I’m talking about image in the sense of the way that society views you; the way that you present yourself to society; the pressures you feel to give into making yourself look a certain way because you know that society will judge you and the “image” that you create. I think everyone struggles with this, in some fashion, especially when we’re young and dealing with the pressures of school.
My 14-year-old brother is currently going through this. He’s part of the “cool kids,” as far as I’m aware–something I never made it into, but something I wanted so badly when I was age–and he’s dealing with the pressures that fall into that role. He’s been asking for clothes from Hollister, when a year ago, he didn’t care what he wore. He always does his hair in the morning and constantly berates himself that he doesn’t look good enough. There are days when he’ll talk to me for hours and days when he’ll barely look at me, because I’m an older sister and it isn’t cool to be close to your family.
At first, I took it personal. Here’s a kid that means the world to me and he won’t tell me how his day was because cool kids don’t talk to their siblings? But then I remembered what that experience was like when I was kid and how I used to do the same thing to my parents and now I don’t take it personal. Now I just try to be supportive, because I know what he’s dealing with and it sucks. And I can’t wait until he reaches the point where he doesn’t care about his image and instead can focus on being the person that he wants to be, not a person that can strives to fit in through clothes and trends.
I have been thankful that I have “moved past” this stage of my life, that I “no longer” care about presenting a certain image, but instead care more about representing who I am to the core of my being. Except that I haven’t moved on, not completely. I still care and I hate that that’s the case.
Two pertinent examples from the past month:
The first happened at WorldCon, sort of unexpectedly, sort of not. I had a really amazing chance to meet with some dream agents and with some authors that I have so much respect for, I can’t put it into words (except I can: buy their books and support them. You won’t regret it).* I knew this meet-up was potentially happening before it happened. I was also aware that it would prolly happen at a bar instead of the actual Con. And I knew about the culture that typical follows writers, which was confirmed when a met a few of them, as they asked, “So, how are you enjoying BarCon?”
Before I went, my parents told me, “If they offer to buy you a drink, accept it and then just nurse it while you hang out.” You see, I’m straight-edge. No drinking. No drugs. None of that shit. Other people can do it and almost everyone I know does. Obviously, that’s totally fine and not my call. It’s their life. I respect their choices. Personally, I don’t enjoy it and don’t want to, so I don’t.
So when I got this advice, I had mixed feelings about it. The ultra-stubborn part of me rejected it outright. Why should I change myself because the culture surrounding this Con revolves around drinking and that’s not part of my lifestyle? Why should I pretend to be someone I’m not, just to win their approval and avoid the awkward conversation that I knew would happen otherwise. Because that awkward conversation or response was inevitable, just like it is when people find out I don’t drink coffee or am waiting to have sex until after marriage. People don’t understand those choices because they aren’t part of the normal, they don’t fit the image that I should fit into. Oh, you’re a fantasy and science fiction writer who is working on a sleeve? Yeah, definitely a drinker. Part of me, unfortunately, wanted to avoid that conversation and the judgement that would follow. These were people I wanted to impress, that I hoped to make a connection with so that, hopefully, when I query them later this year, they remember me and they liked me enough–and my writing–to want to work with me.
At the Con, the decision was made and my stubbornness won over. Yes, I wanted to impress these people. Yes, I was nervous and flustered and overwhelmed. Yes, this was the moment, more than anything, where I felt like I was back in high school and desperately wanted someone to like me and to “fit in”. But most importantly, I wanted to be myself. I’m not ashamed that I’m straight-edge. Hell, I choose to be that, every day. So we met up. The offer for a drink inevitably was given. My polite decline answered and I passed the offer onto my sister, who accepted happily and was giddy than an agent bought her a drink. The questions and surprise ensued, the jokes were made, the label of “lame” was given, and then we moved on and talked about writing.
Did I wish I wasn’t labeled as lame, as I was in high school? Of course. Did I regret standing my ground and staying true to who I am? Hell no. I’m not ashamed of it and if my life choice taints my expected image as a writer, then so be it. (Plus, in retrospect, that agent will probably remember me more than other writers they met, because how often do you actually meet a straight-edge fantasy writer? Yeah, not often. So it’s really a win-win, even if I’m lame because of it.)
In that instance, I almost gave into the image that was expected of me, instead of the image I wanted for myself. I’m so glad I didn’t. This next instance, I almost gave in again, but thankfully, I was able to stay strong against the pressure of caring what other people think.
I moved out into my own apartment a little over a week ago. Super excited about it and the apartment is AWESOME. I’m in love with it, I’m in love with my independence, I’m really digging the routine I’m slowly building (my writing productivity has skyrocketed) and I’m generally loving it. Yet at the same time, depression and loneliness are knocking at my door hourly (but that’s a post for another day). As such, I thought about going back home for an afternoon to see my family and the wonderful pup I left behind that weekend. I missed them and wanted to see them.
But then that nefarious concern over image popped up again, in the back of my head, whispering ridiculous thoughts: It’s only been a week. It’s too early to go back and visit. You did leave some clothes there. That could be your excuse. Or it’s Labor Day weekend. People will buy that. You need to be independent, not so dependent on your family. What would people think?
I hope you’re rolling your eyes like I am now. All these thoughts, all these apprehensions, were inspired by how others view me. All of them stemmed from concerns of how others would view me if I went home to visit my family. Like, seriously? This was bringing me back to when I was super concerned how people would view my close relationship with my parents. They are some of my best friends, people. Yet I used to try to hide this. That day I moved in freshmen year to my dorm and my parents were with me and then my roommate was there, alone? I was embarrassed. My Mom came up sophomore or junior year to visit and got me some groceries. She asked if I needed help carrying them up. I said no because I didn’t know how my residents would respond.
I am so ashamed of this embarrassment, even though it is totally natural when you’re young. Except I thought I got past that stage. I thought I had realized how ridiculous that is. So what if people think it is weird that I love my parents and truly enjoy spending time with them? So what if I hang out with them? So what if it has only been a week and I decide to go home for no other reason aside from the fact that I want to?
So what if you judge me for it.
I thought I had moved past being concerned with how my image is perceived and accepted by members of society. I thought I had grown enough to realize that it doesn’t actually matter and what matters more is the image I want to create for myself; creating the best possible version of myself and loving and being proud of that image, regardless of how others respond. These two instances remind me that I was disillusioned. There is no “moving past” dealing with image. I think I will always fight the battle regarding image and fearing how people view me and wanting to tailor my actions or beliefs based on that reception. I can only hope that I continue to stay true to myself and who I want to be, like I was able to do here. Because I happen to like that person.
PS: I did go home on Monday when I got the day off and it was fantastic. Definitely the highlight of my week.
* Also, that link referring to buying the authors’ books that linked to an entire client list from an agency instead of a specific author or group of authors? Yeah, that wasn’t a mistake. That agency seriously knows great books and I hope to read through all of their authors (making my way, ever-slowly).