Make the Man
16 June 2012, 5:42 PM
Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about You Don’t Have to Be Pretty, an Erin McKean note I came across recently (don’t remember who linked to it) and which has been on my mind. For those of you who don’t know Ms. McKean (or know her work—I think there are Gentle Readers who know her socially, but that’s not relevant at the moment) among other things she has written a Dress a Day blog for years and years. She cares about how she looks, and how other people look. And she has to remind people that they don’t have to be pretty.
Probably all the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu are aware, on some level at least, of what a no-win situation appearance is. You can conform to social expectations and suffer contempt for your conformity. You can withstand the pressure to conform and suffer ostracization for your strangeness. You can be attractive and suffer jealousy and objectification. You can be unattractive and suffer discrimination and rejection. It’s all bad.
On the other hand, while everyone is bound to lose, alas, in our screwed up world, everyone is not bound to lose all the time with everyone. We manage, somehow, despite everything. We like each other, somehow. We overcome, somehow, the terrible stupidity of our fashions. Or some of us do, or we do some of the time, with some people. We are insulted and made to feel inferior, it’s true—but we aren’t always insulting each other. Nobody escapes, but some of us survive, and in fact, many of us only suffer intermittently, at longer and longer intervals. Thank goodness.
This whole thing has been worrying at me, or I’ve been worrying at it, because (a) I’m a guy, and not addressed specifically by Ms. McKean’s excellent note; and (2) I’m a bit of a dandy, and put a good deal of effort into my clothes. So I get an odd sideways buffet from our culture’s focus on attractiveness and fashion.
For those Gentle Readers who don’t know me, I am usually dressed in either a grey suit or grey slacks and a waistcoat, with a dress shirt and a tie, most often a bow tie. When I’m outdoors, I wear a hat—a fedora for three seasons, and a straw hat in the summer. A few years ago, I phased out most of my white shirts in favor of dark-colored or vertically striped shirts; I have since acquired a couple of white shirts, for occasions and outfits that demand them, but mostly not. Here’s a reasonably representative sample:
I am, as you can imagine, often asked by people who don’t know me well, why do you dress like that, to which I usually respond I think it looks good on me. …and they all move away from me on the bench. But, in fact, I think this style looks good on me, or at least, looks better on me than another style would. And I care about that—I want to have a Look, and I want it to look good. I could wear khakis and t-shirts when I’m not at work, and khakis and not-quite-t-shirts when I am at work, but I don’t think men in general look good like that, and I’m quite sure I don’t. And I prefer to look good.
Do I think I have to be pretty? Do I think, in Ms. McKean’s words about the pressure on women, that I owe it to onlookers to maintain a certain standard of decorativeness? No. I don’t really think people care, and if anything, people are put off by my daily adherence to My Look. But I would rather look good than look lousy.
And, honestly, I think that people ought to prefer looking good to looking lousy. I don’t think that people owe decorativeness to me, personally, and if they want to look lousy, or if they don’t want to take extra time to dress, or if it’s more important to them to support some thing (a cause or an alma mater or an idea) with a t-shirt, I don’t resent it. It’s their choice, their haircuts and spectacles and tans and even their tattoos and piercings. I keep in mind that don’t know anything about the lives of the people I see at my place of employment or at my child’s school that might lead me to have a sensible opinion about what informs their choices. I know that some people think they look good when I think they look lousy, and that other people for whatever reason think their comfort and their look are incompatible and they must have, for whatever section of the day I see them, have chosen one over the other.
And yet. I think that a lot of people have let their satisficing down to a level between invisibility and not-looking-hideous. I find this saddening. I want to advise the college kids and young parents to spend just a little time finding a Look that is both comfortable and attractive, and then spend just a little time more time in dressing to make that look happen. It doesn’t have to be expensive (the Divine knows I spend next to nothing on my clothes) (well, other than my hats, and my summer hat this year was less than $20) and it certainly doesn’t have to be uncomfortable (I do not wear anything uncomfortable) and it doesn’t have to be fashionable. You don’t have to lose weight or work out. You don’t have to expose any bits of you that you would rather not expose. You can still look good.
And yet, you know, you don’t have to be pretty. I know, I know. Wanting to look good is part of the whole problem. And yet, wanting to look good is so obviously better than wanting to look lousy. I’m conflicted about this. I can’t think that most young people wearing t-shirts and jeans most of the time is solving anything, making anyone feel happier and better about themselves. At the same time, the pressure on people to be pretty (or handsome or stylish or fashionable or thin or tall or curvy or buff) is terrible.
I don’t have any answers. All I have, really, is my own experience: I dress up because I think I look better when I am dressed up, and it makes me happier to look good than to look lousy. That may apply to other people, too. You don’t have to be pretty—but you may find that effort put in to your style pays off in your happiness.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,