Presentation

body positive style

I consider style to be an integral part of presentation of self. We all have private selves that few people get to know or see, and we all have public selves that we must share with strangers and the observing world. Our public selves may speak, walk, emote, and interact differently from our private selves. Those are behavioral choices we make, actions we finesse in order to convey certain aspects of our personalities. How we hold our bodies influences presentation of self, as does how we engage in eye contact, tone and volume of speaking voice, and expressive gestures. Dressing also contributes to the public self that we craft, and the clothing we choose to wear and the ways in which we wear it can broadcast certain beliefs, traits, or preferences that we hold.

And that’s important. We must dress every day in order to participate in society, and taking as much control as possible over what we’re presenting about our public selves can feel empowering. We have to do it, so why not make it intentional, creative, even fun? There may be things we can’t control about how our bodies look, but there are some things we can control about how we dress, accessorize, and present those bodies when they’re clothed.

And it’s also dangerous. Our external appearance gives observers the tiniest sample of who we are, the surface level of our identities, a carefully selected but woefully inadequate picture of our true selves. It can be frustrating to realize that most strangers will only see that one dimension, and may choose to judge us based upon such limited information. Even more so that what we WANT to convey may be misconstrued or misinterpreted by observers based on their own beliefs, experiences, and prejudices. Or when outside forces make it difficult or impossible for us to present the visual selves we wish to.

Personally, I consider dressing to be a presentation opportunity. An imperfect one, to be sure, but one worth some energy and consideration. I will never be able to control exactly what people think of me, and I don’t aim to. But by dressing in ways that make me feel grounded, strong, comfortable, and like my best self, I can rig the game in my favor. When I feel grounded, strong, comfortable, and like my best self, I can focus on the other aspects of presentation that are less visual: Eye contact, tone and volume of speaking voice, expressive gestures, emotion and interaction. Dressing well allows me to worry less about how I look and concentrate more on how I act.

Dressing and visual appearance are inadequate in representing a whole person, but that doesn’t mean they should be entirely discounted as strategic means for expressing and presenting the bits of ourselves we actively wish to share.

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  • Desiree

    Very well said. Bravo!

  • Well said, Sal: important but insufficient. So like you, I try to dress myself in a way that makes me feel authentic, comfortable, and attractive. There are many other important factors as you say in how we present ourselves, but we might as well enjoy the dressing part!

  • I don’t worry about controlling what others see of me beyond the fact that I wear things that I like to wear. I make sure the hems aren’t too short, the clothing fits well, the cleavage isn’t overmuch, and from there I wear what I want to. What strangers think (or don’t think) about it doesn’t bother me as long as I feel good in what I’ve put on.

    Presenting one’s self is a stage of sorts; depending on the day people can see that I love color. Or my affection for Western-inspired items. Or that I like bold jewelry. But none of that comes into play when I am considering what I wear on any given day. I just pull what I’m feeling out of the closet and go. 🙂

    It probably helps that I own my own business so am mostly unconstrained by any kind of dress code…it would be a bit different if I was still in the corporate world.

  • Stephani

    You can never control how others will interpret the way you present yourself and what you wear. So why worry about it? If they get the wrong idea about me because of their own prejudices, sure that might negatively impact my life, but that doesn’t mean I need to turn myself inside out trying to pre-empt any adverse judgements based on my clothing and style choices. I wear what I feel comfortable in, what I think flatters my assets, and what makes me feel good and happy and content with my life. Luckily I work in a creative field where I have the ability to dress to express myself, rather than being forced to kowtow to strict corporate dress codes.
    PS. I LOVE the IGIGI line’s models and how they’re styled. They’re all so different, but all so beautiful.

  • Exactly! While we can’t control others’ perceptions of what we’re presenting, when we dress in a way that’s congruent with who we feel we are on any given day, it’s an opportunity to feel integrated and whole.

  • I have most of my life had jobs that involved being alone, at night, in situations where I am potentially vulnerable. That what I wear, how I style my hair, how I stand, walk, sit even, makes an impression that either says strength or weakness, reserv or availability, top dog or under dog, is something I am very conscious of. If I can, I will certainly try to dress in a way that´s more authentically me if the timing is appropriate, but most of the time, I dress for the job or a particular role. And that empowers me, I think, rather than limits me.

  • Aziraphale

    Oh yes, personal presentation is important. The first time you meet someone, they make a quick assessment of you in seconds. I do it myself, whether I intend to or not. I think the brain is set up to take quick stock. And It takes FOREVER to make any changes to that first impression.

