I remember the first time I was ever in a cramped holiday situation with family and was encouraged to change in front of others rather than try the hassle of finding somewhere completely private. It was just a case of taking off my top and trousers but I’m not the most body confident person in the world (I know, right!?) and I felt a bit apprehensive.
Sensing this, my aunt gave me words of what she thought were encouragement – words I have since heard come from multiple people in multiple different situations:
‘Ah, don’t worry about it too much. It’s just like people seeing you in a bikini’
And, for some reason, these words stuck with me.
Because no – having someone see you in what you class as underwear is not identical to having them see you in a bikini for an array of different reasons.
First and foremost, when you’re out in a bikini you have chosen (most of the time) to be wearing a certain type of clothing, with a certain sense of minimalism, in a public setting. The moment you make that decision (confidently or not) you have made an active and autonomous choice to be seen with that minimal clothing. You have the agency.
If, however, someone accidentally caught you in your underwear, or encouraged you to show them your underwear when you’re not comfortable with it, then the framing of the situation is completely different. You may not, for example, want to be seen like that by some people. If it’s an accidental encounter, then you certainly weren’t expecting it and you certainly didn’t prepare mentally for the idea that someone might see you in skimpy attire. The boundaries of one’s agency and their autonomy in the situation shifts, and thus so too does the sense of consent, confidence, and self-control.
Then, of course, there’s the mental associations we place on a bikini vs. our underwear. A bikini (for better or worse) is perceived as an acceptable form of public attire in certain settings where underwear is not. Our underwear is private and personal, it’s something we choose for ourselves for specific, often intimate purposes. It’s practical but it can also make us feel good, empower us, and even allow us to choose what of our sexual desires and preferences we disclose to others. It’s inherently private and then, with our permission, we get to decide how much we reveal to others.
Quite different from a bikini.
And, to me, this is an example of how perception matters and just how much it can alter or frame a situation. But, further than this, it also illustrates just how much control, our personal thoughts, and our wider social climate can influence our perception.
I mention bikinis here quite nonchalantly, but I know that some of you will be cringing at the thought of a bikini being publicly acceptable. There might be a religious aspect, or perhaps even a difference of culture. Or, you make think bikinis are fine but that you could never wear one or never ‘pull one off’ or something to that effect. Which really emphasises the multiple dynamics that go in to how we see any approach the world and how we manage the minute aspects of body politics that we confront and navigate daily.
It’s systemic and it leaks in to everything, sometimes even subconsciously.
Looking back just a week or so ago, in the midst of all the recent celebrity allegations, and I saw someone tweet ‘George Takei, noooo’, to which my first reaction is ‘Shit, has another celebrity I love died’. But, oh no, that was late-2016/early-2017 celebrity trends, our current trend in Hollywood is firmly in the sexual allegation category, much to our collective lamentation.
And, as I read through the graphic description of Takei’s accuser I found myself, for the briefest moment, hoping that, when it came to our favourite nerd/meme icon, it just wasn’t true.
Then I internally replied with ‘What the fuck are you saying?’
I very swiftly recognised what hoping that the Takei accusation wasn’t true meant: That I was hoping someone was making a false claim of sexual assault.
That I was hoping someone was either misrepresenting, or deliberately skewing the facts of a traumatic sexual encounter.
That I was hoping the victim was wrong.
They say that, when it comes to our thoughts, the first thing that comes in to mind is often what society has taught us, but the second thought is where our true colours start to come through. And so I began to ask myself ‘Why was my initial, knee jerk reaction to this to hope that Takei was innocent?’
The answer was simple – I like George Takei and, because I liked him, I hoped that he would never be responsible of such a thing without considering the implications of that hope. By then taking a moment to reframe the situation away from Takei (the accused) and towards the Scott Brunton (the accuser) I was suddenly able to realize just how wrong that was.
By giving power back to the person who deserved it – the victim – I was able to see the situation with more clarity and without being all horrifically victim-blaming/shaming through social default.
Again, here is autonomy, agency, and society’s influence at play, all in aid of perception and the way it makes us see the world.
So just think, for a moment, what we could do if we took the power of perception and used its main tools to make us feel better about ourselves and to influence the world around us.
Whenever you’re next in a situation and you catch yourself in self-negative talk stop and think ‘Wait, is this right? Is this really how I want to feel or is it how I’ve been taught I should feel?’
Whenever you are confronted with something you’re not comfortable with and you’re being framed as unreasonable for resisting ask yourself ‘Why do I feel this way? Where is the agency in this situation? Am I in control or is someone trying to take that from me? How does that make me feel?’
And, when you find yourself immersed in difficult social situations stop and think ‘Who should I be considering here? What social framework am I considering this through? How might my own background be influencing my thoughts here?’
Approach situations with an eye for society’s norms, the power dynamics at play, and the autonomy of those involved and you may just find that your perception shifts.
The world, for the most part, is a slow-moving place, the human brain is not. Find the balance in those moments of inner reflection and you may just find that your perception of the world changes for the better.