On Being Perceived
3:41 PM EDT on October 7, 2021
I found in my closet a dress I’ve never really loved. It’s a beautiful dress, if a little ridiculous. I bought it at a fancy strip mall retail store when I was in high school with the money from my job at the not-fancy mall retail store because I wanted to own one thing that made me feel cool. I wasn’t fashionable. Much later, I would realize that the girls at my art school with cool clothing were actually just much wealthier than I have ever been. They had the kind of boots that Blake Lively wore on Gossip Girl and I had a leather jacket made by Lauren Conrad for Kohl's that I wore for a full decade. But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t look good. I had no idea what I wanted to be wearing, how I wanted to present myself. The internal pressure of who I felt myself to be collided with the external pressure of who and how I felt I had to be. This left me with layered tank tops that looked terrible.
This gold dress I bought though, was expensive, even on sale. It was $98, which I remember because I was scared to use my debit card. It has an A-line skirt, a high neckline, and a high back. It is so gold and so shiny and so sparkly that it looks like an expensive eye shadow. It is made of material so stiff that its shape doesn’t change even when you sit down. It is an adorable little dress for someone who isn’t me.
But I wore it. I wore it to homecoming after I bought it. I wore it in college to a New Year's Eve party. The last time I wore it was in February of 2020, in Mexico City. It feels like a lifetime ago now. My sister was coming to meet me and we were going to party that weekend. She told me to bring something “fun,” an admonishment because usually my wardrobe consists of various black items and giant sack dresses. “Fun,” I repeated to my closet when I packed, and so I brought the little gold dress.
It was a good party. My sister and I wore wigs and ordered tequila-sodas from the open bar, and made our mom take our photo. There was a roof where we danced around. It was the last party I went to before the pandemic shut everything down. The last real outfit I wore was that weird little gold dress.
When I am with my sister, more people pay attention to me. I am noticed, perceived, observed standing next to her in a way I’m otherwise not. This can be a power, if you are strong enough. You can suck up the energy from the room around you. I imagine there are some people who feel like this all the time: for whom being perceived is being admired, for whom attention is empowering. But I have always cowered from it, not out of self-consciousness or lack of confidence or shyness, but because I never liked what I saw in the small version of me reflected in their eyes.
At first it was strange to live in a world where I was never perceived. The only people I saw were people I trusted who knew me very well. There was very little judgement in this world, and so I quickly lost the ability to dress myself. I wore sack dresses mainly, but I also gave up on normal bras, makeup, having my hair cut, and shoes that weren’t Tevas. Everything I wore was practical in the way that children’s clothing is practical: soft and made for activity. I wore overalls with lots of pockets. I wore almost nothing with a zipper or a real waistband. My clothes became extensions of my body. They added nothing and took nothing away because no one saw them, and when they did I was wearing a mask and a hat and sunglasses. I could have been anyone, really.
I liked my newfound invisibility. Though I hated everything else about the pandemic, I liked disappearing. Or more accurately, I liked being seen only by people who already saw exactly what I wanted them to see, which was me. I liked that I never had to lie anymore: to say that I was fine when I was very depressed, to look cute when I felt like a bag of trash, to paint on under-eye concealer, to fake it.
When I would walk on the street, I knew I was invisible. In college, I had a very good sociology professor named Dr. Crosnoe who taught us that no one cared about the pimples on our face. In fact, he said, they didn’t even see them. This theory is an expansion of a series of studies done by psychologists about how the information our eyes absorb feeds into our consciousness. The theory is called “inattentional blindness,” and it was coined in 1998 by Drs. Arian Mack and Irvin Rock. Through a series of experiments, Mack and Rock learned that if we are focused on something, and if our brain thinks we know what we are looking at, we do not necessarily gather all the information our eyes are capable of seeing. "I came away from our studies convinced that there's no conscious perception without attention," Dr. Mack told the American Psychological Association.
