POSTED ON MAY 20, 2009:
Heart on My Sleeve
When it comes to self-image, others' opinions usually matter
One Valentine's Day in high school, I showed up in an outfit I had spent weeks meticulously planning. Both time and money had been invested in finding all of the components: a denim pencil skirt, ankle socks and a pair of black peep toe pumps. The outfit was a replica of something I'd seen somewhere, a runway show or a fashion magazine spread. It certainly wasn't an outfit being worn by my fellow classmates, and I thought I was too cool. Apparently, I was too cool for school. After a morning spent filled with snickers and strange glances, I removed the socks even before lunch arrived.
We expect this kind of behavior and therefore succumb to pressure before we have supposedly "found ourselves." But just a few months ago, I exited a dressing room in a lame multicolor top that I liked and thought fit well. My friend quipped that it looked like something a grandma would wear, my sister just laughed, and I ended up leaving it at the store.
Some highly evolved people say that opinions don't matter, but I'm not certain that's true when it comes to how we present ourselves. How people react to our appearance is very important. Unable to step outside of our own head to get a real perspective of how we look, we rely on the kindness (or lack thereof) of friends, family and even strangers. This really just boils down to asking their opinion.
People often share their opinions without being asked. As the recipients of those suggestions, we can choose to believe what they offer or simply ignore them. But, if we choose option B, has a tiny seed been planted in our head, growing later down the road that causes us to question all ensembles? If a friend makes a joke about something we're wearing, will it affect us the next time we put it on? And will it make us change? All these questions compel a person to wonder if, no matter what we choose to wear, we are always wearing our hearts on our sleeve?
I decided to question people who, from the outside, appear to have a strong sense of who they are. Someone on the shaky ground of self-discovery would be more likely to follow the crowd, so I wanted to speak with people who appeared confident and self-assured. No science was used in my selection process, just my own keen observation.
Amy, 23, an avid shopper and a lover of all things fashionable, said that she became comfortable with her fashion choices and style during high school and started to build her wardrobe for her own enjoyment and not to fit in with the crowd. She does describe her approach to fashion as not caring what other people think, but drilling down a bit further and you find that she does take into consideration other peoples' opinions, as I believe we all do.
She said that she doesn't ask for assistance from retail staff to help find an outfit (like telling a sales person to help her find a dress for a formal event, for instance); but when shopping in specialty stores, she relies on the knowledge of the staff to point her in the right direction. At a certain point, however, she takes the reigns in making the decision.
With friends, she said, it's tougher to ignore opinions. "If I was wishy washy [on an outfit], but a friend said it looked good, I would probably buy it." She also said this works in the opposite direction.
With a wardrobe filled with big box items, unique boutique pieces, loads of thrift store finds and personally altered pieces, she asks for others' opinions to receive constructive criticism. "I'm sometimes blinded by my own creativity. I think it [an outfit] looks interesting and I'll convince myself it's better than it is." Sometimes she caves to the opinion; and sometimes she says, "You just don't get it."
Though a joke about a piece here and there has made her question whether or not to wear a garment, only once has another person's comments have truly prevented her from wearing something again. A random person's inquiry to whether Amy was pregnant (she was not) prevented her from wearing the elastic hipped dress again. The valuable lesson we can all learn is that you should never make the pregnant comment unless you are sure.
The pregnancy comment won't ever affect a man, but will other's opinions affect his wardrobe decisions because he might not shop with a friend to bounce off fashion ideas? A man's perspective on the opinions of others was quite different--or at least the man with whom I spoke felt that way.
Daniel, 32, has always approached fashion with his own style. Even as a kid, wearing items he received from his older siblings, he always dressed his own way and didn't pay attention to the reactions of those around him.
As he entered junior high and high school, where opinions seem to be most effective in getting a person to change, he continued to be true to himself, though he admits it was easy since the look he felt most comfortable in also happened to be trendy.
As an adult, he does admit that he tones down what he wears based upon the situation, but he doesn't feel that this means he's changing himself based on what other people might say.
"Rather than having to explain myself over and over, I choose not to wear my facial piercings or polyester in certain situations." But, should people offer their negative opinions, it makes him want to do it more. What was first just a decision to wear something becomes purposeful if someone makes a negative comment. Once told that he shouldn't wear black and brown together, he now does it as much as he can.
As far as asking for opinions, he said that he rarely does. When torn between two or three things to wear, he will ask his girlfriend which outfit she prefers, but he doesn't ask what she thinks of an outfit that he's already wearing.
And if she offers her opinion--perhaps suggesting that his shirt doesn't look good with his pants--he doesn't change. And he admits that his looks, both past and current, might not always present him as intelligent or friendly (though he's both) but that he's not looking for social acceptance, just acceptance from himself in that what he wears is comfortable for him.
When you shuffle through his MySpace photos, they showcase a man in outrageous, scantily clad outfits, sometimes heavy on the makeup. They are party costumes, but they still represent the look of a man who doesn't care what other people think, if they stare or what their comments may be.
In the end, there's really no way to stop the opinion train. We'll likely still find ourselves asking loved ones what they think of the shirt we want to buy and of the outfit we are wearing. The unsolicited opinions of strangers will still be thrown upon us. Sometimes they'll make us feel confident in our choices: "I love your shoes. Where did you get them?" Sometimes a laugh or joking comment will convince one to never wear that item of clothing again. Our hearts may always be on our sleeves when it comes to other peoples' opinions of our clothing. No matter what you wear, always wear it over thick skin.
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