How Factual Are "Social Facts"?
Do Clothes Really Make The Human?
I have lived in my current town for a little more than two years. It’s a lot smaller and more intimate than where I lived for most of my life, which was more or less an “offshoot” of a very big city. Many things drew me here: the small-town feel, less traffic and noise, a greater closeness to nature and the prospect of actually getting to know my fellow citizens. (Not to mention, of course, the fact that my university paid for much of my tuition.)
Some of the above have been very positive experiences. I met my boyfriend here and actually know my neighbors by name. My professors have been, and continue to be, some of the best I have ever known. My classmates are intelligent people who are in the program because they really want to be. At the undergraduate level, at my alma mater, there were many students who were only there because (a) their parents expected it of them; (b) they wanted to avoid entering the “real world” of work; or, (c) they thought a degree would get them a better job later. In grad school, you’d better want to be in the program for its own sake, or don’t even bother applying.
However, I digress. Recently, I have been hearing that there are some things about me that put people off. The number one issue seems to be the way I dress. For most of my life, I didn’t give my appearance a second thought, other than to make sure my clothes were clean and that I had showered recently. As I wrote in a previous Hub, after the ordeal that was grade school I learned to “blend in” behaviorally, or so I thought. Additionally, I had absolutely no interest in dating, so I tended to wear oversized clothing that covered me up and made me unnoticeable, if not completely unattractive. This tactic seemed to work—I never got asked out, which was the way I wanted it. Years later, however, I found out that one of my male friends had wanted to be more than “just friends” almost from the moment he met me. The main reason he didn’t pursue such a relationship was that I made my intentions, or lack thereof, very plain. Yes, even in the ninth grade, he was a gentleman. I haven’t heard from him in years. I hope he has a happy life.
After high school, all the way through college, I kept dressing in the same fashion. I did not want any “romantic” attention—my only reasons for being there were to go to class, do my work and get my degrees (Associate’s and Bachelor’s), while (hopefully) gaining knowledge that would actually be useful in the “Real World.” Everyone dressed in their own way: some “trendy,” some “grungy,” some “preppy” and some “undifferentiated”—I fell into the latter category. Everyone seemed too concerned with themselves to care about the fashion sense of others.
I have found out that the social atmosphere here is completely different. Everyone, more or less, knows everyone else. (It’s not quite NORTHERN EXPOSURE, but….) While some aspects of this small-town feel are a breath of fresh air, there are pitfalls as well. People are very judgmental about appearance and actions. Within the first few minutes of meeting you, they make up their minds about whether or not you are “acceptable.” My still-oversized clothing, most of which dates from high school or earlier (why would I stop wearing stuff that still fits, especially in this economy?) tends to attract remarks such as “she must have really low self-esteem to dress like that,” implying that I don’t care enough about myself to look “good.” The irony is that my self-esteem is probably much higher than most people’s: I know who I am and don’t feel the need to “impress” anyone. Other people have implied that I must have some kind of psychological problem to publicly present myself the way I do. That notion startled me. I wasn’t exactly insulted, but I was troubled by the fact that I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about! It took me a few days to realize that it couldn’t just be my mode of dress that creates such an impression.
A consequence of “surviving bullying” was that I ceased to care what most people thought of me. Along the way, I developed some habits and “quirks” that I am barely aware of most of the time, but are apparently quite obvious to others. For one thing, I tend to talk to myself out loud while trying to get my thoughts in order. It hit me yesterday that I do it almost constantly. I stopped in the middle of wiping down a table at Taco Bell and thought/said “what am I doing?”
I have talked to several people about this seeming (insert Hub username here). My question now is the following: is there any going back? Can the social “damage” be repaired by changing my style of dress (someone said to me “just wear clothes that fit”) and watching my habitual actions in public? Or, will people continue to see me as they already do in spite of any changes? If so, is there even any point in trying to make any?
In several of my Criminal Justice classes, I studied the works of an early social scientist named Emile Durkheim. One of his writings discussed the concept of “social facts:” implied (not enforced by law) conventions of dress, social interaction and the like that direct the behavior of individuals through the possibility of ridicule and ostracism for those who violate such “norms.” I have come to realize that such pressures to conform are, for me, completely academic. I honestly cannot recall the last time I felt self-conscious. Trying to be “conscious” of my public “self” is going to be a far bigger challenge than, say, getting my Master’s degree. I have no wish to become overly “self-conscious” for the sake of “fitting in.” Furthermore, there is that part of me which still demands to know “Why does any of this even MATTER?!?” I thought that once you graduated high school, people started acting like “adults.” To my mind, this means being capable of acknowledging that looking a little “odd” doesn’t necessarily mean being branded a total “weirdo” in every respect. (Some of you are probably now asking: “how did she get a degree in a Psychology-related field?” Again, it’s all been totally “academic,” literally.) When I asked my boyfriend and his brother about this, their response was the following: “Grade school never ends.” They’ve had their share of ridicule for various reasons throughout their lives. Apparently, their reactions were to do whatever they had to in order to find acceptance from the world in general. Since my mother was much more supportive and accepting of me while growing up than either of their parents were of them, perhaps I simply felt (and still feel) no need for any external validation. My biggest concern now is that my boyfriend is getting “flak” at work for dating me!
Therefore, I pose these questions to each of you: Who is “right” here? What style of dress crosses the line of “acceptability?” Are those who have passed judgment on me for my appearance, etc., representative of the world at large? Will such judgments continue and possibly cause problems for me in my professional life? Is it true that, on some level, most of us never progress past schoolyard concepts of “popularity” and “normalcy?”
Perhaps not coincidentally, my graduate thesis explores public perceptions of the insanity defense which, I hypothesize, hinges on public perceptions of mentally ill people in general. One of the books I am reading for my research is called Stigma by Erving Goffman. Every word seems to further confirm everything I am currently experiencing. However, does that necessarily mean that it always has to be that way?
Maybe I am just an idealistic rebel at heart. Maybe I feel for those many others who experience similar treatment daily. Maybe I just don’t want to spend money I don’t have on a whole new wardrobe….