I recently attended an event where I met a woman who I would describe as an ‘old school feminist’. Wearing a headache-inducing array of clashing colours, from the peach pink in her hair to the flaming fuchsia of her leggings, and a whole rainbow in between. I watched the group dynamics, a set of strangers who had never met before. The majority ignored this unusual looking woman, and gravitated towards the people who looked, well, like them. In the bar, after the event, it was the same. The lady sat drinking a cup of tea at one end of a long high table, with the others congregating at the other end, splitting the cost of cocktail pitchers to share.
One comment I heard was ‘She works for a mental health charity. You can tell, can’t you?’
I decided to go and talk to her, because she looked lonely, as well as interesting. As it turns out, she was fascinating, particularly on ‘vintage’ feminism.
When I got home I thought more about what I’d seen. I decided it was brave of her to defy convention. She can’t be oblivious to the strange looks she gets, to the way people walk past her to talk to someone more ‘normal’ looking. So she must be making a conscious choice to dress in such a zany style.
On the other hand, I thought it was sad. Her life has been so interesting and she has a lot of interesting things to say. But so many people miss out on hearing about those things, because they are put off by her appearance. Not to mention how much she is missing out on herself. Unlike others at the event, she didn’t benefit from the opportunity to network, to learn more about the others, their knowledge and experience. She purposefully and implicitly distanced herself from the rest of the group.
Since I was at school, making an effort not to look or behave like ‘the cool gang’, it has been important to me not to be conventional for the sake of it, but instead to be myself. On the other hand, I do often go into chameleon mode: adopting a more cut glass accent when talking to people I perceive to be posh, hamming up my northern roots at other times. It’s not deliberate, it just happens. At other times I deliberately present myself in a certain way, to my advantage. At a recent job interview, for example, I turned up in a smart dress and heels (which I almost never wear) as opposed to jeans and trainers. And even though I hate the idea of smearing chemicals over my face in order to appear more appealing to others, I wear make up to work every day, without fail.
I don’t know what the ‘right’ answer is, if there is one. Yes, it’s society’s fault that we’re so superficial and prejudiced. But do we as individuals not also have a responsibility to present ourselves in an advantageous way? Comments welcome.