Elements of Culture: Personal Grooming and Presence

Want to read about other elements of culture? Start here.

For most people, the word culture automatically includes things like clothing and food, so this one seems fairly obvious. Our purpose here, though, is to understand more than the behaviors (what you wear, how you walk) and try to see the values and beliefs behind them. Why do you dress and act as you do?

Treatment of Grooming and Presence

What are the grooming habits that you would never consider skipping? What are habits you could do without? What do you absolutely have to have done before you leave the house? How do you feel if you go out with no makeup or with your hair a mess? How do you feel if you go out dressed in your best clothes?

What do you wear at home? What do you wear in public? What do you assume about someone dressed more casually than you would? What do you assume about someone who wears bright colors? What do you assume about someone who wears no makeup? What about someone who wears a lot of makeup? Are there styles of clothing that are off-putting to you?

When you walk, do you move fast and with purpose or do you dawdle? Do you walk with confidence through a crowd, expecting others to move aside for you, or do you make room? When you sit, do you take up as much space as possible or fold yourself into little space? Do you sit up straight or slouch? What about when you stand?

What do you think about someone who laughs loudly? What do you think when people don’t laugh at all? What do you assume about a loud talker? What do you assume about a quiet talker? What do you think when someone walks quickly? What about if they walk slowly? Do you notice swagger? Are there ways a person can walk that make you feel uncomfortable or make certain assumptions about them? Do you even notice at all?

There are some obvious elements here which we shouldn’t ignore. Nothing triggers stereotypes more than dress. A woman in a burka. A teenager wearing a hoodie. An old man in a frayed sweatshirt and shabby jeans. It’s important to remember that our culture doesn’t just help determine what we decide to wear, it influences how we judge what other people wear.

Let’s take a look at an example, one that’s changed within my own culture over my lifetime. In middle-class American culture, the style of dress has gotten more and more casual. While my mother’s generation made waves wearing slacks instead of skirts, mine took dress pants and dark blue denim and traded them in for pre-worn, grungy jeans (we’d even wear them torn or cut off at the knees!). Now, as a new generation comes into its own, we all wear athletic clothes on the regular, with leggings and artfully torn jeans when we’re getting fancy.

What can we learn about our culture from our current habit of wearing athletic clothes anytime we’re not at work (when we used to only wear them to the gym)?

First of all, the assumptions:

1. Casual clothes are more comfortable.

2. How I dress isn’t going to affect my ability to have work, to go about my day without hassle, or to be safe. Therefore I can dress however I want with impunity.


1. Comfort

2. Individuality and personal expression. Everyone should always get to be herself.

3. Health and fitness


1. People who are physically healthy are better people.

2. I will be happier if I am more comfortable (vs. I’ll be happier if I’m more put together or if I conform with societal norms).

3. No one has the right to tell me how I have to look. (the standard of beauty is whatever I say it is)

Again, we remind ourselves that none of those assumptions, values, or beliefs are objectively true. Not everyone believes that individuals get to define beauty. Not everyone believes that happiness and comfort are synonyms. Not everyone thinks physical health is the highest value or that it’s important to be yourself. Not everyone feels comfortable in casual clothes. Our culture has taught us those things.

The second assumption in particular is an assumption of privilege. If I was more likely to be stopped by the police for wearing running clothes, or if I was worried my boss would see me wearing it and not want to give me a promotion, I’d think differently about my clothes. Those kinds of things are a reality for some people. I may get a side-eye, but my “whiteness” enables me to wear whatever I want without real consequence. People of color often don’t get that same pass, even here within my own culture which values personal expression.

Take that understanding and apply it to other styles of dress and ways of carrying yourself. When a young man swaggers into your place of business, what’s motivating him to take up space? When the woman in the checkout line next to you talks at a volume that makes you uncomfortable, what can you learn about her worldview? When an Asian student refuses to meet your eye, how might that be based on different assumptions than the ones you hold? When the mom next door wears heels to walk her child home every day, what values are on display?

Of course, this is a good time to remember that you don’t really know. You’re making guesses, and many times you’ll be wrong. Training yourself to ask the questions is only helping you look past your own cultural assumptions. Or rather, it’s recognizing that you have assumptions and that they may not apply. It’s not really helping you understand someone else.

We’re going to keep looking at these elements of culture and asking ourselves these questions, but as we do, let’s not forget it’s only the first step. If we want real understanding, that’s going to take something more.

For that, we’re going to have to get to know people who aren’t like us and listen to what they say about their lives.

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