In early childhood we begin accumulating those factors that define us. For example, a cranky baby’s stories will be told and retold for years, often as a reminder to the growing child that he was challenging, to say the least.
A child who climbs up on the roof will be known as a daredevil, while that one who huddles in a corner of the living room and reads will be called a bookworm.
The teens who listen obsessively to loud music might later grow up to be musicians, all because of being defined by their passion. At the same time an overly dramatic child will be called a drama queen and encouraged to participate in the high school’s theater program.
We are who others see us as.
The new employee, after being introduced to the crew, might pick up a nickname based on a superficial trait. For example, if the person is tall and willowy, she might be called a giant, while the short, squat individual will be shorty. No matter how hard that person tries to rid herself of the nickname, it won’t change. She’s been defined by a physical characteristic, something that’s impossible to change.
In later years, as our interests expand, we might change our preferred music styles or learn to cook a new cuisine, but we’ll be forever known as the cupcake queen or the rock-and-roller.
Other things define us as well. Our hair color influences how people see us. Blondes are often perceived as dumb while red heads are thought to be fiery. Clothing styles might earn us a label of being punk rockers or snobby. Depending upon how new our clothes are, people might define us as being raggedy or fashionable.
Even the color of our skin and our gender influences how people see us. We’ve become aware of how restrictive dark skin is in terms of negative labels. Almost every day there’s a story in the news in which a dark-skinned person is killed or injured, harassed by store owners or the police, or caught doing nothing more than barbequing while black.
Some people try to lighten their skin in order to appear “white”, hoping to change how they are defined. They might also use hair straighteners and heavy lacquers to dampen tight curls.
Some of our features cannot be changed. As Asian person, as well as someone with Down’s Syndrome, cannot change the shape of their eyes. This defining characteristic is currently causing acts of hate and discrimination. Walking down the street can lead to death.
Another way we are defined is by our weight. If as a child a person was overweight, that child will be taunted and tormented throughout the rest of her school days. Perhaps that’s better then being invisible, but not by much.
When an obese person walks through a store, people will often stop and gawk, but only after the person has moved away. In crowded situations, such as on an airplane, people cringe and look down, hoping to discourage the overweight individual from sitting next to them.
Employers reject the obese without giving them the opportunity to perform on the job. Why? Because of a perceived bias, thinking that the obese are slovenly and lazy.
At the same time an extremely thin person is seen as energic and lively. Picture an athlete, perhaps one who jumps over hurdles. You see someone with long, thin legs. Basketball players fall into the same category, but not necessarily football players. Linesmen are huge, often with bellies that are barely contained by the uniform. Because of being athletes, however, weight does not define them.
Only the average person walking down the street.
What all these characteristics have in common is that they are visual representatives of who the individual is. Nothing indicates personality, perseverance, skill or social skills.
We are defined by how others perceive us and there’s very little we can do to change that. We might lose weight, but those earlier images of us carrying excess pounds are glued to us and cannot be shed. We might style our hair and wear better clothes, but we’re still thought of as poor slobs. We might work on being more amiable, but cannot shake off the perception to being difficult.
Our earliest definitions stick with us.
What a shame.