When I took Sociology of Body and Health back in fall 2019, Professor Shostak assigned us a project to change one aspect of our bodily practices for a week and write an ethnography about the experience. So, not unlike many of my peers who chose to play around with colorful hair dye, fake piercings, or temporary tattoos, I experimented with new makeup. For seven days, I woke up early before class to appliqué coin-sized rhinestones around my eyes, dust glitter into my brows, and adorn my cheeks with multi-colored stickers. And for seven days, I walked around campus withstanding not-so-subtle stares and whispers from acquaintances and strangers alike. (Admittedly, the kind of makeup I was doing was more appropriate for a Walmart Euphoria than 10 a.m. Intro to Psych.)
Looking back, that week is (1) an extremely funny anecdote and (2) truthfully also the spark for a small identity crisis of mine. In college, ego death is no rare commodity, but somehow this experience stands out to me. After all, there’s something so vulnerablizing about change, even something so simple as changing physical appearance. It shattered a self-held comfort that I could slip through life unnoticed. It invited observation and commentary, both that of other people and my own. To change, even in this seemingly insignificant way, felt like bullhorning my existence to the world.
I have always hesitated at others’ judgment. It’s not that I can’t hold my own in the face of mean comments; rather, the idea that other people are misunderstanding me has always been oddly discomforting. In this sense, to be judged––to be misunderstood, really––feels like a deep jab at identity. And if not for fear of being misunderstood by others, then trying new things can be scary for fear of letting go of the self-imposed categories and concepts used to define myself. “I should be/do/act like ___ because I am ___.”
But others’ misunderstandings of me are illusory, at least in the sense that they actually have little to do with…me. The truth is, the more we put ourselves out there and allow ourselves to take up space, the more likely it is that others will form a perception of us that exists outside of our control. If you had told me this freshman year, it would’ve sounded like an end-of-days siren. But, as I have come to learn, the good thing is, if we are gracious with ourselves, if we allow ourselves an authenticity and honest expression that exists beyond the opinions of others, we can make peace with how others may (mis)understand us. At least when it has come to questions of self expression and identity, I have relinquished my fixation on others’ perceptions of me. To be misunderstood can be alienating, without a doubt. It doesn’t, however, have to be earth shattering.
And the other part of being gracious with myself has entailed doing things that I once believed “I could never do” and allowing myself to flirt with who I would like to become. What in life doesn’t change? Denying ourselves change will neither stop it from happening nor shield us from judgment when it does. When I began to relinquish my fixed sense of self, I actually gave myself space to grow.
So I’m happy to report that the latter half of my Brandeis experience has been marked by more change and more courage on my end: getting that septum piercing I’ve always wanted (not to backpedal on my own advice too much, but I will apologize to my parents for this one––sorry, mom and dad!), studying abroad in Nice after a whopping four-year hiatus in my French studies (actually, I’m also going to apologize for this one. Sorry, Macron) and, yes, as trivial as it may sound, doing my makeup how I want. On days when I feel like it, I’ll still dot some pearl stickers around my eyes, sweep glitter across my lid, or pencil some colorful liner into my lashline. That sophomore year project was not all for naught. So if you’re looking for encouragement to try something new or else make the most of your time at Brandeis, consider this it. Alternatively, you can always take Sociology of Body and Health with Professor Shostak.