Proteus, Amantine Dupin and the Importance of Changing One’s Image

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Here’s a fun word for the day: Protean – def. having the ability to change one’s appearance; to be versatile, mutable and adaptable. The word comes from the Greek god Proteus who could change his appearance from a snake to a tree to water. He used this ability so that he could not be pinned down, figuratively and literally.

People are often told to change their image as well. They are told to update the way they dress, the way they present, or to refresh their social media profiles. Yet, most people just assume this is to remain fresh and up to date and they don’t consider another very important personal reason to do so: to show that they have control over how people see them. Changing one’s appearance shows that people can define how they are seen on their own terms, and not to let others, norms, conventions, or policies decide this for them. One historical figure who took this to heart was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin.

Amantine grew up in rural France in the early 19th century. Despite being born after the French Revolution, her father’s aristocratic background afforded her considerable liberties in a society that was not particularly egalitarian. Amantine wanted to become a writer. Shortly after marrying, she moved to Paris to find a publisher, but she was told in no uncertain terms: “Madame, why don’t you make babies instead of literature.” Not one to be daunted, she co-authored the novel with her husband under a pseudonym. As it turned out, this actually worked out well, and even though she became estranged from him, she decided to continue using a male nom-de-plume from then on. Her first novel Indiana published in 1832 was published under the name of George Sand. Because all of Paris assumed it was written by a man, it was much more readily accepted and it turned out to be quite a success.

As a result of this success, however, her identity was quickly discovered, but rather than allow society to label her a fraud and to cower back into obscurity, she decided to continue the Protean experiment. She began to change her dress and appearance to be more like that of men. She was henceforth going to wear pants, smoke cigars, and drink like men. Rather than let others dictate who she should be, she was going to define this for herself. In this way she joined the world of Paris artistes and intellectuals which included the likes of Victor Hugo, Eugène Delacroix, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert.

However, there would be a new risk with her decision to dress and act like a man: she was at risk of being labeled a lesbian – having now fully divorced her husband, this was sure to be used against her. While being openly lesbian was not completely unknown in mid-19th century Parisian society, it would allow her critics to once again define her as aberrant and thus dismiss her literary talents. To circumvent this, she started a number of well-publicized affairs with prominent (male) social figures and artists, including the famous pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin. Once again, she refused to be pigeon-holed and continued to control who and what she would be known for.

After the French were disastrously defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, the people of Paris revolted against the newly-formed government and formed a separate communal government in the capital, events that would profoundly influence the writings of Carl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Having been a supporter of the middle and lower classes, George Sand was sympathetic to their cause, and initially supported the Communards. However, once she saw the arbitrary violence of this fledgling resistance, she uncharacteristically changed sides and threw her support behind the government. This placed her at odds with many in Paris, including fellow artists and intellectuals. Again, she was not about to be defined by others; she again redefined herself so that she remained in control of who she was going to be. She was not just an artist, she was more than that, and she wanted everyone to know this.

George Sand’s conscious decision to repeatedly change how people perceived her, allowed her to control how she would be defined. It served as a poignant demonstration of the power that she exercised not just over her image, but also over the institutions of power of the time. This power structure was dominated by men, who consequently were also typically wealthy, white, and considered themselves intellectually superior. Through her Protean ways, George Sand transcended those societal structures.

This example can also apply to the modern internet-connected world. A good manager knows that with each promotion, job change, or new position, comes a necessary revision of her/his image, whether it is a new office, new suits, or even a new car to drive in to work with. Similarly, each time that we update our Linked In profile with a new achievement or career advancement, a corresponding update in one’s picture is warranted. Likewise, Gigster and entrepreneurs should regularly update their appearance each time the business grows or a new large contract is signed.

The same rule applies even when the change is not exactly positive, for example, after a demotion, a contract is lost or even dismissal. This still calls for a change in image. George Sand did not let overt sexist rejections, accusations of lesbianism, challenges to her intellect, or even socio-political status define her. Each time she was confronted with apparent adversity, she used her power to change her appearance, her behavior, and her associations to redefine herself. Good managers, leaders, and Gigsters will use their power to change their appearance to do the same.

Now it may seem counter-productive to do this as it would seem to flaunt success and power, but changing one’s image is seldom seen in a negative light. The fact is that customers, clients, and colleagues will admire the courage to upgrade one’s image. This is because deep down they also seek the same freedom in their lives. Being associated with someone who exhudes this is an affirmation of their sense of belonging, their own freedom and their own power. The Parisian intellectuals and artists of the 19th century wanted to be associated with George Sand because it brought them greater status as well. She fully understood this, used it, and increased in standing as both an artist and a socio-political  figure. Her associations with the great people of the time allowed her to grow in status accordingly.

So how do we apply this in our own, admittedly smaller, more intimate circles? Well the most obvious way is to regularly update one’s photo on social media platforms, websites, online resumés, and avatars. Then one should consider regularly updating one’s style of dress. You never know who you will meet when you step out the door, so dress better than the day before. When there is a change in the office, whether it is positive or less so, make a change – even if it is something as simple as re-arranging the furniture or hanging up new artwork on the wall.

Every change brings opportunity for a new perspective, but it also demonstrates to others that we have the power to dictate how we are defined. It shows resiliency, adaptability and inner strength, which is both liberating and empowering, traits others will admire and want to be associated with. Understanding this dynamic, but more importantly, using this knowledge and building on it, is what separates a Gigster from a Collegiate Gigster.

In short, be Protean and proclaim it loudly. Not only will others admire your courage and your ability to change, but they will also be impressed that you have a new vocabulary word to toss about, too!

…Yes, expanding your vocabulary is also a change that demonstrates these positive attributes.

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This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.

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