Would we be more honest with one another if we walked around naked or just look weird with our makeup and hair styles and body sculpting?

statueWhere would Donald Trump be without his side-swept hairstyle? Would he still project that indefinable air of power, wealth and ruthlessness? What if we glimpsed sight of him without his expensive business suit? Without any clothes at all? How would people respond to him?

Because appearance has such a pervasive effect on our judgments about people, I wonder if nudity would level the playing field, and the mechanic down the street, unclothed, would be able to persuade us to invest in his financial schemes? Could toplessness level the playing field between the sexes, as per the “free the nipple” movement. Or would we then simply swap one exterior criterion for another equally erroneous, cozying up to the man or woman with the better physical fitness?

Physical appearance can be terribly misleading–think of the gorgeous guy who turns out to be a wife beater or the perfect model as shallow as a wading pool. Still studies show correlations between attractiveness and popularity, job status, income level, promotional opportunities on the job, sentences for crimes, and dates to the prom. Physical appearance includes points like fashion sense, hair, makeup, and a person’s sensitivity to cultural trends.

What’s considered “attractive” varies with year, social class, age, and, I hope, native intelligence and taste. Conformity can never be over-rated. If we look too weird, out of place, others don’t find us attractive.

Take a gander at any major slick magazine, Hollywood event, or television news personalities. The people, especially the women, look nearly identical. With a few notable exceptions, such as Jared Leto or Lady Gaga, who choose to look different simply to be different, hair styles and make up could be from a mold. The long flowing curls, the heavily shadowed eyes and butterfly eyelashes, the fluid yet molded clothing.

I may be especially sensitive to appearance because l’m unusually short, even for a woman. Years of experience in conversations conducted literally over my head taught me to level the playing field of height by engaging in discussions only when seated. Other factors observed or experienced–pricey clothing, disabilities, accents, and a multitude of others–got me considering the “naturalist” angle. Why should a plain Jane’s idea for an invention be less salable than the same concept when pitched by a thin blonde model?

Granted, nudity would be an extreme solution to obtain equality. But dedicated nudists swear the practice makes people focus, so to speak, on personalities and character traits. It strips away the superficial. It would enable us to concentrate on ideas, not subtle cues to status.

I’ve now convinced myself this is a bad idea. We’d just substitute good looks and excellent builds for other physical trappings. Plus we’d never surrender makeup and haircuts, or the ability to sculpt our bodies through surgery. The biggest challenge, however, would be where to carry our mobile phones, tablets, tissues, keys, and condoms.

Do Clothes Make the Man (Woman)?

Tee shirt webI used to think that clothes weren’t important. Labels meant nothing to me, and I prided myself on this attitude. I was superior to physical distinctions of wealth or status.

I’ve changed my mind gradually over the years. Clothes provide cues and clues to their wearer’s interests, education level, age, and social groups. This is important to writers because we have to be able to evoke all kinds of messages through people’s dress in our work. It’s also important to humans in general because it can be used, for better or worse, to categorize people and give us advance warning about how to respond to them.

But I still figured I was exempt from bias based on attire. Until I went to the doctor’s a few days ago. I was finishing up my appointment when a woman stepped into the exam room. My doc had mentioned consulting with another physician. But when I saw the newcomer, I was flabbergasted. Leaving aside the question of what a “flabber” is and how you “gast” it, I was taken aback because she wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a casual t-shirt.

Immediately I became uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell if she was a health care provider (Nurse? Doctor? Physician’s assistant?), or someone who’d wandered into the facility from the very urban streets nearby. Should I greet her? Duck behind the door? Scream for help? No clues about her job or level of responsibility. Did she report to my doctor or vice versa?

After my doctor asked the woman to locate some equipment, I realized she must be some sort of assistant. But I still was uneasy. I began to realize that how others dress has a major impact on me, and her lack of any professional signals established an initial level of distrust that she’d have to work hard to overcome. Her appearance obfuscated* her role.

I’m trying to take this knowledge as an insight into human behavior. I want to guard against, compensate for, this instantaneous prejudice when I meet strangers. But mostly what I want to do is alert my doctor and the assistant that she should dress in a manner to make patients comfortable, not ill at ease.

*obfuscate: render incomprehensible