For many of us, when we’re young (and particularly when we’re still in school), the appearance of a person has a significant impact on how we interact with them, and how we perceive them. I was a skinny during much of primary school, but as I hit puberty and my tolerance to carbs fell through the floor, I ballooned, and so during the remainder of my school years, I developed an understanding of just how mean spirited and twisted some kids can be about appearances.
This treatment, not to mention growing up gay in a small country town, resulted in me becoming pretty insular for most of University; I had a few friends but otherwise mostly kept to myself.
Yet, those who are abused often replay that abuse during moments of weakness, and I’ll confess I was equally guilty from time to time of judging others by their appearances. Just as many looked at my size and assumed I was lazy, slovenly and perhaps a little dim, I too, found myself periodically developing first impressions based on entirely the wrong reasons.
Over time though, I learnt – both to my relief, and my embarrassment at prior moments of judgement – that physical appearances are usually the absolute worst metric by which we can judge someone. Sometimes, to be sure, a person’s attitude will manifest in their physical appearance; yet, even then, the physical appearance is likely to be the symptom, not the cause, of the attitude. Not always, but sometimes for sure.
Up until my early thirties, I spent much of my life worrying about how others would perceive my physical appearance, and I let that significantly impact what I did. It’s still something that comes into play, but I’ve learnt ways of mitigating this. To a degree, my consulting career impacted on this – in the early 2000’s, professional services companies and system integrators would usually require male staff to go on-site wearing a tie, for instance. Ultimately though, this is an entirely sexist attitude. Women are permitted a wide latitude in their dress and appearance in professional situations, yet many businesses expected men to continue to wear stuffy ties and suits.
As anyone who has worked in professional IT would know – the level of dress does in any way indicate the intelligence or capability of the person at what they do. In fact, in many organisations, the IT people who are most casually dressed may in fact be the most intelligent and most respected of all.
Ironically however, once I reached a certain level of professional expertise, I made the judgement that I would no longer allow myself to worry about how people might perceive my skill level based on my appearance. That wasn’t a decision to dress like a slob; quite the contrary, at times I became more fastidious about my work clothes. But I also allowed myself to have a modicum of expression with my personal experience. So I grew a mohawk. [Aside: Apparently, mohawks are coming back into fashion because of a few celebrities. If so, those celebrities have been watching the bear community. So, if you have a mohawk at the moment because you saw a celebrity with one … you’re welcome.]
When my previous employer collapsed and I started a new job, I became somewhat conservative in my appearance again, but this was as likely as anything caused by the general depression I was feeling at the time, and as I edged my way out of that, my mohawk started to grow back. It became the full “pointy thing” that some mohawks developed to, but since I have a whorl of hair directly in the line of the mohawk, it became impossible to sustain as a single unit, and looked stupid as two separate pointy segments, so it disappeared for a while, before returning as a very short mohawk – literally less than a centimetre high. (Thanks to the inspiration from a friend in Melbourne, at the time.)
Eventually I started getting tattoo work done – I have a partial sleeve now; it extends all the way down my arm but doesn’t quite wrap all the way around my arm – it’s still to be completed. A second sleeve will eventually be done, too. And of course, my beard has lengthened.
The net result is that – according to some, at least – I now look like a mean bikie. (Or, based on some amusing abuse I copped recently, a “bikie c__t”.)
But here’s where it gets interesting: I’m actually a big softie. I’m a pacifist; I refuse to hate anything (indeed, a synaesthesia like reaction causes me to recoil quite strongly from use of the word); a good piece of music will leave me overcome with emotion and I can’t in any way read anything about animal cruelty. That’s just the beginning.
Should I adjust my appearance because some people misinterpret how I look? Ultimately, that’s their problem, not mine. In some small way, I’d like to think I’m a walking reminder that judging people by their appearances is an entirely stupid and pointless endeavour.
The world would be a better place if we all stopped judging people by their appearances. I’m not perfect, I still sometimes fail, but I regret it bitterly each time and do my best to avoid it. So should you.