Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Why do we often define people by characteristics which are transitory?
When asked to describe a missing person, we give four major characteristics: Height, weight, hair color, and eye color. Yet, at least two of those are easily changed (with a simple installation of colored contacts and hair dye), and even weight can be changed over time. So why do we hold those as the defining characteristics of a person’s appearance? Why don’t we describe nose shape, posture, the relationship of the length of the person’s arms to the rest of his body, etc. – things which the person would be far less likely (and far less able) to change?
I find myself often wondering about the way in which we classify people. For nearly my entire life, I thought of people in terms of categories. There was the “garbage man,” the “teacher,” the “mail lady;” I had “school friends,” “neighborhood friends,” and “work friends;” and, as my mom was always keen to point out, I had “play clothes,” which were never to be confused with “dress clothes.” If ever my “teacher” interfered in my home world by shopping in my neighborhood grocery store, it completely overturned my perspective on reality, and I’d need nearly a full day to recover from the shock.
Based on my childhood views of things, I could currently classify myself as a “teacher.” Yet somehow I feel that description to be wholly inadequate, because I know that only one aspect of my identity truly fits into that category. I am also a writer, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an animal-lover, a singer, and a wannabe-rockstar. Even in my own attempts to describe myself to others, I find myself trapped between the boundaries of categories. When a person asks what I do, I wonder, should I tell them I’m a teacher? And yet I’m also currently a grad student, and that takes up at least as much of my time as teaching. Or would it be more accurate to say that I’m a writer, since that’s what I intend to do when I finish grad school?
My life doesn’t fit neatly into a boxed off category, so why do I expect to be able to classify others as if their lives do?
Categorizing people and things is a part of the way we, as humans, make sense of the world. And yet, it seems we often classify people by characteristics that could change at any moment. A few months ago my little sister was a brunette, then she was a redhead, then a blonde; a few weeks ago, my mother had a full head of hair, and now, due to chemotherapy, she is rapidly losing the little bit she has left. A few years ago, someone I knew lost nearly 50 pounds, and hardly even looked like the same person. Yet hair color and weight are two of the four most commonly stated defining characteristics.
It’s the same with careers. Today I’m a teacher, but I’m not sure I always will be. And eventually my dad will cease being a mechanic, and become … a former mechanic? Many people may describe him that way. But of course he will be involved in other things, his activities in life won’t end the day he retires as a mechanic.
Again, why not focus on something unchanging, like the length of a person’s torso, the circumference of a person’s head, or the ratio of the length of a person’s fingers to his palm?
Well, obviously, the reason we focus on things like weight and hair color are because they are the most noticeable characteristics, and the easiest to remember (aside from the fact that finger-to-palm ratio could be quite difficult to estimate, and quite awkward to measure when you’ve just met a person).
Likewise, the reason we associate people with certain careers is because they fill certain roles in our lives. And, of course, because we have a fervent need to categorize things.
My interest, as of late, has been in the realization that our categories must be, by necessity, ever-changing. My mother is no longer a brunette; I will not always be a grad student; my second-grade teacher is by now probably retired, and some of my “work friends” are now my “neighborhood friends.” And yet my mother is essentially no different a person; after grad school, I’ll be one masters’ degree poorer yet no less myself than I am now; and my teacher and my friends have merely found new roles in my life to fill.
If it were possible to see a person and label them as something intransitory, what would it be? Or does part of the intrigue of fitting people into categories lie in the very fact that we can reorganize and re-label as life goes on?
For my part, at least, I’d rather be known for more than my eye color and height (the appearance of which is easily altered by high-heeled shoes), and I’d rather not anyone start measuring the ratio of my arms to my torso.
So until I figure out something more permanent to label myself, I guess I’m just a “temporarily teaching, currently enrolled grad student, who at the moment has long brown hair.” Hmm. Maybe I should just stick with “wannabe-rockstar.”