“No conscious perception without attention” means that when we walk down a street we’ve walked down a million times, in a fog of our own thoughts, on our way to the grocery store for our weekly stock-up, we don’t actually see the things around us. We only see what we think is there, or what catches our attention. (Mack and Rock found that people were more likely to notice things that were directly related to them.)
Other scientists took this further. Two scientists at Harvard published a study in 1999 in which participants watched a film of two basketball teams: one wearing black shirts and one wearing white shirts. Count how many times the black team passes the ball and ignore the white team, the scientists told participants. What those scientists found is terrifying and also very cool. More than 25 percent of participants, focused on the ball, did not notice in one study, a woman who walked through the scene carrying an open umbrella. In another version, more than half the participants failed to notice a person wearing a damn gorilla suit who stood in the middle of the game thumping his chest for nine seconds. Too focused on the goal, people became unaware of their surroundings entirely.
During the pandemic, I was counting the passes. I did not pay attention, and neither did anyone else. And so I became the person in the gorilla suit.
There was a freedom in this that I rapidly adopted. My body was invisible. I was a brain in a vat! I proved Judith Butler’s argument right, and felt more myself and more free the minute I managed to separate myself from the expectations of society and even myself. My body, something I have been trying to alter and squeeze and ruin for decades, evaporated from my consciousness. I stopped paying attention to my reflection and so it no longer existed to me. I stopped paying attention to the clothes in my closet and so they all disappeared one by one, even the gold dress.
I remember the moment I woke up. A very close friend was having a little birthday on a patio. There would be strangers close to us, but we were all vaccinated. It felt safe. It would be fun. I didn’t think about what I would wear because I was out of practice, so it wasn’t until it was almost time to go to the party that I realized I didn’t have anything. I went to my closet, and the scales fell from my eyes. What the hell was all of this?
There were stacks of t-shirts, stacks of pants, drawers of socks and shorts and exercise leggings. On the hangers were blouses and dresses and jumpsuits and blazers. I remembered wearing all of it, but how? How had I worn all of this? Some of it was sized for, like, a baby with a job! Some of it had a peplum! It looked like the closet of a stranger, except the stranger was me in the past.
This was very unsettling. I remembered feeling uncomfortable in my clothing in the past, but I did not remember feeling like the clothing I was wearing was at odds with who I was as a person. Yet here it was. I did not remember ever being able to fit into a size 0 pencil skirt. I did not remember ever being the kind of person who would choose to buy, much less wear a pencil skirt! It felt like seeing an unflattering portrait of yourself that one of your friends is trying to convince you is good. Was this what people had seen? Was this what I was projecting as my self? This wasn’t myself! One of these skirts had sequins on it!
All the clothes in my closet that seemed wrong were “flattering,” which is to say they accentuated the parts of my body other people were supposed to like and downplayed the parts they weren’t. I’ve taken every quiz in magazines, wrapped a soft tape measure around my waist and my hips and my bust, pulled on dress after dress in a tiny department store. I had chosen all of these clothes. I had worn them. There was the gold dress, too. I had willingly put this dress on, and now it felt like it belonged to someone else. I closed the closet door.
I wore a sack dress to the party because I am nothing if not capable of kicking a self-revelation down the road until forced to confront it. But of course, I did have to confront it. These were my clothes! And while the sack dresses are good for a lot of things, they are not appropriate for every scenario.
By the time I managed to bring this up in therapy, it was May and the closet was becoming a real problem. Or rather, as I explained to my therapist, the problem was that I didn’t want to wear the clothes in my closet. I wanted to be free from all of these societal norms. I wanted to be a beautiful bouncing ball of light. I wanted to be in the world without being seen as a corporal being. I wanted people to see and judge who I am. I wanted a fantasy.
I was given homework: Go through the closet, and get rid of everything you don’t want to wear.
This, of course, was easier said than done. It felt wasteful, and replacing clothes isn’t free. It also required some introspection. “Have you considered,” my very nice therapist asked me, “the fact that you have lived in this apartment for almost a decade, and some of the clothes you have in there are from high school and maybe they just don’t serve you in the future?”
