I posted the following as my Facebook status earlier today:

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers: Would it kill you to put on a pair of freaking khakis? You look like shit. Seriously.
My brother-in-law's girlfriend left the first comment. I decided to use it as the title of this post. It got me thinking about why I said what I said, what I was really trying to say, and how the message may have gotten skewed by the way I chose to say it.

First off, I'm not asking for people to “dress up” when they go to Wal-Mart. I recognize there's an appropriate time and place for dressing up. I don't expect the average Wal-Mart shopper to look as nice as the average Michelin-starred restaurant-goer. (As one of my other friends archly observed, “Extensive socioeconomic research has actually revealed that many lower income families are unable to afford tuxedos for everyday wear.”) But the issue isn't “dressing up.” It's really just “dressing nicely.” Just a modicum of effort to not look terrible.

Image from http://www.peopleofwalmart.com
I like to think of it as analogous to proper spelling and grammar use on the Internet. The fact that it does require some effort to present yourself well, coupled with the comforting shield of anonymity (“I'm not going to see anybody I know”), may tempt you to let your standards slip, just because it's easier. It's not like it's a job interview, right? It's not your resume! It's just the Internet! It's just Wal-Mart, for God's sake! It's not like people are judging you based on what you're wearing!

And that, in fact, is the crucial assumption: people are judging you, no matter where you go. You might think that they're too busy trying to get everything they need so they can get home and cook dinner, and maybe some of them are... but probably, some of them aren't. But hey—that's okay! You don't give a damn what they think, do you? What right do they have to judge you? They don't even know you. Maybe you're dressed this way because you've got the flu, or your grandmother just died, and it was all you could do to drag your carcass out of bed to Wal-Mart to get more chicken soup and tissues.

Okay, that's fine. I suppose I can't say with certainty whether such an excuse applies to any one particular shopper, so I can't soundly make a judgment about any particular person I see based on what they're wearing on any particular day. But I think I can safely presume that it doesn't apply to everyone at Wal-Mart all the time, which means that I can soundly make a judgment about people and their appearances on a more general level.

I really think it's a shame that the common discourse (both appearance-wise and language-wise) has degenerated as far as it has. When you dress up for a job interview, and when you take the trouble to compose a typo-free resume, the effort you expend is a sign of respect for your audience. Your effort demonstrates that you do care about what they think, because you value their opinion enough to put in the effort to make sure that it's a positive one. If you don't care what people think, you don't put in the effort. So, when people put in little or no effort to make themselves presentable, I essentially see it as a sign of general disdain for the opinions of everyone who's going to see them that day. And this is why I think it's much worse to look shabby at Wal-Mart than to look shabby at the corner store: so many more people are going to see you! I just think it's unfortunate that so many people are giving this big sartorial "fuck you" to the rest of the world on such a regular basis.

All I ask is a little effort. I don't think that's unreasonable. And besides—you never know who you're going to run into.


Anonymous said... @ September 21, 2010 at 10:16 AM

Okay, fair enough. I'm not a fan of judging on an individual basis, because God knows there have been days when I haven't been able to put too much effort into what I wear to Wal-Mart. But your next-to-last paragraph won me over.

I agree that a general attitude towards society at large that says "Fuck you, I don't care what you think" (or as you put it, "general disdain for the opinions of everyone") is problematic. I think it indicates narcissism, in that other people's opinions fundamentally do not matter as much as your right to do what you want to do, which is problematic because that attitude underpins a lot of social ills. We live more successfully as a society when we actually give a damn about other people's thoughts or opinions. Across-the-board sloppy dressing is more of a symptom of a larger attitude problem than a problem in and of itself.

And as for your last sentence, I know my sloppy dressing has caused me a world of embarrassment in the past, like when I went to the grocery looking like I'd spent the day caring for six squalling toddlers and then ran into somebody who knew I hadn't. Oops! I moved back to a city where I lived for nearly twenty years and I don't have the same anonymity I had when I lived in a city where no one spoke the same language as me!

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