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Is Our Identity Connected to Our Taste?

Published April 13, 2023
Published April 13, 2023
Monica Silva via Unsplash

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, the dowdy-looking Andrea “Andy” Sachs, gets an unlikely job at the highly selective Runway magazine. Despite her intelligence, she does not fit into the fashion culture, exemplified by the infamous cerulean sweater dressing-down by her boss, Miranda Priestley. Exasperated, she seeks advice from a colleague and begins to dress the part to demonstrate that she cares. Defending her new wardrobe to her boyfriend Nate, she says, “Same Andy, better clothes.” Initially, the better clothes may have been mere window-dressing, until they began to change her personality. Ultimately, she chooses to forego the glamour of the fashion world to pursue her initial goal of “serious” journalism, which might seem like she is returning to her old ways and self. However, her time at the fashion magazine and her changes and expansion of taste seem to have permanently affected her identity.

Personality transformations work for a compelling tale in movies and literature. However, in real-life discussions of taste, people resort to common clichés. “There’s no accounting for taste.” “To each their own.” “Different strokes for different folks.” We’ve heard these and similar sayings many times before. They are often uttered in a way that stunts the conversation because what else could be said when people disagree about paintings, music, or films. We take these clichés as true without giving them much critical thought. And why not? People genuinely disagree about which works of art are best. And, besides, nothing intensely important depends on which sculpture we prefer; it’s not the same as disagreeing about which operation a patient needs to survive. But we still argue, quite vehemently at times, about these “wholly subjective” opinions, despite outwardly convincing ourselves they don’t really matter.

From haircuts to religious conversions, our lives flow through canals of change. But significant changes can disrupt our lives and alter our identities. Imagine someone growing up very conservative and later in adulthood beginning to subscribe to liberal ideologies (or vice versa). Or further, imagine someone growing up with an atheist ideology, and then later in life committing to a religious belief system. When asked about these kinds of changes, people overwhelmingly support the belief that these types of political and religious changes result in a considerable change in a person’s identity. Altering your leisure activities or favorite foods does not transform your identity in a significant way. Without much consideration, we tend to denigrate aesthetic taste to these kinds of inconsequential changes. However, changes in aesthetic taste, according to newer research, are reported as significant as religious or political reorientations.

Philosopher Joerg Fingerhut and team presented their research in an article for Frontiers in Psychology in which they catalog their methods and conclusions. Across four studies, this team drew their results from 1,265 total participants; they admit near the end of their paper that this is only the initial findings, and that there is more research that needs to be done to get beyond these preliminary results. But some key results of these studies are summarized here.

Change in moral beliefs, compared to any other change, continually ranks the highest as affecting a person’s identity. Unsurprisingly, political and religious changes also are thought to significantly change a person’s perceived identity. They write: “The striking finding across all our experiments is that taste changes are among the changes that present the biggest threat to the identity of a person.” They conclude that we are not only moral, political, and religious selves, but people are also aesthetic selves.

To study these changes, they created vignettes involving changes in leisure activities, moving neighborhoods, careers, political and religious affiliations, and also taste. For each kind of change, participants were asked to what degree, in light of this change, they would still be the “same” person. A vignette about music might read: “Suppose your taste in music changed dramatically. For example, if you enjoy only classical music, imagine you grew to like listening to only pop music.” For another vignette, the participants might get this: “Suppose your religion changed dramatically. For example, if you are a person of faith, imagine you became an atheist.” More details of their several studies are available in the article, but this provides a basic idea about how they conducted their research. Participants reported significant identity changes for any aesthetic changes that were presented.

Even though these researchers focused on music and art, it’s not too exaggerated a step to get to one’s taste in physical appearance. Picture who you believe is a typical fan of classical music. What do they look like? How do they dress? Now picture the typical fan of punk music; we should note that subcultures are often identified (collectively and individually) by the outward expression of their taste. It would be surprising if these two people wore comparable clothing and adornments. If taste is integral to our identity—one that shapes and alters our identity—then we can’t relegate it to happenstance. People will continue to disagree and dispute about basically everything: shoes, music, paintings, movies, makeup, and so on. But it isn’t because these things are superficially superimposed onto our being. It’s because they matter deeply to our perceived identity.

These studies are too new to yield any strict conclusions, but they suggest that people do place a strong emphasis on taste in their “perceived identity.” Even so, this research might suggest altered behaviors for individual consumers and companies. For individuals, it is worth considering the importance of taste for our identity—something we often don’t think about. Sure, we spend time and money on clothing and entertainment, but we often don’t consider how our aesthetic choices affect our identity. When we consider the physical sense of taste, from which aesthetic taste derives its metaphorical status, the focus might turn to its passivity. If you place a piece of onion in your mouth, you will taste it, regardless of whether you like it. Like trying new foods to expand our palate, we can shape our identities through deliberate choices concerning aesthetics.

The beauty industry should also consider their procedures and products in light of current research on beauty and identity from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Rather than trying to get people to conform to a particular “beauty standard” (or worse, exploiting our tendencies for profit), the beauty industry could make more headway by designing systems to complement newer research. For example, imagine if a company helped people gain a better understanding of themselves in order to buy products that fit their identities. More people look for an experience when shopping, which gives companies that provide a positive experience chances at a longer lifespan. Part of the customer experience is a consumer feeling good about their purchases, which people want to reflect their identity, and also the overall process of shopping. Transgender people, for instance, identify two related issues when shopping for clothes: clothing items are not designed to fit their bodies, and also the process of trying on clothes in physical stores leads to judgments (or worse) as well as struggles about their choice of dressing room. This led Finn Shepard to found the clothing company Both&; their website claims the mission is “to empower, outfit, and serve the nonbinary generation, one garment at a time.” For individuals and companies, knowing that people find their aesthetic taste intimately connected with their identity should be factored into decision-making.


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