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June 16th, 2007


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01:50 pm - On Appearance, Gender, and Roles
Yesterday, my dear friend Aaron and I talked for several hours about appearance. One of the more important things he said he learned from being transsexual (he transitioned around a decade ago) is how much appearance affects all of our lives. He went from being an relatively tall (5'7") and attractive female-bodied person to a young-looking moderately attractive, but somewhat short man, to a bald, average-looking and somewhat short man all in a decade. He told me that his appearance only stabilized (in the sense that it is no longer changing considerably faster than everyone else's) around 3 years ago.

According to Aaron, the two crucial factors in his transition was that he went from being considered attractive to being considered fairly average and (more importantly) that he went from understanding (at least in the sense of having grown up with them) the various appropriate behaviors and both verbal and non-verbal cues that went along with his previous appearance and that having your cues and behaviors not match your appearance makes people thing that you are stupid, naïve, or even unbalanced. So, Aaron has been learning to behave as an educated white man of average appearance, which according to him is significantly different from how he was expected to behave before his transition, in the sense that the exact same behaviors are considered very different now that he looks different. The most obvious is that his previous assertive behavior is now considered overly aggressive because almost everyone is more afraid of assertiveness in men than assertiveness in women, because it is assumed to be more real and more powerful, and thus more potentially dangerous.

So, now that he's largely learned how to act as an average white male, he's looking to shake that up, since he's a fairly eccentric individual and is not happy with how he is perceived. So, he came to me for advice. He, like everyone else who knows me at all, realizes that I manage my in-person appearance and presentation fairly carefully, largely to come off as non-threatening, eccentric, and noticeable. I do this both because I enjoy the image I create and because it both causes people to react to me in a manner I find pleasing and to compensate for my shyness around strangers.

The most telling question Aaron asked me was how I managed to put of such a consistent image and if doing so was a large amount of work. I informed him that it was easy both because of practice and, more importantly, because I very much like & enjoy the image I project for its own sake, and so find it not just useful, but actively enjoyable to perform/project it. We then talked at length about what possible images could both work for Aaron and would be ones that he would both enjoy and would encourage people to interact with him as he wants them to. I felt exceedingly pleased and useful knowing that my rather odd skill-set has come in useful to a dear friend.

I also considered how I deal with image and presentation. As with most of life, my own pleasure and comfort is considerably more important to me than any considerations of honesty or authenticity – in short, I wish to be a certain way and to have people respond to me in a particular manner and so I do my best to appear to be that way. Thus, I choose an image I like, specifically that of a somewhat effeminate, harmless, generally helpful foppish dandy. Then, I worked on making this image my own and have the wonderful pleasure of often being able to look in the mirror and enjoying what I see, not because I consider myself all that attractive, but because I love how I make myself appear.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:used_songs
Date:June 16th, 2007 10:11 pm (UTC)
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This is a very interesting discussion. I've always played with my image, to the point where I almost always feel as though I'm in costume or inhabiting a character. Doing that has actually made me quite bold, even though I honestly don't feel that I'm that attractive at all. I always feel a degree or two of separation between me and the world, which I find gives me a lot of freedom to manipulate reality.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 16th, 2007 11:45 pm (UTC)
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I've always played with my image, to the point where I almost always feel as though I'm in costume or inhabiting a character.

That almost precisely describe the way I work with clothing and image. I design an image, a character and to a more limited extent, a persona.
[User Picture]
From:used_songs
Date:June 16th, 2007 11:48 pm (UTC)
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I think that approaching life like that, from a position of control, makes everything a lot more interesting, not to mention entertaining.
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From:geek_dragon
Date:June 16th, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)
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How about image on a budget? I pick clothing for comfort, durability, and machine washability. I am low maintenance, don't like wearing make up.
So how would you work with your image if clothing wasn't part of your repitoire?
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 16th, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC)
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I actually have no idea - clothing forms the basis of my image-creation. Having little hair, there's not much useful I can do with it. I wear a fair amount of jewelry, but I largely use it to accent clothing. OTOH, it's perfectly possible to find excellent, interesting, and good used clothing. Around 75% of my clothing is all cotton, and so easy to wash and care for.
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From:heronheart
Date:June 17th, 2007 07:49 am (UTC)
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How about image on a budget?

Hats. A Tilley safari hat projects an entirely different image from a rainbow beret or a Greek fisherman's cap.
[User Picture]
From:geek_dragon
Date:June 17th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
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I guess I could do more with my hair and head bands. And maybe find a better hat.

I want a hat that projects "nature goddess" :)
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From:kinkyturtle
Date:June 18th, 2007 01:16 am (UTC)
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A crown of daisies?
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From:heronheart
Date:June 18th, 2007 05:55 am (UTC)
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The most obvious way to do this would be a small "Venus of Willendorf" statue affixed to the headband. A more subtle method would be a straw garden hat with, as kinkyturtle says, "a crown of daisies".
[User Picture]
From:ebon_phoenix
Date:June 17th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)
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I'm guessing that the most alterable aspects of image would probably be based around verbal and non-verbal dimensions.

