Arts & Culture The Challenging Stereotypes Issue

Why we judge people by what they wear

The “bad-kitty” – leopard print – stereotype, for example, is said to be based on the actual mating habits of the leopard.
The “bad-kitty” – leopard print – stereotype, for example, is said to be based on the actual mating habits of the leopard.

In a departure from the norm, Sara tried on an open abaya (similar to an overcoat worn by Arab women). Beyond being worn open at the front, this abaya was a lilac colour with a silver brocade trim, a fairly radical departure from the traditional black Sara usually wore. It was beautiful, Sara thought, as she slipped it on. Taking a few steps to the left, she pirouetted and retraced her path to the right, all the while gazing in the store’s mirror.

The reflection beaming back at her seemed too good to be true. Sara turned to her shopping companion, Hanna, for a second opinion. The faint trace of envy she detected in her friend’s eyes instantly silenced any lingering doubts. This was the abaya. The consumer quest was over. 

 Arriving home wearing her new abaya, Sara anticipated compliments. What she received, however, was a barrage of criticism: “aiyb” (shame), was one comment, “Matstaheen?” (don’t you feel ashamed), another. Sara’s colourful new outfit had activated a clothing-related stereotype. 

 Clothing-related (sartorial) stereotypes involve holding beliefs about a person’s attributes (positive or negative) based on the way they are dressed. Depending on where in the world we live, we might assume the guy in the hoodie is up to no good, for instance, or that the middle-aged woman in the sky-high heels and animal-print leggings is a “cougar.” This tendency to make sartorial stereotypes brings to mind the old proverb, “clothes make the man,” meaning that what we wear can encourage other people to make deep-seated assumptions about who we are.

Sartorial stereotypes work like regular stereotypes, in that we assign people to a social group/category and then assume lots of things about them; what they like and dislike, how clever, moral or hygienic they are. Regular stereotypes tend to be based on more permanent identifiers such as gender, skin colour or accent. However, we are not immune to making sweeping judgments about a person’s whole life on the basis of what shoes she wears or how his beard is styled. 

Psychologists have repeatedly tested this idea of sartorial stereotyping in the lab. One study published in the journal Sex Roles involved showing participants photographs of a woman dressed in different outfits. Some participants saw the woman (it was always the same woman) wearing jeans and a t-shirt, while others were shown photos of her wearing a leopard-print dress. On average, participants rated the woman as lower on intellectual capability (dumber) and moral status (cheaper) when presented with the pictures where she wore the leopard-print dress.

These are pretty damaging and cruel assumptions to make based on clothing, but many of us make such judgments, and some of us may even act on them from supposing the guy with the hipster beard is “cool,” to suspecting that the youngster wearing a bow tie and thick-rimmed spectacles is a “geeky genius.” We might argue that some stereotypes contain a tiny grain of truth, and some people even concoct elaborate stories attempting to explain the origins of a particular stereotype.

The “bad-kitty” – leopard print – stereotype, for example, is said to be based on the actual mating habits of the leopard. Female leopards engage in overlap promiscuity, meaning that the female will mate with any older male she encounters (any male whose territory overlaps with hers). In actuality, each successive relationship lasts around 48 hours, during which time the female and male mate, perhaps share a kill together and then part ways. And Voila! Leopard print equals predatory serial-seductress.

If we look across the ages, however, such stories quickly fall apart. In ancient Egypt, for instance, there are depictions of leopard-skin clad high priests performing sacred rituals. In Greece, the prettily patterned feline was also associated with key characters from mythology: Cybele, Dionysus, Eros and Orpheus, amongst others. In China, it carried lunar and imperial connotations, and its skin is said to have been worn by Fu Hsi, a Chinese heroic figure associated with the advent of writing. In India, we see an association with the goddess Kali, and across sub-Saharan Africa, we see the leopard repeatedly associated with military power, magic, royalty and divinity.

Many, if not most, sartorial stereotypes are pretty baseless and simply reflect the media-influenced biases of the age or of a particular society. For example, the uncomplimentary bad-kitty stereotype is implied in Hall and Oates’ 80’s soft-rock ballad, “Maneater”: “Oh no here she comes, watch out boy, she’ll chew you up, oh no here she comes, she’s a man-eater…” This song draws heavily on, and perpetuates, the idea of the temptress or seductress as some kind of predatory feline.

While many of us may feel fairly confident in some of the assumptions we derive from our stereotypes, it is worth remembering that overgeneralizations and assumptions are always a very poor substitute for a knowledge born of direct experience. Worse still, they can even interfere with our ability to process direct experience, subtly guiding what we see, what we look for and what we remain blind to. 

For better or worse, stereotyping is part of our common cognitive inheritance – we all occasionally rely on stereotypes. Stereotyping involves what some psychologists call “hot cognition,” that is, a rapid and automatic style of thinking. If we have to make quick decisions based on limited information – is that a snake or a stick? – then hot cognition can be invaluable. The alternative is “cold cognition,” which is slow, effortful and deliberate. It is kind of like having a camera with automatic and manual settings; the automatic (hot) settings will serve you well much of the time, but on some occasions, you will need to switch to manual – slow, effortful and deliberate processing – if you want to get the money shot (best outcome).

Being aware of our tendency to rely on stereotypes is one step towards avoiding the associated pitfalls (mindfulness or attention training can help here). However, a stereotype will often shape our behaviour, causing us to avoid those who we have prematurely categorized as undesirable. This avoidance allows the stereotype to avoid examination, perhaps perpetuating and deepening it. One antidote to this is to explore the stereotype through direct experience. In the spirit of child-like, open-minded curiosity, we leave aside our expectations and predictions and approach that which our assumptions would typically have us avoid. Easy to say, but this can be very hard to do.

Ultimately, over-reliance on stereotypes is just lazy, and indolence is never a virtue. It’s true that stereotypes save us time and spare us cognitive effort. However, such superficial thinking can lead to gross injustices and might also lead us to narrow the playing field of our existence and miss out on valuable life experiences. 

“Don’t look at my form, but take what is in my hand,” wrote the scholar-poet Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century. Getting beyond appearances is a timeless challenge.

Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.