I’ve done the gathering of data for SCW and have my questions all lined up and ready to go, but before I move on to the next stage, I want (in the light of the “My tools” series of posts) to introduce the concept of t-shirts. Bear in mind that throughout this post, the term t-shirt is metaphorical: it does not refer to an actual garment that is actually worn!
It’s been a while since I read it, but I think this was introduced in Eric Berne M.D.’s book, “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?” which is an exploration of the counselling/therapy theory of transactional analysis. Dr Berne talks about t-shirts in reference to unconscious t-shirts particularly. That book talks about people having life scripts that are analogous to fairy tales, with roles in them being projected onto others, or seeking people willing to fulfil the necessary part in the script (which obviously can get rather victim-blaming if followed through to its conclusion. It’s worth saying that TA has come a LONG way since the sixties, when Berne was developing it). Berne’s concept of t-shirts is that, in constructing these roles, we unconsciously send out signals that form a front and a back message for a t-shirt: that is, the thing we think we’re saying, and the thing that people unconsciously pick up from us (e.g. a t-shirt on the front might say, “Please don’t kick me” but on the back it says, “Kick me” – which is more or less the entire plot of Marquis de Sade’s “Justine”).
That’s all very well for Dr Berne and his theory. It’s even a useful thing to bear in mind when thinking about dating strategy, tactics and technique – it’s that question again of becoming the sort of person that the sort of person you want to attract would be attracted to. Part of that is going to be in the unconscious t-shirt messages that you’re sending out (and again, some of Berne’s fairy tale script analyses discuss dating in these terms, in a very victim-blaming way).
However, I want to think about t-shirts in a slightly different way, launching from the concept as Berne explained it and flipping it around to be more conscious and affirming. Rather than talking about the ways in which people unconsciously pick up messages about us from our “t-shirts”, what fascinates me is the suggestion of what sorts of messages do you want those to be. Forget about how to produce a consciously-chosen message for now (Berne had his ideas about how to “mend” people, which might involve a form of rewriting the message).
The t-shirt concept I want to think about is along the lines of, “When people look at you, what thing would you wish they knew/understood about you that can’t be told just by looking?” Things like the stuff that it’s not socially acceptable to blurt out when you meet someone for the first time but you wish everyone you met would know anyway, or the wish for how people would approach you.
The sorts of things that might appear on a t-shirt of this type are not always obvious. On one level, wearing a “sexual identity” t-shirt might make it easier to find similar partners, because they would all know that you were what they are looking for, without having to guess whether or not you match their interests. But it’s not something most sexual minorities can afford to have EVERYONE know, and straight vanilla folks generally get to assume (as they’re the majority) that someone they set their eye on is going to be similarly straight and vanilla. I don’t know if Lynn Beisner (writing @ Role/Reboot) would want a t-shirt talking about this stuff, for example – the text of the link shows both why it might be useful and also discusses the problem with having EVERYONE know it (it also implies that having to talk about it may be better than it being tacitly understood). I guess people automatically leap to the big things like sexuality or “Big Story” or whatever, if they haven’t got to face those things themselves. But it seems to me that it’s the small, everyday issues that would really be most help to have on a t-shirt (big things affect those things, too, but have wider and more awkward implications).
I’ve talked about a t-shirt as something you wear all day, every day. However, if we’re talking about unconsciously received signals and perceptions, then it is certainly conceivable that there could be selective t-shirts. The famous version that I can think of to encapsulate this idea is the concept of “gaydar”: the idea that a person can wear an “I’m gay” t-shirt and other gay people will be able to decode the signal, whereas straight folks wouldn’t. (The concept of “dog whistle” issues, that are supposed to resonate with a politician’s core support but leave their opposition clueless as to what’s really being said, is not quite the same thing, although related.) There are also, of course, people who find t-shirts generally hard to read. So it probably is not realistic to think about this in terms of absolutely universal coverage when thinking in terms of practical uses for the concept. I’m not far enough along with my plan to do that, and anyway, I’m kicking the idea around for fun (because I’m sadistic like that – no, I mean, because I find ideas fascinating and exciting).
I imagine, dear Reader, that you might be curious to know what I think my t-shirt would be. Well, you’re out of luck. If you want to know, you’re going to have to give me your suggestions for what YOUR t-shirt should/would/could be in comments. And even then, I might not tell you, because the truth is, I haven’t worked it out yet. This whole SCW plan may very well help me to decide, but I might find it’s not really relevant. You can make your own guesses based on the results so far, of course (the summaries at the ends of the “My tools” posts are a rich source of possibilities), but I’m not going to tell you if you’re right or wrong unless you come up with a way of bribing me!