    But I still wear what I want. I just use my judgment, you know? I try to dress for the occasion. I don’t wish to blunder through life wearing any damn thing I want, any old time I want, just because I can! So, I don’t wear my silly hipster fedora to a new client meeting, for instance. I don’t wear my towering multi-ankle-strap heels to pick up my kids from school. I still wear those items every chance I get, but I make sure it’s situation-appropriate.

  • Kathaleen

    I’m always impressed by the clever way you use your words and the sentiment made me think of a quote I’ve always remembered from Coco Chanel: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

    When I wake up, I lay in bed for a bit and think about what I’m excited to wear and mentally flip through some alternatives and decide how my choice might affect my day, what I will be doing that day, what I want to showcase (a fabulous dress, a gorgeous pair of earrings, new snazzy shoes) and then I go with it! Every day is an adventure in staging myself.

    I also agree that using a fashionable and flattering way of dressing oneself is only a part of the puzzle and that everything else about me is brought forth in how I am as a person: kind, funny, emotive, clever, keen, serious, playful… whatever!

  • Interesting topic! Sometimes I wonder if folks judge me, because I am usually seen in public at one extreme or another, i.e. at the gym or running errands with no makeup, hair in a bun, and baggy t-shirts/yoga pants, or I’m dressed to the nines (full makeup, straightened hair, and vintage clothes) if we’re going to church or a social function. This is especially true in the summertime, because we don’t have A/C and frankly, it’s just too much effort during the daytime to do hair/makeup, but sometimes I get into that “frump funk” that’s hard to break out of! And yes, sometimes I worry that others are judging me. 🙁

    I love people-watching, and I try not to judge others based upon their hair/clothes/makeup, etc., but I realize how important presentation can be. I really enjoy seeing others’ creativity with clothes and style. 🙂

  • How I dress very much depends on my attitude that day, so in a way my outward presentation shows a bit of how I feel on the inside. When I am wearing black and red, I feel powerful…lots of color, I feel upbeat…jeans, t-shirt and no makeup, exceedingly tired! If people make conclusions on how I dress as to the TYPE of person I am, well that is their issue going on in their heads that I don’t need to know about.

    I have read at one point, that a women tends to dress more sexy when she is ovulating. Wonder if that is really true? If that is my “skinny” part of the month, then I guess it would be a yes. I tend to wear tighter clothes because I am not retaining so much water LOL!

  • I put some thought into what I wear because when I feel well dressed, I am more likely to engage with others and appear confident. It frees up mental real estate if I KNOW I look good when I leave the house because I don’t have to think about my appearance again or feel insecure when I interact with people throughout the day. It helps me to be the best version of myself.

  • kt

    I try to balance the need to dress a certain way for self-presentation with my feelings of freedom and priority. Everything you said above is true, Sal, but what if you feel imprisoned by this fact that you *do* have to dress every day and you *will* be judged? Look, you’re a woman: you are required by society to spend money on makeup and haircuts, required by society to shave and pluck, required by society to wear certain types of clothes — or so it feels. Think of the time and money spent on these artificial requirements. I’m living with a couple other women in a shared house for a work assignment. All that time shaving and primping counts up to real hours, real hours that men are spending on getting ahead or on video games, depending!

    So, I know that dressing as part of personal presentation is important and that our personal presentation sets a precedent and conveys important information. But I also try to keep it in its place and break it down. Does doing x make me feel good, or make me feel more confident? Then keep it. Do I do x just because someone else feels I’m supposed to, but it doesn’t really make a difference or I dislike it? Then stop. I don’t paint my nails or wear earrings, I don’t wear ruffles when it’s the trend, I keep my accessories minimal or minimalist. I do wear some makeup, I do look for cute shoes that are comfortable, I do wear shawls and scarves because they keep my neck warm and look nice, I do love dresses because they look put-together and they are so easy! I don’t have to buy into society’s “supposed-to” rules even though I take into account how others see me and how I want to present myself. I can decide on the most basic level how I want to interact with this basic need to cover oneself.

  • Maggie May

    Great post! I do wonder about the refrain of “well, we can’t control anyone’s perceptions of us so I just wear what I want”…. I would echo Arizaphale: I think we can and do influence perceptions (maybe that is different than “control”) and certainly first impressions. Also, when we are acting on behalf of someone else, whether professionally (I am an attorney) or personally (I am a parent), I think it is very important to consider what impression we are making and to control that impression within reasonable bounds. If I am showing up in a forum where someone will be making a judgment which will affect others (my client, my colleagues, my employer, my child), I take that into account. Maybe I forgo my favorite dress/jewelry in order to take those other people’s judgment into account.