The verbal aspects are easier to explain (it's like the difference between a well-educated person and a a poorly-read one). Using different language, such as different slang or jargon can make people feel more or less uncomfortable around you, depending upon whether they feel included or excluded because of that.

The non-verbal can involve vocal techniques such as tone (angry, happy, sad, etc), pitch (lower is often more menacing, but also "sexy" to some people), and rate of speech (too fast and people feel you are confusing, too slow and you're condescending). Choice of topics could also be involved here.

Non-verbal non-vocal stuff would be things like posture (slouching can imply lazy or tired, or can mean that you're comfortable), proxemics (your position relative to other people - if you're in the centre it implies you want attention, if you're directly across from someone you can appear confronting/intimate and distance is also a factor), facial and hand expressions (palms imply you want to appear honest - not necessary being honest). Eyes are incredibly important as they can create intimacy even in a crowded train - up for lying or thinking (normally to the right), at the person for directness but try to avoid staring.

Sense of humor, use of sarcasm and lying, and a whole bunch of historical factors will add to image. What you actually do will be included (helping someone move, for example, will probably mean that you get associated with being helpful).

These are only guidelines, and can be effected by cultural and environmental factors, but there's a whole bunch of books on communications and relationships that cover this kind of stuff, and are worth a look.

I knew being an arts major would come in handy at some point :)
[User Picture]
From:darkoshi
Date:June 17th, 2007 02:59 am (UTC)
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Those are some interesting things to think about, which you and Aaron mentioned.
[User Picture]
From:mesila
Date:June 17th, 2007 04:44 am (UTC)

Lesson learned about this subject over 1/2 decade

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Psionic currents and non-verbal - often unintentional - body-lingo-type communications WILL affect how people see a person's looks. And so much it's literally illogical and difficult to wrap the ol' noggin around.

In short: in 1999 I was five pounds shy of weighing 300lbs, which to me is 'obesity'. Today I am fluctuating between 200-205. This immense weight loss is likely due to a combination of less air pollution, more daily climbing of hills, little bit less methadone (though that's taken a mental health toll) and less cheap chinese food, full of MSG and fatty sauces. Oh, and Bad Things, though I'd been doing THAT since 1994 and only gaining weight then, so I honestly don't think drugs have anything to do with this.

Here's the stupid thing. I look better now, but I don't, and people notice. I may be technically more attractive, without ALL that flab even though I'm still overweight, it's DEFINITELY slenderer. But owing to life's cataclysmic nature as of late, my face has aged half a decade in a year's time. My eyebrows pinch. I don't have wrinkles, but I have a hardbitten cold look that scared the hell out of me when I chanced to forget to avoid looking in a mirror last week.

Now Choronzon has me doing an absolutely horrendous yet obviously beneficial assignment: every four or five hours I am to go into the bathroom and drink 9 sips of water and look into the mirror...

And smile.

I've been doing this for three weeks now. I think I've only JUST started to be able to smile believably.

To think of it as faking happiness will assure I never learn how, so he calls it Quiemp. QUasI-EMotive Projection. Pronounced Queeeeemp. One doing it is a Quiemptor, descriptively, it's quiempish, etc. A skill everyone but me seems to have and it's time I learned. Whether I'll be able to is another story but I'm not giving up.

When I was loved, getting great sex, I had days when even obese I could get occasional smiles. Now, thinner, I get none at all.

There's a lesson here: you appear as your inner self turned inside out, literally.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:June 17th, 2007 05:31 am (UTC)
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when I try to dress and present myself as a guy then I realize a tiny fraction of all this. mostly about stance and not smiling, or not in the same way, and acknowledgment of other men and one's self in relation to them in a potential power hierarchy. i had never noticed all that, before trying to pass as male.

I'd go for a sort of dandified nerd-fag punk outlook and style. with the key words "mostly harmless", "raffish charm", "slightly eccentric" and "natty" kept in mind. also i would just stalk horehound stillpoint for a while and take notes.

With style, I note that women get to have many flamboyant or noticable accessories. Men get to have maybe one or two. i.e. you could dress "normally' though sharply or grungily as you please, and have especially nice or odd shoes or a belt or an earring... but not all of them... unless you are Mattilda in which case the more the better.

height has a fair amount to do with the shift in perception I think. as a woman my pecking order position is determined by percieved attractiveness (vile, but too often true in subtle ways in a room full of people) But as a guy it is physical powerfulness and dominance. So as a short guy, it is not safe-feeling for me to project the assumption of the wrong level of status, not necessarily because anyone's actually going to beat me up, but because it feels too odd.

it is interesting that the question and answer seem double barrelled - style and clothing - & also attitude and how a person takes up space or asserts a strong personality. i like the phrase "affect broadcast" to describe that.