Yes, of course I had considered this! It was terrifying! I had been wearing these clothes out of habit, not seeing them or seeing myself in them, for years. I had changed as a person over time, hardened and grown up, but my clothes hadn’t grown up with me. I hadn’t noticed the changes in myself and so I hadn’t noticed that none of these clothes felt good anymore. How had I not noticed this?
Plus, inherent in my therapist’s question was another more terrifying one: What do you want the future to look like? Who do you want to be in that future? How do you want to feel?
These are questions I have never really answered, and maybe never had the stability to really confront. I had never had a coherent sense of fashion because I didn’t have the money to buy trendy clothes each new season, and I didn’t have the necessary sense of who I wanted to be to buy things that I loved. So I bought clothing that fit and that flattered me and that was versatile. I bought the pencil skirts, for example, because I needed them for a job that I hated. I kept them because I might need them in the future, I reasoned, should I somehow end up in a job I hated again. What I had been doing with my clothing choices was keeping every door in the hallway of my future open, in an attempt to remain noncommittal to any future, to keep myself as nimble as I imagined I’d need to be. In doing that, I’d never found a door to walk through.
It was unsustainable. I did my homework. I made a pile of clothing I hated. When I was done there was so little left in the closet, so little of who I projected myself to be in the past had ever been real. It would all have to go away.
Fashion wasn’t the whole of the problem, or even my clothing. It was presence. It was that the people around me were all newly alert and attentive to the world around them, and that I was being seen; being perceived, even. Terrible! People were no longer so focused on surviving that they could not see the people around them. I myself was seeing and perceiving! The strain that had existed between what I wore and how I wanted to feel in the world had become too great.
It was a real problem, if a boring one. I needed clothes that fit me as a person. I ordered clothing to my apartment and tried it on in my bedroom. Was this “me”? Was this “who I wanted to be”? Or was this a pair of pants so big that a gust of wind would snap me into the sky like a ship’s sail? How do you know? You can’t. You can’t know it alone.
I needed other people, I realized. I needed the reflection of myself in other people’s eyes. I needed other people to serve as a mirror: to see me and respond to me and so allow me to perceive myself. You realize parts of yourself by interfacing with others that you can’t realize alone. This isn’t a new idea. Philosophers have argued about it for centuries. In 1997, Italian philosopher Adriana Cavareo introduced the concept of the “narratable self,” a sort of shared project between a person and the rest of the world. “This self does not have a premium on self-narration,” an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains. “Rather, others may actually have a better handle on one’s own self. For this reason, narrating oneself must occur within a communal, political context.”
I couldn’t correct the error in my former self-presentation in isolation. But more than that, in being denied face-to-face interactions with my friends and with strangers, I had lost the ability to see myself clearly, and so the way I envisioned myself warped to fit only my own view of myself. In this version of reality, slovenly apparel was fine, was working for me, even. I knew who I was; the clothes were irrelevant. But as I started to emerge, to narrate myself back into the communal context of a society, I cared more about what that reflection looked like. Not what other people thought of me, really, but how I was presenting myself for myself.
I’d never tried to cultivate a style: never had the money to follow big trends or the patience to follow-through on something like thrifting. When I was 24 the most fashionable friend I’ve ever had, Tahirah Hairston, told me that there are two ways to be perceived as fashionable: The first is unattainable (god-given beauty, inherited wealth, model height), but the second was within reach. The other way to be fashionable, she said, was to really know yourself. To have a true understanding of who you are and what your body looks like and to dress yourself to fit that. At that time, both felt unattainable.
In a way, it feels like I’m going off to college again—like no one knows who I am or what I’m about and there is this perfect opportunity to change everything or anything about myself. Or really, there is an opportunity to do the scary thing: to look into the little me I see in the iris of a stranger and ask her who she wants to be, how she wants to reflect back at me. I know that means the gold dress is gone for good, but maybe I will buy another, different gold dress. I’m eyeing one now made of lamé, so shiny it’s holographic and entirely too expensive. I am learning, again, how to pay attention to myself, to pay attention to others, to be perceived.