Don’t judge a book by its cover

August 20, 2008

I was thinking about my winter wardrobe, which I do a lot. In particular, I was thinking about the brown splashy-flower-print skirt from the clothes swap. I adore this skirt, and I would wear every day if I could work out how to stop it being too revealing when I walk.

It put me in mind of a black splashy-flower-print shirt that I had in college, which I idiotically swapped with my friend E for a white delicate-flower-print shirt that, of course, looked appalling on me. It was a ravishing garment, but it just did not suit me. I felt like I was trying to be E (which I was) and failing miserably. I felt like a carthorse next to her delicate beauty.* (And, of course, my shirt did as little for her as hers did for me, although I couldn’t see that at the time.)

Then I started thinking, what would happen if I saw that shirt now? It would still be utterly, utterly beautiful. But I would not buy it. Because I know it isn’t me.

So what changed?

One thing that changed is that I learned that there are things I look good in. As a student, I thought myself very plain, and I didn’t know about clothes, so I didn’t think it made very much difference what I wore. So I wore what other people were wearing, especially the people that I wanted to be, and I wore what I thought men would find attractive. And, for years, that’s how I bought clothes, as if the garment would somehow magically confer upon me the properties of the wearer.

And, over the years, I slowly found more things that I actually looked and felt good in, that were me. I started wearing long skirts because I wanted to look like someone I worked with, and I discovered that they felt wonderful, floating and sensual around me; I felt like a goddess. I started wearing colours that people admired me in, and discovered that green wakes me from the dead like Sleeping Beauty, but black and beige, the colours that the other bankers were wearing, made me look like a zombie Lady Macbeth. And I started being willing to look like me instead of wanting to look like someone else, because I started thinking that it might be okay to look like me, and because I realised that I would always be better at looking like me than I would ever be at looking at anyone else.

And, thinking about this, I started to get the glimmer of an idea that I think might be important.

My research focuses on strengths – star-shaped points. What are the unique qualities that make us who we are? What happens when we use them? And one of the things I keep noticing is that, when people use their strengths, they become more okay with being themselves. It switches from a vicious circle to being a virtuous one – the more they feel okay with being themselves, the more they value and use their strengths. And the more they value and use their strengths, the more they feel okay with being themselves.

And I’m starting to wonder, is the same true of how we look? When we see ourselves looking our best, or when someone else can see the beauty in us that we can’t see in ourselves, do we become more willing to look like ourselves instead of trying to look like others? Is this one step in the journey?

And, if so, how do these two things relate?

* Analogy nicked from Jilly Cooper


4 Responses to “Don’t judge a book by its cover”

  1. Ankaret Says:

    I fundamentally do not believe that you could look like a carthorse under any circumstances.

  2. Francesca Says:

    SO tempted to make a joke about being the mane attraction.

    I think the point was that I wanted to look like someone else. Because I wanted to be someone else, and looking like was a very obvious instantiation of being.

    I wonder if I’m trying to ask something like: how is our relationship with how we look connected to our relationship with who we are? How are our stories about how we look connected to our stories about who we are? What are the levers we can pull to change either of these things in a good direction – and does it matter which one we try to pull?

  3. Alithea Says:

    That’s an interesting discussion point, I think there is a strong relationship between how happy we are with our looks and how happy we are with who we are. The right outfit can make us feel fantastic and nobody carries off an outfit better than someone with that glow of happiness and confidence. And people who feel who they are has changed often feel the need to change their look to reflect this.
    As for the levers thing, I guess it depends on the person. I think I’m someone who always needs to change from the inside out but there’s no doubt that some people find the outside in approach more helpful.

  4. Francesca Says:

    As for the levers thing, I guess it depends on the person.

    I think that’s probably right. It probably depends on, inter alia, one’s values, how one feels about one’s appearance and one’s inner self, the environment, plus all kinds of other stuff that I haven’t mentioned. It’s always more complicated.

    Maybe one day I will get to do some research on this too.

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