It’s amazing how much power it holds. How much of our lives we spend catering to it.
As a young girl I was very particular about my clothing. I didn’t care if it was pretty. I didn’t rhapsodize over fabrics or colours. I simply didn’t want to appear too ‘girly’. As a result, I vetoed many outfits that my mother presented to me.
I did not care about the clothes themselves. I simply did not want them to get in the way. I had an image that I wanted to project, or at least an image that I didn’t want to project, and even at a young age I relied on my clothing to communicate that message.
I knew about the power of first impressions. Of impressions in general. Of appearance.
And that’s incredibly superficial. Aren’t we taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover? That it’s what’s inside that counts?
Of course, those lessons still ring true. If I had worn frills and ribbons, it would not have altered who I was. It would not have eliminated the possibility for me to play football on lunch breaks, or read quietly in the corner.
But it would have changed something.
It would have changed the way I was perceived when someone first met me. My frills and ribbons would be evaluated, and they would send a message to everyone that saw them.
I knew that. So I didn’t wear them. I didn’t like them.
I wish that I could claim to have grown out of that stage. I wish that I could say I only choose my clothes based on my personal taste, but that isn’t true. My taste is informed by the opinions of others, by the impression that I want to leave. I wear a pencil skirt when I want to appear professional. I wear jeans when I want to appear casual. I don’t consciously consider the message I want to send with my appearance, but it is there, sneaking its way into my most basic decisions.
And it doesn’t stop there.
This past weekend, I worked in an echoey room crowded with children, babysitters, and occasionally their family. I was in charge of this room, of making sure that everything ran smoothly and everyone was accounted for.
And my head was pounding. At times, I desperately needed to sit down.
During one of those moments, I was talking with the grandmother of one of the children. She knew of my health condition, and asked how I was feeling right then and there.
It would have been so easy to tell her that I was actually having a bit of a rough time, and needed to sit down on the chair I had positioned just for that purpose. It would have made sense to be honest. She was asking out of understanding and concern, with no judgement.
But I didn’t.
I told her that I was feeling quite well. That it was a little noisy, but that I was completely fine. And I remained standing, even forcing out a passable smile.
There was no reason for me not to tell her. No reason, except the most superficial.
I didn’t want her to think that I wasn’t capable of doing my job. I didn’t want her to think that her grandchild was in an unsafe environment.
Of course, it is unlikely that she would have thought those things. She was simply being kind.
But I didn’t want to appear weak.
And that’s alarming. Because I wasn’t struggling with the work. I was fully in control. I simply needed to sit down, perhaps drink some water, take a breath.
Yet, a part of me believed that even admitting to that, even the most basic acknowledgment of my poor health, would devalue me. Would make me appear inept.
And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many of my greatest strengths have been forged through my experience with chronic illness. I am more capable of handling chaos, more capable of pushing through difficult situations, because of my condition, not in spite of it.
A headache doesn’t make me less capable.
It does quite the opposite.
My ability to function despite the pain makes me strong.
Makes me capable.
And instead of worrying about the message I am projecting, maybe I should be fighting it.
Maybe I should be honest.
Maybe I should just be me.