Recently in the news there have been several stories about people changing the way they appear to the rest of the world, most notably the stories of Caitlyn Jenner and of Rachel Dolezal. In the first example, we’ve gotten to observe the very public transformation of the athlete and reality TV celebrity Bruce to Caitlyn. In the second example, we’ve seen how Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP changed her appearance from white, freckled blond to black Afroed brunette. In both cases, each person has said they changed their appearance in order to express a deep part of themselves because they strongly identified with the image they were representing. There has been a huge media storm around both stories, with comparisons being drawn between them, endless debates on the validity of one or another form of expression and a lot of very strong opinions being tossed around, some lightly, some not.
All of this discussion has caused me to reflect on the representation of self and how much of our representation depends on our social environment and how much of it depends on our internal environment. Lately, I’ve come to believe that image development stems from the intersection of society’s expectations and our individual desire for expression, like so:
This diagram shows an equal overlap between the two, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the expectations of society have more weight, such as in a workplace where there may be some guidelines that employees may follow to represent the company for which they work, and sometimes the expectations of the individual win out, such as in leisure time where people have more latitude in choosing things that strictly make them happy. However, what these stories made me ask was this: How much of our personal representation is for our internal gratification and how much of it is for what we want others to see?
In my experience, I don’t know anyone who is able to step completely outside of their social environment and represent themselves without any regard for it. I know people who do their best to be completely individual, and I’ve seen them experience the pain that comes from trying to exist outside the group. At the same time, I’ve seen people experience pain when they’re completely subjected to the expectations of their environment. No matter what, there is always a sense of discontent until people arrive at a place where they are at peace with themselves and at peace with their social environment, or at least at peace with their experiences in it. Some people love to challenge; others love to conform. Peace seems to come from doing the hard work of excavating the self and then figuring out how to represent it to the world.
What’s your take on this? Do we choose our representations for ourselves, or for others?