Scaffolding a personality

Posted on September 4, 2011

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I’ve always been a big hater of shopping – my vision of hell somewhat resembles an aberocrappy and flinch store.  I find scenes of big city high streets packed with chain stores and seas of shoppers to be nightmarish, endless consumption and burning up of resources to meet artificial needs, morbid greed, and bloated desires. The fevered pitch of TV advertising feels to me like someone trying to drill a hole in my skull so they can fill it with washing powder and useless tat.

Recently however I found myself thinking about my own identity – who I am, what I want, etc… Essentially I am trying to construct for myself an understanding of my own personality. I have come to a point where you have absorbed so much information and the time has come to do something about it – to make decisions and persue dreams.

And this is where I come back to shopping. It is very common for people (especially for teenagers) to experiment with the way they look and eventually settle into a given “style”. These styles are generally fall in line with an appearance promoted by either a commercial interest (such as luxury brands, sports, brands, etc) and/or associated with a sub-culture (punks, goths, skaters, hippies, and so on). Changing your appearance does not create who you are: such is the wisdom we tell our kids, but we are hypocritical in doing so. Appearance creates expectations and forms attitudes. People with a certain appearance are expected to behave a certain way, this inevitable moulds that person. Appearance affects what happens to you to – I was once stop-searched for drugs because I had, shockingly, gone outside in a particularly shabby combination of old hoodie and jeans and a weeks’ worth of beard.

But it goes further than this. In ascribing to a particular stereotype you give yourself a scaffold for your personality. You could consider it as adopting a cultural phenotype – while not fully defining you as a person, you fit yourself inside a particular cultural morphology. In doing so you lighten the burden of having to define all your own parameters – you can take a literally off-the-shelf personality and clad yourself in it, thereby lightening the cognitive load of coalescing a personality for your self. Choose an appearance, and you can subscribe to the lifestyle stereotypically associated with it, and half your life decisions are made for you.

Observe any group – well-off young professions, punks, environmental activists, and you will tend to see a certain visual identity. In many cases the identity is formed by advertising which aims to commercialise a whole lifestyle. But while I fully condemn advertising and consumer culture, it is less clear that we can condemn the driving force behind it. I find it somewhat ironic that when you look at people (mostly on the radical left) who most strongly condemn consumer culture, you tend to find a pronounced visual identity – which indicates that while they (rightly) reject the consumerist aspect, they are just as exposed to the need to identify with a group as anyone else.

And it is a need and, as i mentioned before, an advantage. Figuring out ones’ life and role in society is hard, while our brain tends to avoid unnecessary work when it can. Taking appearances and values from a group saves us this trouble, and may even allow us to benefit from wisdom accrued in the group – at least in theory, I would argue that uncritically accepted wisdom is by definition not wisdom at all. We clad ourselves in an appearance drawn from a particular group and in doing so take up ideas, goals, desires, morals, and values from that group – a package deal.

I am not making an apology of these “aspirational lifestyles” that are sold to us with alarming intensity. But I am saying that we must think about the deeper needs which drive this behaviour. And perhaps more importantly, I want to draw attention to the seductive comfort of conformity. How much easier it is to let yourself dissolve into a pre-defined role rather than struggle against the current. And this is not automatically a bad thing (depending on the company you subsequently keep) though it is one each of us should be aware of, particularly at those times when we feel like criticising people of other social groups or cultural origins. It is well established that we see great diversity in our own entourage while considering people of other social groups to be shamefully conformist.

As a final note, it could also be fun to fully embrace the appearance/personality double act. Put on a different set of clothes just as an actor puts on a differentcostume, let go of your rigid mentality and let your personality flow and change with the time, situation, and colour of your sweater.

Posted in: Musings, Politics