When In Rome, Do As The Romans Do

Julian Menjivar | July 23, 2018


I was inspired to write this piece from a conversation I had with my parents. I’ve always trusted their wisdom, and most of their experiences and stories have served me well in my life. We share similarities, yet we also have our own differences, some more evident than others. The particular conversation that came to mind was about the way I present myself. We argued about how what one wears, how one acts, and how the ways in which one is perceived matter a great deal in any culture and almost all of society. I found some points unjustifiable and illogical, yet I could also understand the perspective of my parents.

My mother grew up in a generation that taught women that if you dressed a certain way, essentially men treated you as nothing more than a piece of meat. For my dad, sometimes dressing a certain way – any indication of non-masculinity – would get your ass kicked. It was hard to take in, but sadly, for me, this is still a reality, and I’m sure for others, this is their reality as well. What surprised me wasn’t the arguing, the perspectives, or the content. It was the fact that such a perception is still a thriving issue, and the fact of how personal it gets when it comes to what’s in our heads and hearts, and the materials that we choose to adorn our skin.

It was in this particular conversation that I realized the problem wasn’t about changing the views of “them” or “us”; it was about a lack of a proper way to cope in systems that dictate one’s identity for the particular comfort of others. Hence I was instantly reminded of “Do as The Romans Do.” For some people, assimilating with the supposed Romans is more than just assimilating to a new culture, like a pleasantry. For some, it’s a means to protect oneself, but sometimes, it feels like a sacrifice, made at the expense of personal identity and freedom. Yet it’s not that black and white. I had to consider this as well.

When visiting foreign spaces, either geographically or in contextual spaces like a safe space, there are cases where it is polite, if not imperative, to follow the customs of the natives and the folks that the space is designed for. We dress up for fancy occasions, and if an individual shows up to a wedding in sweats – as comfy as that sounds – the perception is clear: it simply isn’t done.  For on thing, there are consequences. If we are granted permission to wear attire from another country, to better learn about that culture, then we should do so in a respectful manner, and not at a music festival, college party, or on the runway. If it is snowing in Edinburgh, yet is sunny in California, you could wear a tank top to remain loyal to the fashion of sunny weather – just be prepared to get frostbite. In cases like these, doing as the Romans do seems like a reasonable philosophy.

But what about in other circumstances? Fashion and behavior aren’t limited to just these types of situations. For most people, they can wear whatever they want, provided that their attire conforms to certain social rules: it has to be appropriate to perceived gender/sex, age, status, and so on, and those who break the rules either create new ones, becoming the new status quo, or are discouraged from individuality. Thus, this creates the Romans: the majority, the acceptable models. To some, this feels like oppression, to some, or like a forced sacrifice, rather than a logical compromise. For personal safety and protection, we put on disguises that mask who we want to be and who we are.

Fashion for minority groups is a much deeper conscious decision; it is an ever-present social issue and a personal struggle. What we wear determines how others view us, and, in daily cases, gives them the supposed right to react to us negatively. If a woman dresses in a way that men find provocative, the man believes that he has permission to force himself on her, so it is the woman who becomes burdened with the responsibility. In other words, the overall social perspective dictates that women (and other marginalized groups as well) must surrender their freedom of expression in order to remove themselves from hazardous situations, because there is a social permission that claims that if individuals do not adhere to their version of an acceptable dress code, this grants access for an assailant to act as they please.

If a non-religious person wears a religious artefact, it can elicit a verbally abusive response that they will burn in hell. If a queer person doesn’t wear the allowed gender fashion and markers of cisgender ordinances, they are met with stares and targeted with verbal harassment, and in worse cases, even killed. The pattern here is that it all starts with what were they wearing, how they were acting, and where they were.

These patterns don’t affect everyone, yet who is responsible for enacting such change: the privileged groups or those for whom this equality is necessary? If the said Romans were welcoming, I’d be willing to comply, but if they degraded me and regarded me as inferior, I am tempted to go either direction – either protect myself or make myself as blazingly visible as possible. It is degrading to be forced to choose conformity for safety, versus risking safety for the sake of individualism. But it is understandable. Constantly being driven back and forth in a never settling argument in our minds is aggravating. Both sides of the argument seem equally logical, yet choosing a side just creates more anxiety.

What we wear is a critical component that both defines us and enables us to express who we are. It allows others to get a glimmer of our inner essence. As someone who identifies as bigender and androgynous, I love having possibility and options available to me anywhere I go. I feel confident in my authentic self, and it feels amazing to show the real me. By embracing these feelings and having these decisions readily available to me, I feel connected and respected.

Fashion grants power and agency, but it can also control and command others’ wills. Fashion is a powerful tool, yet this power comes with a particular obligation. How we act is a culmination of our experiences and understanding of those experiences. But what cost do we pay to be ourselves? This is the question that haunts us.

About Julian

Hello, beautiful people! My name is Julian, and I am studying Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. I am a Leo/year of the dog, my favorite colors are burgundy and black and my favorite dessert is dutch apple pie, especially with whipped cream. I love to study anything from the medieval era and literatures (though I also like other genres as well…),  and my particular loves are Vikings, medieval mythologies, medieval women, medieval poetry, and analyzing social theories (Feminism, Gender, Class, etc.). And castles. Let’s not forget castles… I am from originally from sunny California, home of In-n-Out, flannels and bringing back vinyl and polaroids. I am so happy to be here, and I love everything in Edinburgh; the people, the buildings, weather-yes, even the Scottish winter!-, and of course, spending time with new friends from all over the world. Also, the key to making me the happiest person on earth is recommending a fantastic book, especially one that is inspiring to you, or exchanging a recipe.

Article edited by June Laurenson, Dhanya Baird and Gina Maya.

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