So, how to come through as just wrong enough to feel like one's self and not boring and mundane - it's so complicated!
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 17th, 2007 07:18 am (UTC)
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I'd go for a sort of dandified nerd-fag punk outlook and style. with the key words "mostly harmless", "raffish charm", "slightly eccentric" and "natty" kept in mind. also i would just stalk horehound stillpoint for a while and take notes.

Who is horehound stillpoint?

With style, I note that women get to have many flamboyant or noticable accessories. Men get to have maybe one or two. i.e. you could dress "normally' though sharply or grungily as you please, and have especially nice or odd shoes or a belt or an earring... but not all of them... unless you are Mattilda in which case the more the better.

I've never found this to be true in practice. I regularly wear earrings, a necklace, pendant, or silk scarf, and a flamboyant vest (as well as occasionally nail polish) and because I do this well and (more importantly) am comfortable and happy with the look I present, I am often complimented on my appearance (typically by women, oddly often by older women). I'm assumed to be gay by many people, but I am also assumed to be eccentric, daring, and attractive, or perhaps more accurately well and interestingly dressed.

So, how to come through as just wrong enough to feel like one's self and not boring and mundane - it's so complicated!

In my experience, any attempt to "be yourself" is simultaneously impossible and dull. I choose to be who I wish to be, which is far more interesting and fun.
[User Picture]
From:xuenay
Date:June 17th, 2007 09:46 am (UTC)
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Pictures?

You've made me curious to see what you actually look like, with all that talk about your appearance.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:June 17th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
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good point about "being yourself" - I agree it is up to us to choose rather than some essential self lurking in there waiting to be reflected.



[User Picture]
From:dreamlibrary
Date:June 17th, 2007 06:46 am (UTC)
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Awesomely inspiring post and thread. I've been thinking a lot lately about becoming tattooed and even more about bodies, image and social rank, so it's just very great to come across this now. I'm aware of the subtle and permeating effects on my social rank of my appearance and self-presentation. I'm both concerned and unconcerned with this phenomenon. I see my deviations from what's ideal or expected as good for me and good for everyone: More room to be! And also see the potential harmful effects for me in terms of making myself more vulnerable to disapproval in my current public job and possibly uncertain job future. Aside from my specific situation, though, I love to hear people's thoughtful reactions to the conformity stasis society seems to project.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:June 17th, 2007 07:37 am (UTC)
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I love to hear people's thoughtful reactions to the conformity stasis society seems to project.

I think an awful lot of it has to do with social anxiety. Modern humans have to deal with an immense number of strangers in the course of any given day. It's very important to signal to them that that you're friendly, not going to bite them, or rob them. It's also important for them to be able to gauge whether you're sexually receptive or aggressive. One of the easiest ways to do this is to conform to one of a narrow number of stereotypes. A classic example of this is a waitress who wears a wedding ring in order to signal to customers that she's not sexually receptive.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:June 17th, 2007 07:21 am (UTC)
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The most obvious is that his previous assertive behavior is now considered overly aggressive because almost everyone is more afraid of assertiveness in men than assertiveness in women, because it is assumed to be more real and more powerful, and thus more potentially dangerous.

From what I remember about Aaron when he was Sarah, he could some times communicate aggressiveness even then. As a male, he's probably coming off as somebody who's trying to be an alpha male. Among males, especially mainstream males, there's a constant struggle for status. The best way I've found to deal with is to be willing to play the fool. Respond and play into their jokes to show that you're intelligent and appreciate their humor. *Don't* use your intelligence to make jokes at their expense. Most of them don't want to be alpha males either. They just want to be sure that you don't think that you're an alpha male. Especially if you're shorter then them (said 5'6" Ken.

The current slump in the antiques and collectable business has me working in the tourist business right now. I think of it as "being undercover in Babylon". It's wierd out there.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:June 17th, 2007 07:27 am (UTC)
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I also considered how I deal with image and presentation. As with most of life, my own pleasure and comfort is considerably more important to me than any considerations of honesty or authenticity – in short, I wish to be a certain way and to have people respond to me in a particular manner and so I do my best to appear to be that way. Thus, I choose an image I like, specifically that of a somewhat effeminate, harmless, generally helpful foppish dandy. Then, I worked on making this image my own and have the wonderful pleasure of often being able to look in the mirror and enjoying what I see, not because I consider myself all that attractive, but because I love how I make myself appear.

One way to think of it is that you may not be the person whom you appear to be, but you are the person who authentically *wants* to appear the way you do.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 17th, 2007 08:25 am (UTC)
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Most definitely - that's in fact an excellent way to describe this.

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