Something happened to me recently that got me thinking about what we portray to the outside world. The kind of masks we wear, how often we wear them and for what purpose. I’m not just talking face masks, but whole body masks.
When I think back to my child’s first day at school, I was the happy, smiley, confident mummy that waved goodbye at the classroom door and then pelted it back home to have a cry in private, my heart breaking at the thought of her being so small and alone in a big, strange place.
I watch my eldest as she struggles to navigate this world. Trying to make her way in what has been such challenging times. And though she speaks little about her inner thoughts and feelings, I can pretty much gauge how she feels about herself and her world on a particular day, by the way she dresses.
It’s a useful technique this observation of clothing style since it can, for the most part, tell a lot about where someone is at. I mean you also have to take into consideration posture, the way they walk and talk, but attire is a great starting point and sometimes openly reflecting on it can start a conversation and make change happen and sometimes….well, it goes pear shaped. I remember bumping into someone who was dressed like they were having a hard time and when I asked how they were “you seem a bit down today”’ I was swiftly cut off and pretty much never spoken to again. Years later I found out that they suffered from depression and perhaps my question on that day brought shame, or perhaps they felt too vulnerable.
So sometimes the internal and external are a true reflection of each other but sometimes it’s poles apart. Sometimes people have huge amounts of internal turmoil yet are amazing at displaying to the outside world the opposite; calmness, confidence, a certain grounded-ness or a sense of “having their shit together”? We can be very good at dressing in a way that portrays something else. Do we consciously (or maybe unconsciously) dress in a way to boost, bolster or perhaps inspire us to feel a certain way? Just take a moment to have a think about dressing for an interview, going on a date, a special ceremony, a night out or the school run.
How do we ever really know what is going on inside another person? And how willingly would we honestly respond when the ‘feeling shit and looking a bit shit’ are noticed? I know that for me, it would largely depend on who asked, where I was and how vulnerable I felt at the time- hence my running home to cry in private after school drop off.
Anyway, here’s the event that precipitated this whole line of questioning.
I had a day off. I was looking forward to doing my thing; napping, slobbing about, maybe catching up on paperwork, when I get a phone call that made my stress levels soar. I jumped out of bed, threw on some clean clothes, bunched my greasy hair into a top knot, sprayed myself with perfume, shoes on and ran. I collected the person and took them to hospital…and there I stayed the whole afternoon and into evening feeling dirtier by the hour, flitting between hunger, thirst, worry, anxiety and at times tearfulness. I noticed as I waited that my face was neutral but my body on edge, tense from holding in the array of emotions I was trying hard not to feel for fear of them spilling out into some messy puddle in public.
Partly to take my mind off myself and partly out of curiosity, I started looking at how other patients in hospital were presenting. The lady opposite me was well dressed, looked clean and well-groomed but she was in pain and quietly managing it with the stoicism of her era; body straight and quiet demeanour. The youth next to me also looked clean yet the more I secretly observed him, the more I noticed an air of unkemptness about him; his clothes were very baggy as though he was attempting to hide his body, his hair seemed messy, his skin sallow. The older man on the other side was filthy but given what his uniform said about his job, that seemed a given- he looked shocked yet was covering it up well with his manly posture and jokes. I looked quite presentable, casually dressed but pristine. I smelled alright considering I hadn’t showered since the day before and my tied-up hair hid many a sin. I looked like I could have been casually visiting someone.
Then I looked down at my feet. The shoes I had slipped on were filthy, quite tired looking, saggy feeling and grey in colour. Just how I felt; dirty, exhausted and overwhelmed with emotion- sagging inside.
And I thought, “I am my shoes”.
It dawned on me that perhaps I need to check out, not just clothing, manner, states of cleanliness and presentability, but also shoes. Usually they’re the last things one puts on and so, at times, they may be more telling about the state of one’s mind and soul than all other indicators.