Another London Postcard, via NY: Thoughts on Seeing Ourselves

In addition to being with my NY S in London, I was also there (yes–sadly no volcanic ash intervened and as of this morning I am back stateside) to visit P–one of my closest guy friends from college.

He was with us our first night when we went to that rock show, and at one point the three of us got into a conversation about the whole opposites thing: whether we classify ourselves as introverts or extroverts (P, he himself acknowledges, is tough to categorize) and to whom we are generally attracted.

P described one of his more recent ex-girlfriends–one who I never knew well–as quite extroverted. But he said that one of the things he found most attractive about her was the way in which she was extroverted. (Jesus–I’m sure she still is: we even talk about each other’s ex-es in past tense!?).

He said she kind of played into the stereotype of a blond, gregarious-going-on-loud party girl–in and of itself not always what he finds the sexiest type–but that she did so deliberately. And that’s what was attractive to him: that she was able to consciously manipulate her self-perception. He said he thought it was empowering for her, and that power was sexy.

I completely understood: what’s more sexy, after all, than power? But as much as I recognize this concept in theory–surprise, surprise–it’s something I find difficult in practice.

The next night, over Indian food in Whitechapel, S and I discussed how both of us find ourselves frustratingly beholden to other people’s perceptions of ourselves. Or, rather, what we imagine those perceptions to be.

In general, there are certain men who–for reasons that vary in terms of proof and rationality–I assume find me attractive, and others who–with similarly tenuous cause–I assume don’t. The way that I see myself in a given interaction, I admitted to S between bites of chickpea curry and garlic naan, is tremendously impacted by those assumptions: when I’m talking to someone who I assume thinks I’m pretty or interesting I act accordingly: with confidence and some degree of poise–I feel powerful. With someone who I don’t, I often behave in an opposite manner: I can feel small, awkward, even meek. The way that I imagine someone sees me, in other words, often becomes the way, in a given moment, that I imagine myself.

“It’s terrible,” I said to S. “Isn’t it dangerous to let my self-image rest on other people’s perceptions, when other people’s perceptions are so completely out of my control?”

“True,” she replied–agreeing that it’s a toxic–if sometimes unavoidable–impulse. “But are they really out of your control?

In a rare moment of careful self-critique, I paused–and thought of the girl that P had told us about the night before: the one who he admired for consciously crafting her image. “Well,” I concluded, “I guess not totally.”

S did raise an important point: like P’s ex, all of us can–and often, without realizing how much, do–control our perception through significant and obvious means: we dress a certain way, wear our hair in a certain fashion, we socialize with certain sorts of people. Everything we choose to do publicly constructs a specific image that we project into the world: not to suggest that we should obsess over it, but we absolutely do exercise control over what that image is.

But how much can we control how that image is received?

In one sense, a lot: if you act confident and sexy, I believe, people will generally perceive you that way. Just as they’ll perceive you as a professional if you dress in a suit.

It is probably the case for most of us, though, that–no matter what–there are some who will find us attractive and others who won’t. Ultimately that’s not something we can control.

What we can control, though, is to what extent we care. I’m sure it’s possible–but I don’t think it’s easy.

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