I passed my driver’s license to the airport security agent. She glanced over it, a routine, cursory inspection, then looked up at me. Then back at my license. Then at me. Then back at my ID.
She looked so perplexed I couldn’t help but laugh as I told her the person whose face appears on my license is, in fact me. She didn’t seem reassured.
Even though my license is only 2 years old, the person in the picture might as well be from another lifetime. I’ve cut my hair since then; my curly brown mop is now a bright pink pixie cut. I had braces before and applied my makeup differently. I was even wearing glasses when I went through the airport rather than my usual contacts. My physical appearance has changed, making the validity of my old ID questionable.
If you listen to the most popular old cliches–don’t judge a book by its cover, it’s what’s inside that counts–then it would be easy to believe my altered looks don’t change who you are as a person. And they don’t; but that’s not where the story ends.
Though a person’s appearance doesn’t define who they are, who a person is does normally define their appearance.
How we present ourselves to the world–our wardrobe, hairstyle, and makeup application (or lack thereof)–is one of the most important ways of outwardly showing others who we are who we are, whether we like to admit it or not. It’s a not-so-hidden signal telling people if we’re like them. It’s an essential part of our identity.
Wearing sweatpants and a jersey send out the message you’re into sports and a more casual lifestyle; a pantsuit signifies you’re a professional. My bright pink hair screams out its own message. It’s like I have a neon sign on the top of my head: “HEY. I’M A LIBERAL FEMINIST WHO LIKES ALTERNATIVE MUSIC AND THRIFT SHOPPING.”
Certain types of people are more likely to own designer clothing, to have tattoos, to put on red lipstick every day. Without being able to use our physical appearance to communicate world around us, we’d be lost. It would be impossible to find people similar to us without (gasp) talking to them. That’s just the way our culture is.
And I hate it.
The issue with unconsciously placing so much emphasis on outward appearance is that it’s not something everyone can control. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world wear whatever they can afford. Self-expression is the last thing on their minds. Unfortunately, our culture is so dominated by the visual that these people are judged for something they have no control over.
Clothes, makeup, and other aspects of our appearance shouldn’t matter because the old cliches is real: it is what’s on the inside that counts. It’s far too easy to pass over someone simply because they don’t look like your preconceived notion of someone you’d get along with.
The next time you’re getting dressed in the morning, think about the choices you’re making. But also think about those who don’t have the privilege of making choices. Think about all the times when you unconsciously judge people and you’re wrong. Though you might not realize it, you’re communicating with those around you simply by wearing your favorite T-Shirt. You’re showing them your identity.