My most theoretical arguments and musing post yet coming up!
It’s a bit of a response to Sal‘s question: ‘How do I know the difference between what I truly believe and what I’m told about my body, beauty, sexiness?‘. This has actually come up a few times in comments on my own posts, and I really wanted to comment on Already Pretty when I first read it, but my work have blocked the commenting facility on all blogs (which is probably a good thing for my productivity), and by the time I got home my brain was dead and there were already a million comments anyway. And I do want people to read what I have to say – so I’m subjecting you all to my philosophical ramblings, hehe.
So yeah. On a practical level, I really don’t think it matters. If something makes you feel good, and you like it, then hurrah! And if you don’t like something, and you can manage your feelings, or do something about it, then do. It’s different if you personally feel a particular way about something but you know others wouldn’t approve, and you’re repressing your feelings because of media or peer pressure or whatever, but if you seriously can’t tell, then there’s probably no point in worrying about it!
But I guess we’re not really talking about practicalities here, we’re talking conceptually: What is the difference between what you are truly feeling, and what you only THINK you’re feeling because of external input? And I would argue that there is none. Humans are social animals, and *everything we do* is in one way or another influenced by others. There is no such thing as our ‘true self’ that somehow exsits separately from the world.
Obviously our brains do work in a way where we have something that is generally to be understood to be our self, a place from which we understand the world and make individual choices. But I just don’t think that our selves exist in an a priori, state of nature type situation, to which we can get back to if we could just eliminate the influence of society.
I also don’t think that the influence from external factors is directly determining what our preferences and emotions about our bodies and particular clothes/colours/things are. Two people could both be dressed in flowery princess outfits as little girls, and one person will carry that with them and have a preference for girly clothes as an adult, whereas another person might end up rebelling and favour masculine or biker-type outfits. It’s obviously hugely complex, and so many factors play a part that it would take forever to pick apart.
Personally, I like so so many things that most people I know in real life have never actually heard of. When I was a young teenager in Luxembourg, I was completely obsessed with British indie music (still am really), and I honestly have no idea where that came from. Britpop obviously happened, but it was just a general trend among my peers, and to be honest by the time it went proper mainstream, I was already a complete geek in all things indie. My subsequent Anglophilia, and decision to decamp to the UK aged 18, all stem from this original obsession.
But I still didn’t do it on my own. One of the main reasons I became an early adopter of the internet was that it helped me find people who were able to discuss Suede and Pulp b-sides with me. I don’t think there is ANYTHING I like that I am the only person I know of who likes it. I have always found people online who share my interest (even just knowing that they exist), or I have roped Dave into becoming interested (he has a lot to answer for in terms of encouraging my preference for the odder parts of mid-century interiors). If there ever was anything where I was completely alone in liking it, I must have abandoned it pretty quickly.
The other thing I don’t like about much of the discussion around the ‘is it me or is it society?’ question is that it is based on an assumption that individual external influences, like fashion designers and the media, are somehow consciously out to get us, to manipulate us and to tell us what to like to their own ends. Of course, we are influenced by all these things in terms of what we wish to look like, and how we go about achieving this look, and in some cases that has very negative consequences, leading to an increase in body dismorphia, eating disorders, plastic surgery and so on, which has all been well-documented. But I just don’t think there is an evil mastermind behind it all that we have to try and evade to get back to what we ‘truly’ want.
It’s more that society as a whole is organised in a way that mobilises some negative forces (as well as some forces that make us feel lovely and empowered), without any one person or government or organisation having complete control over what is going on. It’s a fuzzy and fluid situation. Everyone produces and reproduces society all the time, including ourselves. We are part of the society that makes us feel bad (or good), and in our every day actions we contribute to the negative and positive forces that work on us. And because this is the case, we have the power to do our bit to change things. But before we can do so we need to understand the social forces, where they come from and their effect on us.
So it’s not whether external factors shape our preferences and emotions, but how, and what might we do about it?
Does that make sense? I’ve tried my best not to slip into jargon (I did have a paragraph about Foucault in there, but took it out, because there is actually little that annoys me more than academic name dropping, even if I do do it myself sometimes. It should be the idea that matters, not who came up with it).