding. Happy that our brother had such a nice new house and garden. Happy to see all our other brothers and their families. Missing our mom, who we’d just recently lost.

    This is the weird part: After we’d been there a short while, the second brother’s wife (the groom’s mom) comes flying out of the house on her broom and verbally, loudly attacks the first brother for his attire! My god! Didn’t he KNOW this was a GARDEN wedding?_)#($%* And on, and on, and on. How could he DO this to her???? To dress up like this when they said no shirt/tie_)#*($%

    She didn’t say anything to me or the girlfriend, who I thought were dresssed in a similar style to this brother.

    The other guests all stopped talking and just stared. I’m horrified.
    It’s not like he wore a tux, or even a suit.

    The first brother was so embarrassed the rest of the night. After a while, he took his tie & jacket off and put them in my car, but I think he was still embarrassed and self-conscious.

    I felt sooooo bad. I thought we were dressed appropriately for the occasion.

    Just goes to show ya, eh?

    • Anna

      Oh, dear. You and your brother put a lot of thought into your garb, and you honored the occasion, just as you intended. Clearly the groom’s mom is the one with the problem. At the very least, she should have known that a hostess must never, never embarrass a guest, especially by delivering such a tirade in front of the other guests.

  9. Diana

    I do definitely know people whom I really think do not care about how they dress, but there is a huge difference between not caring about style/fashion and not caring about cleanliness/decency/appropriateness. The first is fine and understandable, and the second is just disrespectful if you have any interaction with the outside world at all. It is NOT OK to get on the subway smelling like a garbage can or to go to the bank in a bikini. To give a less extreme example, I also think it’s really disrespectful to show up at a wedding wearing shorts and a tank top but it would be perfectly OK to wear a plain, nondescript dress. Similarly, I am all for flaunting style rules but not when it crosses the border into inappropriate. So, by all means wear black and brown together, but don’t walk around in your underwear.

  10. Katie

    I was very interested in clothes when I was younger, but being overweight I didn’t have a lot of fashionable options available to me and didn’t know about plus size stores. I wore jeans and t-shirts and was pretty happy with how I looked. I’ve since learned about plus stores and have gone through a career where suits were the norm, to being unemployed for several years, to now working from home. I rarely leave the house and find nothing wrong with my jeans, shorts, and t-shirts.

    A year ago, I found out my husband was having an affair, and the first thought that came to mind was that it was my fault for not taking the time to dress attractively (forget that being unemployed for all those years there was no money for clothes for me), or do my hair, or wear make-up. I decided to start “making an effort” and would do my hair and make-up and put on an attractive outfit before he got home from work each night (we are working on making it work out).

    Last week I found out that he’s still seeing her. So my instinct to blame myself and my appearance was obviously not the answer either. Now though I’ve come to like taking the time to dress nicely. I follow several blogs and have learned to bargain shop so that I can afford the clothes that I want. I once again DO care about my appearance, but have gotten past caring about it for the sake of what others think, and care just for the lift in mood that it gives ME.

    • Katie

      another note… I’ve noticed that other people treat me better since I dress better. I’m not ignored or treated as though I’m invisible in shops by the staff any longer. So taking the time to wear an outfit and accessorize and do hair and make-up results in better treatment from the world at large.

  11. Sara

    1st, Katie, your husband’s affair says everything about his character and nothing about your appearance.
    I don’t want to judge anyone I don’t know, and I know that you can’t know how a marriage truly is behind closed doors, but I felt it was important that someone say that to you.

    As for the comments you selected, Sal, I thought they were very interesting. I don’t recall whether I read or skimmed the original post, but this follow-up brought something to mind. How you present yourself to the world has a lot to say about your state of mind, as you mentioned. The phrase “let yourself go” is a loaded one; sometimes employed to wound, sometimes employed out of jealously, sometimes out of concern. It’s the last usage that I’m thinking of now.

    When I hear that someone has “let themselves go” I worry if everything is alright with them, as one of the first things to fall by the wayside when someone is ill or suffering depression tends to be their appearance. I’m wondering what your thoughts on the phrase might be?

  12. ME

    It isn’t important if someone is dressed stylish. What is important is whether they’re clean and did they take the time to dress appropriately or decently? If they cared and respected themselves wouldn’t they take the time to dress appropriately? How can someone respect a person that doesn’t care to take enough time for themselves? (new mom’s excluded) =)
    I’ve heard a lot of excuses about not being able to dress; time, money, fit. Whatever, they’re just that; excuses. It’s just as easy to throw on a cute dress and a belt as it is to throw on a hideous pair of sweat pants and t-shirt. Probably cheaper too. Wonderful clothes can be found for cheap at second hand stores. And of all sizes. By the way, the “fit” should be just that, not sweat pants that double the size of the body. LOL Sort of defeats the whole purpose. What happen to the days when people were embarrassed to be seen in public in such attire? (sigh)