I have always had this tendency to refuse to dress the part, or to confuse by dressing it up. Being petite is commonly mistaken for being fragile, and I’ve had my share of cutesy nicknames (referring mostly to all things tiny and supposedly easily squashable). I could have gone for power-dressing, in fact, I was encouraged to do so – instead, I would flaunt the girlie look in pretty dresses and frilly skirts. I showed up for my first day as an intern psychologist in a psychiatric clinic dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt, flowy pants, and electric blue platforms and was requested to go home and to return in appropriate attire. And so I stomped off in my platforms, and bristling with defiance, called my mentor who, wise as ever, said the following words: Deidre, there will be many battles to fight, so choose carefully. I chose a long, matronly dress in floral print and sensible shoes, and was welcomed into the clinical fold. I have long since left the clinic (and not because I did my first big presentation in the hospital resembling Scary Spice…again). But I continue to be intrigued by questions of self-presentation, of appearance: how do we appear, that is, how do we become visible to others as Others, and (how) are we recognized?
These questions persisted when I moved to Portugal, or to my imaginary Europe of the elegantly knotted scarves. I felt as if I just could not look right…that I could not make my-self appear. And it was as perplexing as it was annoying: my uncharacteristic desire to want to fit in, or to at least stand out in a way that would be acknowledged here. I took it as a great compliment when, a few years (and many different haircuts) later, a friend commented that I looked more European. (The red light of “trying to pass” did not even flicker.) At the same time, I would feel stronger, somehow more grounded whenever I would wear African beads, aware of constructions of the “ethnic” or “exotic”, but less wary of them, as they were co-opted accessories in my significations of belonging and rootedness.
It took some time (though I am not sure that is all it takes…), but now I am open to shape-shifting again, to showing my hybrid selves. I still catch myself fretting about the impression I will (or will not) make, but then I’m also reminded that there are yet many battles to fight.
*What makes you appear?