Regardless of how much time and effort you spend on your clothes, accessories, hair and makeup, you send messages to those around you through the way you choose to present yourself. Who is listening to those messages? Anyone who sees you—friends, parents, children, colleagues, bosses, potential bosses, significant others and potential significant others.
Self-presentation is about the view of yourself that you choose to give to others. In addition to purely appearance-related aspects, it also includes body language, facial expressions and behavioral choices. While it wouldn’t be emotionally healthy for anyone to make all their aesthetic choices based purely on others’ reactions, you should be aware of the messages you’re sending, and make active decisions about those messages, in order to avoid accidentally presenting yourself in ways you don’t want.
For example, if you wear the popular Victoria’s Secret Pink brand pants with the logo on your butt, is it because you really like the brand, or because you really like people to look at your butt? While some people will see you and assume the first choice, others will see you and assume the alternative. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear them if you like them—but you should be aware that you may be viewed a certain way by some people in some situations.
This brings us to the issue of context, and to one of my favorite shows—TLC’s "What Not To Wear." The show advertises that it brings people in need of a makeover “from dowdy to dashing.” So, it’s fun to watch for the fashion. But, the best part is that the hosts always remain true to the individual nature of each participant, and create a personal style that works within the demands of each person’s real life.
For example, a petite 20-year-old graphic designer from New York City arrived with a closet full of nondescript black jeans and white T-shirts, and long pale pink hair. The hosts outfitted her with a wardrobe appropriate for her particular lifestyle and body type. In an unusual move, they didn’t just let her keep her hair pink, they brightened it and made it fuschia. This is a great example of self-presentation reflecting the specific context of the individual. Though hot pink hair wouldn’t work for many adults in the work force, it fit her age, location, occupation and personality.
With her bland and unvaried original wardrobe, the graphic designer thought she was blending in and avoiding being noticed, which would enable people to focus on her work. Really, she was sending a message that she wasn’t respecting herself and her art enough to present herself in a confident and professional way.
When you don’t convey self-confidence, you are unlikely to inspire confidence in others. “Not trying” is not the same as rejecting society’s stereotypical appearance-based judgments. “Not trying” may accidentally tell others that you aren’t self-assured, and don’t value yourself enough to try. In some business and personal contexts, it may accidentally tell others that you don’t value them (or the job or date they may offer) enough to try. Making some effort to present yourself in an intentional way that fits your personality and lifestyle sends a much more positive message, and can also lift your self-esteem and self-confidence. This, in turn, can positively impact other aspects of self-presentation, such as body language, facial expression and behavioral choices (eg, slouching vs. standing up straight, smiling vs. scowling).
Awareness of your self-presentation also provides an opportunity to model these choices for any children in your life. This is the type of modeling where kids learn from watching the behavior of the adults around them, not the type of modeling that happens on the catwalk. What do you want your children (or nieces, nephews, neighborhood kids, students) to learn from you about how they should present themselves? If you’re the mother of a tween-age daughter, do you want her to think it’s a good idea to wear low-cut shirts to work (=school) everyday? It doesn’t matter what you tell her, if you show her the opposite. And, don’t bother telling your son to pull up his pants or wear a clean shirt, if you’re running errands in your ratty clothes or PJ bottoms.
Self-presentation provides an opportunity for self-expression, “trying-on” different aspects of yourself, and statements of your individuality. Though some contexts demand compliance with rigid rules of style (eg, the military, private school, some business settings), many do not, and allow you to show your personality through your choices.
If you are aware of the messages you’re sending, you can make active choices about your self-presentation, and avoid accidentally sending messages that you don’t intend to send. Your choices can work for you—personally and professionally—as long as they make sense with your setting, age, body type and personality.
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