the art of (re)inventing yourself
“I myself am entirely made of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” — Augusten Burroughs.
I dressed up as the kind of person who liked to party with Marie Antoinette. A friend loaned me the costume, which had been custom-made for a gorgeous younger woman no longer attending the event. The costume was amazing. And somewhat complicated. It came with instructions. They began with:
slip on the ruffled panties
and went from there.
When the messenger dropped it off, my girlfriend and I zipped open the garment bag and went through the different pieces and promptly assumed that something was missing. Like perhaps a bottom half. There was the
court pannier hoop which slips over the head
followed by a swath of material referred to as a “lace skirt” which
goes over the panniers and closes in the center front.
Then I was told to
put on the corset which sits over the panniers and lace skirt
and which squashed my breasts up against my chest in the way you’d expect when you’ve seen DANGEROUS LIASIONS as many times as I have. (It’s one of my favorite movies and a loose inspiration for my current novel in progress THE DECADENTS). The lace skirt was flimsy and transparent – it was lace, for god’s sake – and hiked up in front, with bows at right and left, to display legs in thigh high hose
(slip the blue and white garters to the top of the hose on the thigh)
Topping off the ensemble – literally – was an elaborate wig of real human hair, piled up in front and dropping down in back to my waist. “Look,” I said in delight to my boyfriend, “there’s a bird in it.” A woman appeared at the house to help me with the wig and lace me into the corset and do era-appropriate makeup (soft eyes, rosebud mouth, very natural).
My hair is high, I texted my girlfriend, and I am ready.
Bundling myself (and my hair) into the car was a challenge. I spent the first bit of the evening learning how to navigate space (the hoops made doorways difficult), move my head (I was warned against any sudden, bending motions that might disrupt the wig) and breathe without passing out.
Then something happened.
I began to get the hang of it. Because of the corset and the pannier the most comfortable thing was to put my hands on my hips. The hoops made it awkward to walk but easy to flounce and sashay. I resigned myself to the fact that I was the least-clothed person at the event, adopting a fuck it air of aristocratic (or so I hoped) insouciance.
“The thing with my costume,” remarked my boyfriend, undergoing a sartorial adventure of his own, “is that I can feel myself becoming this character.”
Which is exactly what I was starting to think: the costume made me move a certain way, which made me feel a certain way, which made me behave a certain way. I was myself, but I was this flouncing, saucy, flirtatious, confident version of myself: I strutted, rolled my shoulders, took up space (which the costume demanded I take up anyway).
I was not the kind of person you might assume to be a nuclear physicist.
Maybe sometimes the clothes really do make the man.
And the woman.
Which got me thinking about how you can invent, or re-invent, yourself from the outside in. Although we tend to think that we feel first, and then act in a way that reflects that, it also works in reverse: what you do affects how you think and feel. If you bite down on a pencil, you can trick your brain into thinking you’re smiling. If you throw back your shoulders, lift your head, and walk with your hands on your hips, you might start to feel confident, even cocky and authoritative. If you consistently make eye contact with strangers and smile at them (in a non-stalker manner), you’ll probably start to see yourself as more connected and outgoing (Michael Ellsberg has an entire book dedicated to THE POWER OF EYE CONTACT).
There’s a term for this: embodied cognition. At Northwestern University, two psychologists kick it up another level with the idea of enclothed cognition. Hajo Adam and Adam Galinksy ran an experiment in which participants completed tasks such as identifying the differences between two similar pictures. Sometimes the participants wore a lab coat. Sometimes they just looked at the lab coat. And sometimes they did neither.
Performance improved significantly when the participants wore the lab coat –
— unless (and this is interesting) they were told that it was a painter’s coat.
The psychologists theorize that both the symbolic meaning of clothes as well as the physical experience of wearing them come into play. Of course, in some ways we know this already: hence the advice to fake it til you make it and dress for the position that you want instead of the position that you have.
