Back in January, a big makeup company hired their first male model. That was big news, because makeup adverts always sell to women. Everybody knows that makeup is for women. But as we’ve mentioned before, ‘everybody knows’ is how stereotypes survive, replacing the need for reasoning that makes sense. Last week was New York Fashion Week, and another big splash was made by men and women modelling together in the same types of clothes. Why’s that news? Because ‘everybody knows’ men wear trousers, women wear skirts. Just like everybody knows pink is a girl’s colour, and that guys don’t care about their looks the way women do. When it comes to how you look, stereotypes never seem to go out of fashion.
OK, so what do psychic powers have to do with wearing a skirt, exactly? It’s all about how the brain works. Every moment, everyone’s brain is predicting the future! Not by magic, but based on looking at everything currently happening, and then projecting what comes next. Your brain is doing that even when you’re not thinking about it. When something happens that you couldn’t see coming, it makes you react because your brain was already predicting a future where that didn’t happen. That’s why you jump in scary movies. And your brain isn’t just looking at what’s happening right now; it remembers all the similar times in the past, and makes its prediction based on that as well. So why does this matter? Well, if you’ve spent your life seeing men in trousers, and you see one in a skirt, it doesn’t fit your prediction, and your brain reacts. It makes you pay attention in a way you don’t to all the other people. It’s important to understand that because what it shows is that your reaction is coming from you. If you see someone dressed in a way that’s not typical, there isn’t something 'wrong' in them that makes you react - It’s just your brain tripping up because it made a wrong guess.
Like a lot of stereotypes, thinking things look ‘strange’ survives because it reinforces itself. As long as we keep thinking something is strange, telling people not to look that way, and expecting them to look another way, we stop people looking how they want. And that means our brain doesn’t see the things it needs to make better predictions. That means when we do see things we don’t expect, we react to them. And that causes us to keep telling people how to look. When people’s uniforms tell girls they have to wear skirts, when makeup is only sold to women, when a man in a dress is a joke on TV, these are all things we do because they fit our expectations, and by doing them, we make them expected again in future.
In fact, when we stop treating things as strange, they stop seeming strange altogether! When we accept that anyone can look how they want, people become less scared to do so. That means we see more people looking different - And now our brains stop predicting everyone will look the same, and start predicting that people could look all sorts of ways. And since that prediction is right, our brain doesn’t try and react any more to the things it once did. It’s the same reason a kilt doesn’t look strange in Scotland, or a wizard’s robe in a movie - Because it fits in with what our brain predicted. (Talking of movies, every actor of any gender wears makeup on screen!)
It’s important not to get this idea backwards: If something doesn’t fit our predictions, that doesn’t make them strange - It just means our brain made an incorrect guess. It doesn’t tell us anything about that person. As always, share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, and we'll be back next week.
Image sources: www.makeuppedeia.gr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mascara_moment.jpg, aboutmodafinil.com