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Self vs. society

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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).

picture by MarcelaRodriguez*.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sal 17 March 2010, 6:28 pm

    YES. It makes perfect sense. And at the end of the day, I get frustrated with the victim mentality, too. We do contribute to social humanity, and that means we can make choices about what we accept and reject. It can be hard when the messages we hear tell us over and over that thin is better, tall is better, pale is better, but hard and impossible are different things. And taking responsibility can be very empowering.

    And I loved reading your musings on this topic. I think the feeling that there's a Big Bad isn't necessarily based on paranoia about evil forces manipulating us. For me, at least, it's the realization that my thoughts aren't always purely mine. I know that should be common sense, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that outside forces influence us on a daily basis.

    Whoa. Rambling. Anyways, glad you posted on this, lady. I love reading your thoughts.

  • Work With What You've Got 18 March 2010, 5:40 pm

    "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."

    The main reason I signed on so early was also to find people to talk music with. I don't know ANYONE in real life who likes Girls Aloud that didnt get it from me, but I can find all kinds of crazy fans online, and I met my BFF of all time on a Tori Amos message board in 1999!~

    I know that was a random bit to comment on, but OH well!~

  • Retro Chick 19 March 2010, 4:15 pm

    Some excellent points. I could be more coherent if it wasn't 4pm on a Friday afternoon when I was reading this.

    You can't help but form your "own" opinions on things based on the information you are fed. The only choice you have is the amount and source of the information you take in and how critically you examine it.

    I know plenty of people who will parrot "opinion" based on tabloid newspaper reports with no further reading, no critical examination of the language that paper might be using and why. I suppose it doesn't even occur to them to be critical as it is "news" if it is in the paper.

    Human psychology is so complex that the same information given to the same people will be read, interpreted and used in a multitude of ways as it goes through our own mental filters made up of all our experiences over the years.

    Anyway, did I mention it was 4pm on a Friday? I hope some of that made sense!

  • Blabla 9 June 2011, 9:48 am

     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. -> Surely not all medias, but girly mag' and famous fashion designer surely are ! 

    Your point of view is interesting but it misses something : what if the external input IS bad (for health on a long term or for your way to behaving) ? 
    I fashion tells me red is the new it. Okay, it shouldn't harm me to much. But when society tells me geeks are freak who study math, physic and weird stuff, they are not good to talk to in a bar. I'm a bit WTF. 
    And yeah, you might still feel confortable because you end up with popular people (talking, flirting, all that) but is it really good to neglect people like that ? 

    My point of view is  : consider what you think, and check if it's really good for you, and eventually for others as well.