We so strongly link who we are to what we wear that young people out of college can be notorious for underdressing at the office with an I just gotta be me, take it or leave it kind of air. They overlook the fact that identity is fluid, and we create, or co-create, ourselves as we go along.
How we engage with externals and respond to the world affects how the world responds to us, which creates the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
We find ways to signal that story to others, which affects how they respond to us, which affects how we feel about ourselves, which affects how we act, which affects how the world responds to us, which affects the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and so on and so forth.
Identity is a constant feedback loop.
“Great walk,” a man said to me, passingly, as I sashayed in my costume. Which of course only served to encourage my behavior.
This is something I’ve been thinking about partly because I’ve got one of those big, rounded birthdays coming up: I turn 40 in September. When I was younger I swore to myself that I would never lie about my age. This was my way of telling myself (I realize now) that I would define the age for myself instead of accepting this idea that it shamed and devalued me (fuck that) and should be kept secret. Living in Los Angeles tends to shade this resolve in some interesting ways. I still remember, a few years ago, an individual in the tech community commenting with surprise that a woman we both knew had suddenly turned “hot! I mean, she’s old, but she’s hot!” She was, of course, 40 (just a couple of years older than he was).
My point isn’t the absurdity of this, or the underlying double standard about aging (men improve, women don’t). In this supposedly postfeminist age, we are reinventing middle age (a process the boomers started before us). Which adds to this sense of entering uncharted territory. When you’re no longer defined at least partly by youth and the beauty of rampant fertility, when you have to subtract those things from your sense of self, it opens up this question of how will you define yourself? Who will you become? Who do you want to become?
“We human beings delude ourselves most of the time when we tell ourselves that we continuously invent our behavior according to deliberate choices we make. In fact, we usually don’t. Usually, we react unconsciously to the many cues of the context….and on rare occasions do we consciously think about how to react.” — Karl Albrecht, SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE
Something interesting happens when you achieve clarity on who you want to be. It becomes an expression of who you already are. It starts to shape the very present that shapes the future, as if you’ve pulled the future into the present.
The future creates a context for the present; imbues it with energy, direction and meaning. It becomes a lens that filters your vision and shapes your perspective, directing you to the things that fulfill your vision (since what you focus on, expands) and ignoring what doesn’t. When you stock your context with the proper cues, you don’t have to consciously decide how to react; your subconscious will take care of that for you.
Context creates meaning. Whether it’s the clothes we wear or the spaces we design, the people we surround ourselves with, and the things we choose to focus on, it’s worth thinking about the meaning we’re creating for ourselves and others. Style and beauty have long been dismissed as ‘feminine’ values – and thus frivolous, shallow, unimportant, vain – but the influence of behavior and the shaping of identity, and the actions that result, seem anything but.
It’s about what you throw out, and what you keep.
When my ex-husband hired a stylist, the first thing the stylist did was to go through both our closets and throw out a lot of stuff. “I see you’re doing this bohemian thing,” he sniffed, surveying the postpartum tunics I liked to belt over my jeans. He wanted to take me in a direction that was more “edgy European”. That sounded good to me. It resonated with who I wanted to be.
But first you have to create the space for whatever is waiting to enter. Creation starts in silence and emptiness, whether it’s the blank page, the blank canvas, the calmed mind – or the uncluttered closet. You need that zone for dreaming. You need to sense what’s on the other side, waiting for you to bring it on through.
It’s about where you live and who you spend your time with, since we’re wired to adapt to the group.
Tim Ferriss likes to say that we are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with.
And we are influenced by our friends, our friends’ friends, and our friends’ friends’ friends, their actions vibrating down through the invisible lines that connect us.
Part of finding – or creating – yourself is about declaring your tribe. When you know who you want to be, you can choose your community accordingly and let yourself soak up all that influence. When my friend Jena La Flamme decided that she wanted to be a belly dancer, she sought out the company of belly dancers (and now incorporates some of what she learned into her unique brand of weight-loss coaching). When I decided that I wanted to become more “entrepreneurial” – which so contradicted the way I saw myself I could hear wild peals of laughter in my head – I put myself in online and offline communities of established and aspiring female entrepreneurs. There’s that saying – you have to see it to be it – and once you start seeing it over and over again, it no longer seems so impossible.
