Stories in the Closet

Some other time I’ll have to see if I can come up with a cogent, reasoned basis for my starting point: our lives are governed by the stories we tell.  We start with the basic building-blocks–genetics, brain structure/chemistry, parents, society, culture, language – and we come up with a story that is our identity.  No, it isn’t all choices.  You don’t chose the color of your skin or your parents propensity to read to you.  But you choose the story you tell, and that story gets told in every choice you make.  From what we read to what we put in our closets, all of these things work together to express our story about who we are – our identities.  

It is the question of appearance as a collection of choices designed to tell a story that I’d like to talk about.  Mark Cuban is in the news for talking about his prejudices when it comes to young men in hoodies and anyone with a face tattoo, but I don’t think the negative press is fair.  We’re all engaged in a social contract.  Unless you live in monkish isolation all alone in a cave next to a snow leopard in the Himalayas, you are a part of the social contract.  In any interaction, there are two people and they both bring something to the table.

Let’s get the Trayvon Martin sticking point out of the way.  At no point did Mr. Cuban say he would be justified in shooting a young man in a hoodie.  He said he would cross the street.  I don’t care what you’re wearing or how you choose to present yourself or what falls out of your mouth, no one should be shot over someone else’s prejudices.

Hoodies are a part of the sartorial lexicon for a number of cultural subgroups.  It is a choice in clothing that means something:  If you’re in Silicone Valley, the hoodie is a badge of belonging in the ranks of hackers and programmers.   In London, a hoodie was uniform for the riots in 2011. With this item of clothing, I would imagine that much depends on whether the hood is up or down.  At least in my own perception – as a hoodie-wearer when I’m not pretending to be a grown up at work – hood down is something entirely different than hood up.

We’re social creatures navigating with the evolutionary tools that kept us alive for millennia: the ability to make quick judgement about what is safe and what isn’t, an intuitive understanding of how to project invincibility like a puffer-fish under attack, and the ability to camouflage ourselves to go undetected and unpunished.    Every day, we make choices that navigate those social constructs.  We know that we will be judged by the way we present ourselves and we react accordingly.

Unless it’s cold or raining, a hood-up hoodie is functionally unnecessary, therefore  whether the hood is up or down is a choice to project a message.  It may be the equivalent of a dog with it’s hackles up – don’t mess with me, I’m bigger than you – but it is a choice that telegraphs something intentional to anyone looking at you.  To deny that is insupportable.

Mr. Cuban also pointed out facial tattoos.  Let’s be honest.  Unless you’re from a Berber (or some other) tribe  that practices facial tattooing as a part of social cohesion, you don’t get your face tattooed to tell people looking at you that you are a conformer who is deeply committed to the social construct.  You just don’t.

It is disingenuous to expect that society not react to the choices you make about how you present yourself.  You make those choices for exactly that reason: you want to send a message about who you are, the story you’ve told about yourself that you want the rest of us to buy.  The messages change – visible tattoos don’t have the same gasp factor inside the bell curve that they used to, and I think that’s a good thing – but the messages don’t go away.  As a part of the social contract, I have a responsibility to understand what is expected within the social group I’m a part of and make my choices accordingly.  It is unreasonable for me to reject the consequences of those choices as being unfair.

If I get a Kat VonD constellation tattoo around my eye, I would be telling my co-workers in the government building I’m in that I wasn’t interested in playing the game they’re playing.  Would I be fired over it?  Probably not.  Would I get the same job if I came to the interview table with that tattoo?  Probably not.  My competence level would be the same, the difference is that I’d be telling the interviewees that I was actively unwillingly to conform to the social norms of the workplace I was in.

And that’s fine, it is my right.  But I can’t send the message to the world that I’m uninterested in playing by societal norms and then be mad when the social group (family, friends, work, public transportation, these are all social spaces where people interact) doesn’t want to play with me.

I wear a lot of black.  It’s deliberate.  When I open my mouth, more often than not, I’m memorable.  I want to be able to choose the message I give and when I want to give it.  I want my clothes to be pretty unremarkable.  My hair, my eye shadow, my nail polish, my shoes, when I’m shopping I choose not just on whether or not things fit, I’m shopping for the message I want to send about myself: slightly unknowable, more interesting on the second (and closer) look than she is on the first, and self-contained.  There isn’t a lot of booty hanging out, not much by way of flashy jewelry.  And I’d be straight up full of shit if I tried to say that my closet wasn’t curated to send a specific set of messages.  For good or ill, that message is mine.  It is the story I tell to someone who’s never met me, before I even open my mouth.

It doesn’t include a facial tattoo, because I want to be able to choose when I tell someone I don’t give a shit what they think of me, I don’t want them to know that when they first see me across the street.

So I don’t have a problem with Mr. Cuban reading a message in the hood-up collection of young men walking down the street and getting out of the way.  To suggest that someone not react to the visual clues being sent by other individuals in a social group is to suggest that we can or should wipe out a million years of social evolution.  Unlikely.  I’m not saying don’t get a face tattoo.  Just don’t get one and expect to become the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.  You can’t tell a story about yourself and get mad when other people take you at your word.

When I say everything we do is in accordance with the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, clothing and grooming is included.  When we do something contrary to the story, either the story or the behavior must change.  We don’t do well out of alignment with our own stories (which is why, when looking to change yourself, it helps to start by changing your story about yourself…  either the behavior or the story has to change.  If you’re deliberate about the story, then the behavior follows).  For a good example, check out this video of a homeless man getting a makeover and see it all the way through.

I don’t know Mr. Cuban from a doorpost.  All I’m saying is I’m not buying that he’s a schmuck off of this one interview.

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Stories in the Closet

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