I was talking to a friend recently about fashion and style — trends and trendsetters, copycats and people-pleasing, the good and the bad. Eventually she threw down the Big Point: “Everyone just needs to be themselves.”
I nodded in agreement. “Right.” Of course. It’s so simple.
And then I paused. “Wait. But what does that actually mean? In the context of culture and influence, how do we know what’s genuine? I mean, do I wear pants because that’s what Sarah does when she’s being herself? Or do I wear pants because it’s expected of me?”
We hashed it out some more and agreed on a definition. Yes, we’re pushed around by cultural standards, but we have choices within that framework. When people say, “Be yourself,” what they mean is, “Choose what feels natural over what feels awkward.” They mean, “Choose what appeals to you over what you think will appeal to others.” They mean, “Be comfortable.”
In other words, I might feel obligated to wear pants (or at least some kind a fabric that hides my genitals in public), but it’s up to me to choose which kind.
Lately I’ve been seeing my choices in the frame of Gender. I grew up believing that there were two buckets of choices for any situation: one that men got to dig through and one that women got to dig through. You could choose whatever you wanted in your quest to “be yourself,” as long as it was within your designated bucket. Sometimes the same option would end up in both buckets, but the context was usually different.
Like having to wear pants, I thought I had to wear girl.
It didn’t work to me. I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I made choices based on what I thought other people wanted for me, and the result always seemed wrong.
I only felt like I was “being myself” when I secretly dumped both buckets into a kiddie pool, climbed in, and started splashing around. The options I needed were all there; I just had to take out the Gender Wall.
I love Susan Mernit‘s recent post on this topic: My Love for Patti Smith, or Sex, Gender, Androgyny and Freedom. She touches on the immense fear that comes when you begin to suspect that “being yourself” requires disregarding rules you were taught to adhere to. “There was a risk I’d move so far beyond what my parents wanted for me—and what I unconsciously expected of myself–that I’d hit a point of no return,” she says. “And I didn’t want that.” But she goes on.
“And then, one day, things became different. Long married, I got divorced. Long a parent, my son left home and went off to college. And coming from many years of being repressed and afraid, I became braver. Suddenly, I was single and making life over. Revisiting the questions Patti Smith raised for me—about sex and gender, femininity and androgyny, about being yourself and showing it, no matter what others thought—suddenly became both relevant and important.”
These days, I give myself permission to splash in the kiddie pool more often. And sometimes it’s not even such a secret. It still feels deviant—wrong in a different sort of way—but it also comes with feeling comfortable in my skin, and that means I’m being myself… which is what they all say I’m supposed to be doing. So I try not to feel too bad about it.
Hey, at least I’m wearing pants.