A large part of choosing your tribe – putting yourself where you can see what you want to be – is choosing where to live. What I saw in my small Canadian hometown was very different from what I saw in Silicon Valley which differed from what I see now in Los Angeles. (Growing up in my hometown, I “saw” my future largely through the books I read.) What I see in Europe is different from what I see in America (particularly when it comes to notions about growing older as a woman in a vibrant and sensual way).
After I’d lived in LA for a couple of years, a friend from the Bay Area, who had known the Bay Area version of myself, came to visit. “You’ve upped the style factor,” he said to me (I was still in my boho phase, wearing a fur vest, bracelets). The comment surprised me. Whatever changes I’d undergone as I adapted to my new environment were so gradual and subtle that I hadn’t even noticed. But he did.
It’s how you structure your space.
In the book INGENIUS: A Crash Course in Creativity, Tina Seelig (the director of entrepreneurship programs at Stanford) talks about how work space can shape team dynamics. When teams of students were given a puzzle, a noticeable difference took place in how the teams operated: those in a space that contained only chairs collaborated immediately, while those in a space that contained only tables didn’t collaborate at all.
It also turns out that standing up at your desk is ideal for creative work – it energizes, engages you. (I have yet to try this.)
Meanwhile self-help and motivational books and blogs such as this one will emphasize the importance of seeding your environment with visual cues to encourage success:
“Your brain needs a method of filtering through the clutter and locking onto what’s important. This is where the science comes in. The “reticular activation system” (RAS) sorts through those millions of bits of data, making sure that you’re only aware of certain things. It calls your attention only to the details that you don’t want to miss, such as hearing your name in a crowd.
….Once you write something down or see a picture of your goal, your brain starts to work on that goal without you even realizing it. ”
What you focus on – expands.
None of this is meant to suggest that inventing, or reinventing, yourself is easy. Fake it ‘til you make it! Dress for success! Defining yourself is about knowing yourself: what your core values are and how you want to express those values through your work, your art, your relationships, your life narrative, your life. When you can articulate your purpose – which, god knows, is no easy task in itself – you can experiment with ways to best express that purpose. You can develop the habits to cultivate the skills to help you achieve what you want to achieve. You can grow and evolve in order to become more fully who you already are.
The more we change, the more we stay the same; no matter how many times Madonna reinvents herself, she can never stop being Madonna. Call it your soul, your essence, your creative DNA, your intuition, your north star, your core self, or just an illusion of self, it lives in your body as well as your mind, it sends up warnings when you’re headed in the wrong direction and positive feelings when you’re following your destiny.
The problem is when we get too discouraged to listen. We fail too many times, we make too many mistakes, we self-talk in all the worst ways. We learn the hard way that we’re not in charge of our lives quite in the way that we think. Maybe we are deluded when it comes to our ability to make the conscious and deliberate day-to-day decisions that will weave us the life that we want. Maybe what’s required, sometimes, is a shift in focus. Instead of trying to change yourself, change the personal culture that you create for yourself. When you deliberately open up a gap between who you are on the inside, and who you are on the outside, your brain is forced to come up with a new story about who you think you are.
As someone who started out in one place, and ended up in another place – hell, another planet – and has lived long enough to see her own character arc, I can say that in many ways I am not who I thought I was. I am certainly not who some people told me I was, and I count myself lucky that I figured this out now instead of ten or twenty or fifty years from now. But I think in many ways that the self is a lot like the sun: stare at it direct, and you’ll go blind. You have to look off to the side a little. You have to let it happen while you’re doing other things. You think up the outline, choose the genre, the setting, the characters, and let the story write itself.
You don’t let anybody write it for you.