Since a young age, I've had a keen sense of living in a radically screwed up and unjust world. I remember when I learned in elementary school about the American enslavement of people from Africa, about killings in war, about the brutal genocide of Native Americans, and about the likelihood we were all going to die in nuclear war, and I was like Gee we are fucked up. I'm not saying I understood the proper range of things -- I was a white kid in the US suburbs -- just that I knew things were deeply not OK.
When I was a young adult, you would have known from just looking at me that I felt this way. My self-presentation was ... weird. I guess style-wise it was mostly a mix between punk and something like goth, but it was more non-conformist than that. My clothes from the thrift store were often shabby and falling apart. I wore boots with my summer dresses, which for some reason drove people crazy. I let my hair become knotted into permanent tangles -- not like dreads, but like just a person who doesn't brush her hair. I had a lot of piercings, before that became a normal thing.
Looking back on my arrival at philosophy PhD school years later, one mentor said, "Well -- we thought you were really out there."
Over the years since, my self-presentation has become much more conformist. For one thing, I found that teaching undergraduates pushed me way toward conformism. There are many things that make teaching stressful and anxiety-producing, and for me one of them has to do with relating to a pretty wide range of people. I've never been that popular person, I'm not an extrovert, and the things that interest me often don't interest other people (and vice-versa!). Navigating the student-teacher relationship alongside the complexities of self-presentation non-conformism is too emotionally complicated for me.
Another pressure toward conformity has to do with my relationship to femininity and the way that changes with getting older. I've always been somewhat a girly-girl, and I love dresses and feminine clothes. Some of my earliest memories involve trying to talk my mother into buying me various skirts and cute crop-tops and heels -- her style of feminism pushing hard in the direction of denim and "clothes you can do things in."
It's one thing to be both girly and non-conformist when you're young, but I feel like it gets complicated when you get older. I'm a professor, but sometimes when I'm not "dressed up," strangers ask "Are you a student?" I know, whatever, but it gets annoying. Plus, it's easy to look good when you're young, even if you're wearing weird clothes, because duh -- young people are cute. Not so easy as time goes on.
Now that I look more conformist, though, it's disturbing to me that people might look at me and think that I'm a happy part of the system, or that I think things are mostly just peachy, or that I'm optimistic about the future. As time has gone on, I feel like more people now share the feelings I had back in the 1980s, that things are radically not-OK, and maybe I'm also more aware of people who feel this way. Racism and police brutality continue to be outrageous. Workers in the US need to earn $22.10 per hour to afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment; according to Forbes, the median US hourly wage is $16.71. Looming climate change has made dystopianism a mainstream mood. It's not just for goths anymore.
Whenever I'm on this train of thought, at some point I think to myself: why are you thinking about self-presentation, when action is what matters? Isn't it silly to be worrying about how you look, when what matters is what you do?
But I think they both matter. Years ago a student came up and asked me something about a slightly non-conformist thing, and I was like "of course!" and she was like "well, I didn't know, because you you look so normal." And I was like "Hmmmm." Plus, in our Instagramish age, where everything has to come with a photo, self-presentation has become a central form of communication.
I'm not really sure what would be next. On the one hand, I hardly wear makeup, and I don't dye my grey hair, and it's a measure of how bizarre the world is that these things really are seen as non-conformist. But on the other hand, I'd like to do more. Maybe I should learn to sew and start wearing jeans with brightly colored fringe. Maybe I should put sparkles on everything I own. Maybe I should become that kind of ultra-femme who transcends conformist femininity. Maybe I should start wearing only sports-wear -- which would be conformist for some people, but pretty non-conformist for a woman in academia. Obviously, I don't have an answer or a plan, and hence the question of the title is really a question. The world is ending. What should I wear?