Thoughts on Appearances

I saw this quote recently, attributed to the late Australian activist/comedian Stella Young:

“To live unapologetically in a body you’re consistently told you should be ashamed of is the most political act of all.”

While her comment came in the context of her activism for disabled people, the sentiment struck a chord I my head. I’m blessed with a high degree of health and ability, yet I too am constantly bombarded with messages designed to shame many parts of me and my body as a whole. As I considered this quote and its underlying message, the following thoughts forced their way out of my head, and I wanted to share them.

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Appearance, outward presentation of a worldly image, representation of identity. What we look like, the choices we make in clothing, grooming, mannerisms–these are so closely tied in our minds and in the eyes of society with the very core of a person’s being and character that entire industries have grown up around the concept to cater to our perpetuation of ideals of personal appearance. For some of us, our appearance and presentation are inextricably linked to our sense of self and reflect not only the gender, sexual and personal identity we claim for ourselves, but also reflect how we feel about and relate to that identity.

Appearance matters on so many levels. Judgements are made and fates sealed, often based in nothing more than what a person looks like and how that appearance makes the observer feel. Right or wrong, this is fact.

Lately, we’ve seen the horror and tragedy that results when such appearance-based judgments are permitted to spiral in power to the point of becoming, quite literally, weaponized. Though racism and other forms of abuse and discrimination are much more than just reactions to appearances, it seems to start from there. The color of someone’s skin, the size and shape of their body, the style, cut, color and condition of their clothing and hair, all have formed the basis of more than one tragic narrative of suffering and loss.

Let’s also remember mannerisms, tone, timbre and moderation of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. These too are crucial elements of a person’s presentation of themselves. And just as have race, skin color, and clothing, so have mannerisms become politicized and weaponized.

But it’s not all tragic. From some of these struggles has come a greater freedom of expression for many on the margins of society. Fashion has long been a critical component to social change. From the radical suffrage fighters in pants and bloomers, to turtle-necked beat-nicks, from “long-haired hippies” to grunge and indie hipsters, fashion and appearance have been used to polarize opinion and stimulate thought and acceptance leading to broader changes promoted by those whose style and appearance brought the spotlight to the issues.

That’s what fashion, style, and presentation mean to me. A means to facilitate change. But I’m not aiming for change beyond myself. I’ve spent the last several years, decades really, seeking to mold and improve myself, to make myself the best me I can be. Although I have not succeeded in certain aspects, I have at least found a presentation that coincides with the person I feel I am inside.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and multi-year process, I will just say that when I made the choice to forsake forever any attempt at achieving femininity and embrace the image of me that’s always lived in my head, I knew a moment of pure joy. I left behind me the crushing weight of perpetual failure to be what was foisted upon me. For that one moment I was nothing but truly me.

To be sure, there were ensuing years of doubt and struggle and denial and sadness. Doubts about who I was, if not the beautiful little princess my mother dreamed I would be. Struggles, within and without, raged on about whether I deserved to achieve my dreams, if I was unwilling to do so inside the confines of society’s box of expectations. Denial dogged me all along the way: others’ denial of my identity and autonomy, my own denial of my true self. There was a goodly amount of sadness as well, in the disappointment of my family’s vision for me and sadness at their inability to see the happy me that resulted from all that soul-searching & self determination.

But even through the dark of those consequences, the joy, the rightness of presenting in my outward appearance a true reflection of the inner me, brought a measure of peace. The comfort of my mind from putting my body into clothes and hair into a style that coincided with that inner certainty gave me confidence that I could never find in another presentation.

That struggle to throw off the burden of gender, peer, family, church and societal expectations regarding who and what I should and am permitted to be, to look like, has been all-consuming. To tear down every sign and symptom of who you have been told you are and to rebuild your own life and self in the image of your inner voice is a radical, sometimes desperate and violent act of rebellion. And it’s also the truest, most personal act of self determination.

For me, this is the political act that Stella Young referenced. Every time I don a crisply pressed dress shirt and bow tie, every time the shears clip away the excess growth of my graying faux-hawk, even when I’m “sirred” by an inattentive waiter or checkout clerk, a little zing of rightness, of validation surges through me.

My ‘political act’ is about freedom, really, on the individual scale. By choosing to flout the societal conventions of gender binary presentation and proudly wearing the outward appearance that fits my gender and personal identity, I’ve chosen freedom. I’ve accepted all the benefits of the power and privilege conferred through conformity to those arbitrary conventions, while simultaneously rejecting the burden of that conformity. What’s left is the freedom to be exactly me at any given moment, regardless of the “should” and “shouldn’t” messages society showers over us all the time.

That’s a lot of lofty, ideological meaning to stuff into the simple concept of outward appearance. But sometimes the meaning underlying the simplest things have complex, far-reaching impacts. That’s true for me when it comes to appearances.

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