At 6:40 am on a Thursday, I was putting on a half-zip black sweater over a Ciele exercise shirt getting ready to train at the gym, wondering if I should pack a change of clothes for the breakfast I was going to have with my mom after. I wasn’t worried that it would be gross not to change into something else; the workout was going to be hard, not sweaty. I was worried that I’d be going to a café sometimes frequented by nouveau intellectuals of the creative class, whose legitimacy is sometimes confirmed by aesthetic tendencies to look a particular way, dressed unintentionally plain. As when the right combination of socks scrunched around an ankle with a clean cotton t-shirt under a worn-in jacket renders to onlookers the kind of world you might be a part of, cool or decidedly uncool, clothes talk.

My hesitation to wear something that I thought wasn’t a complete reflection of my world surely comes from my fear of the finality of image. Like putting two and two together: the way I look is the way I present, and, in the simplest sense, affects the way I show up. It puts out an image that can be read, and it can be misread. Being a part of that creative class, I was worried that my mass-produced look of black leggings and a pullover, no matter how utilitarian, would render me, painfully, admittedly, invisible to that community—not effortless, but zero effort. The accidental look of nothing special is, after all, everywhere. Still, after pondering around my closet for the few minutes I had left, I didn’t pack a change of clothes. I went to breakfast as I was.

That I felt prompted to appear differently than what was natural to my day (training, getting breakfast) made evident the existence of a greater reality, a kind of social understanding. No harm was done by my lazily inoffensive outfit, and my sense of self remains in tact, yet destabilized. After all, a silly illusion is not a fiction. Getting dressed is a basic human pleasure, and even I can confess that style is the most charming when it is expressed. But the reliance on appearance as a fundamental, nay, lasting expression of who someone is, is disaffecting. My leggings simply don’t deliver. Did they change the way I was to be perceived? Maybe. It would be socially naive to suggest they wouldn’t. But what matters is if I can come to terms with that.

Just a day before, a sponsored post advertising the importance of a personal brand for a stronger career showed up on a feed of mine. The idea of personal branding is reductive and individualistic, an old tactic abused by industries into a state of gimmickry. Yet the problem doesn’t lie in the flatness of the idea, but the execution it demands: a revised version of everything. It makes no room for thinking out loud. Instead, it suggests editing the complicated, changing nature of people into a narcissistic strategy of getting ahead by appearance. Imperfections are polished until they look like perfect mistakes. A fuckup is allowed because it can be reframed as funny, relatable, charming, effortless, or human. But it can’t just be a fuckup. Dirty laundry is never actually aired. Images always create mythologies.

During a show-and-tell lunch at a consulting company, I presented narrative work from an undergraduate thesis project to my coworkers, openly sharing my ambivalence in speaking highly of something that I had, at that point, grew beyond. I remember the creative director approaching me in the kitchen after, saying that she too has a hard time seeing her own earlier work, but that it would be professional suicide to confess to. She was laughing at herself with me as we put our plates in the dishwasher, going back to work. That conversation was not meant to be a turning point. Five years later, I wonder if the narratives we believe are creating these professional caricatures into existence. And then I wonder if we are losing the capacity to make room for a complex one.

This isn’t a moral dilemma. A large part of my work actually involves creating stories and visual worlds to support brands in bringing their fictional narratives closer to a reality—one that is first made to be seen, and eventually, believed. But the personal realm, dotted by the mundanities of life, loses its shape when its image is engineered. A complete life includes insignificant moments such as domestic frustrations, a body’s discomfort in temperature highs or lows, a cake that doesn’t taste too good. Everyone has a relationship to things such as daytime, digestion, or to themselves. These things aren’t curated, but they happen together. They make a reality in full.

I don’t think anyone uses their personal brand and self-curation maliciously. While writing this essay, I read comments of people offering lucid insight into the benefits of having a framework such as that of a personal brand, one of which can be seen not as a reductive representation of someone, but as a tool that “serves as a bridge between where you are today and where you want to be in the future.” This commenter disclosed that they are a personal brand strategist, and can hence educate soberly. To their point, the tool of the personal brand is useful in creating a more purposeful action list and working your way to execution. But to me, that sounds a lot more harmless than the complex cultural and social implications are of a personal brand, which, at the base level, create a distance between the reality of someone versus our idea of them. It is a mask first.

We know that there is more than meets the eye. It’s a logic experienced by nearly everyone. Our whole lives can offer moments and stories far deeper than what we can tell in five minutes, or five days, or five years. But the technologies we use to survey these very lives, to read, observe, and consume them, are largely short-form. A seconds-short reel, a post sandwiched between a hundred others. How can we expect to understand anything remotely close to the personal when we engage virtually—at a distance—flattened into sensorial deprivation, and in a matter of mere minutes? Leggings, hilariously and unfortunately, don’t say much. But I realize that cropped pants wouldn’t, either.

April 30, 2023 — Yasmeen Khaja


diana said:

always very interesting to read You

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