Does the way others perceive you matter? Unfortunately, the short answer to this question is yes. ‘Love yourself’-style campaigns primarily emphasize how self-confidence is the key to personal success and happiness, but by claiming that you can live the rest of your life without being affected by what others think I would by lying to you. When you encounter someone for the first time, regardless of your identity or your labels, you will be judged on two things:
- The categories you appear to fit into
- How closely you match the stereotype of that category
Here is an example. If you go to my Linker channel, the first fact about me that you will see is the first word of my channel’s title: my college. Now you know that I am affiliated with Cornell; automatically, you will start to make assumptions about me. Because smart people are stereotypically associated with Cornell, you might think I’m smart; you might also think that I am wealthy, since Cornell is an expensive Ivy League. The only proof you have of the validity of these assumptions comes from a single word, but in the interest of efficiency you will unconsciously make these deductions. Some or all might be incorrect, but because a stereotype is a general belief about the average qualities of a certain group you will likely get something right (in this case, I’d like to think it’s that I’m smart).
Now what about my picture? Pretend you are seeing me for the first time with absolutely no background information. You will see long, dark hair pulled back, pale skin, dark eyes, and a female-shaped figure wearing feminine clothing. You don’t know that I identify as female or as a woman, but you will categorize me as one even without making the conscious assumption. You don’t know that I identify as white or ethnically Jewish/Italian, but you will perceive my light skin and dark hair and make these connections regardless. So there you have it; my image has been instantaneously categorized based on its basic features without your (or my) awareness.
So what? What does it matter that I’ve been judged based on the categories I appear to belong in? Along with this surface level-categorization, you will also implicitly make a value judgment of me that hinges on how prototypical or ambiguous I am. I will quickly define these words as follows: prototypical means that someone is very similar to the general stereotype about their group, and ambiguous means that someone is not easily compared to any stereotype, making them harder to categorize. A woman who wears pink and makeup is prototypical, and a woman who wears basketball shorts and short hair is ambiguous. More prototypical people are likely to be treated as a stereotypical member of their group would be treated, but ambiguous people are likely to be treated with distrust or dislike because it is difficult to assign them to a category, and thus difficult to figure out what kind of person they are. For example, if you like or feel a connection to women, and you see a person with feminine characteristics wearing makeup and pink, you will not only assume that said person is a woman but will also decide that you implicitly like or trust that person. If you see a person with a female face but with short hair and basketball shorts, you might categorize them as a woman but feel less comfortable around them.
And here is the kicker: all of this cognition is occurring in total ignorance of how your target actually identifies themselves. If you see two people who have the same multiracial identity (maybe both have one Jordanian and one Polish parent), but one is white-passing and one is not, you will (unconsciously) categorize the white-passing stranger as white, and your immediate value judgment of that stranger will be different from that of the other. You might not have any prejudices about specific categories of people, but these cognitions are happening whether or not you agree with them, and whether or not you are able to avoid reacting to them. Short story long: what others think of you and what you think of others matters, because our automatic categorizations of people do actually influence our initial judgments of them, even if we do not act on those initial judgments.
After sitting through all my ramblings about cognitive psychology, I’ll leave you with a silver lining. What others think of you matters, but a wonderful thing to remember is that your private regard, your perception of yourself and your identity, matters just as much. Studies on immune health have found that low public regard (the negative opinions of others about your identities) can increase immune stress, but high private regard (feeling confident in and proud of your identities) can actually increase cellular immunity. So as much as I want you to be aware of (but not care about or take to heart) what happens when others perceive you, I want to end by emphasizing how important it is for you to feel positive and optimistic about yourself. If you do, you will be more resilient and capable of taking on whatever others might think of you.