  • Anna

    What a wonderful topic and discussion! My take on your last question — how to reconcile our visual appearance with the whole person — is puzzlement. Why should such reconciliation be necessary — any more than we imprudently spill our entire life story to new acquaintances? I am happy to present myself as well as I can, considering the circumstances and people I anticipate, and hope to be approachable in the process while leaving much of myself to be discovered by friends (or concealed from the possibly unfriendly). Aren’t we all made up of complex layers of mystery? Let’s cultivate the mystery!

  • Anne

    I disagree with the language about controlling others’ perceptions and maybe as someone else mentioned above, I can have influence, not control,over others’ perceptions about me. I would like to be perceived as responsible, reliable, approachable and my clothing reinforces that message (hopefully) But my clothing choices merely reinforce my behavioral choices. I take pains to be on time and to do the things I say I’m going to do. I take pains to extend myself socially. I think it’s important to be the kind of person you want to be first, and dress the part second.

    Sadly, I do notice that when someone disregards their appearance, it becomes very easy to overgeneralize about their reliability. Dress like a slob and miss your appointment: your likely to be pegged as flaky, not merely having a bad day.

  • It goes without saying that I think about this in my professional life as an academic–my classroom dress requires comfort, relatability, polish, while interaction with administrators may require a different presentation.

    BUT, I also think about it in my blog life too, ironically. It is one reason that often my topics veer off into think pieces as though I need to PROVE that I don’t only think about presentation!

  • Interestingly, I went to a Dress for Success event recently for some of our accounting students. I absolutely believe people should wear what makes them feel their best, and thus I’ve always been a little critical of how conservatively business men and women, particularly in the accounting arena, have always had to dress. I guess I looked down on their style as being conformist and part of “the system.” But after listening to all of the reasons as to WHY they maintain the strict dress code that they do, I realize now that conformity and neutrality aren’t always bad. They convey objectivity and integrity–useful attributes in the corporate world. I was actually quite humbled (but that didn’t stop me from wearing a bright orange blouse and a blingy silver necklace to work today–because I’m NOT an accountant, thank goodness! :D)

  • sigourney

    Hm. I wear what I know flatters me and expresses my style. That said, I am not that non-conformist and love classic to smart casual in disstressed materials or with interesting hardware.

    I don’t spend hours on primping, but today always make sure that I present an aesthetically pleasing overall picture. Which has its drawbacks: when I don’t take care (no time, nothing ironed) and know I’m not dressed to advantage I have feelings of unease. And sometimes I have to tell myself it’s only clothes. My real strength should be there regardless.

  • Sarah

    This is a topic that I find fascinating. I feel like the accepted argument for enjoying fashion/personal style is that people are going to judge us based on appearances anyway, so why not spend time on your appearance and style? Why not embrace that fact and control it?

    BUT. Just because people judge others based on their appearance DOES NOT MAKE IT RIGHT! And I feel like using that reason to defend your interest in fashion or style is dangerous, because it’s based on this so-called “truth” that we should be trying to change, not embrace. I am not going to accept that most people are judgmental a-holes and then cater my life to their judgment of me. I would much rather try to teach people that we don’t have to be judgmental toward others and we don’t have to accept judgment from others in regards to how we look. How many times have you judged someone based off of their appearance and discovered that your judgment was way off base? It probably happens a lot. The lady in sweats at the grocery store does not necessarily hate herself; she may have just finished a workout and didn’t feel like going home to make herself presentable to you first. The man in a stylish, expensive, designer suit may have been laid off six months ago and he’s wearing that suit to an interview for a job that will keep him from being homeless. The woman who looks like a Vogue model straight off the runway may be going to therapy every week because she feels like she is worthless and unlovable deep down inside. And the guy you think looks like a bum may own a multi-million dollar company but just doesn’t care about clothes.

    Fifty years ago, it was considered by many people to be perfectly reasonable to judge a person by the color of their skin. It was ingrained in our society due to hundreds of years of oppression. And of course you can change your clothes but not your skin color…but what if all of the people who fought to end segregation said instead, “Well, people are going to judge as based on our skin color anyway, so we just accept it and either lighten our skin or segregate ourselves even more.” They didn’t say that…they fought against this “truth” about human nature instead of throwing up their arms and saying, “oh well, people will judge, might as well accept it.” And they changed our society for the better. They showed us all that judging people based on their skin color is something shameful and distasteful and ignorant, just like it’s shameful and distasteful and ignorant to judge people based on their appearance.

    I was judged and teased and ridiculed for many years because of my teeth. I was called every horrible name you can imagine. All I wanted was a perfect, white, even, straight smile for many, many years. But cosmetic dentistry was not covered by my mom’s insurance and she could not afford to get my teeth fixed. I eventually got them fixed myself. I like my smile now, but I wish I could have just saved the $5,000 and smiled my crooked smile and been treated kindly anyway.

  • kt

    Amen, Sarah!