Clonal antibodies

“Clonal antibodies” was the phrase that came to mind. Which really had nothing to do with the news image I was seeing, it was just my brain doing the AD/HD-randomizer trick again.

Or, maybe the words did have something to do with the photograph. I was looking at an AP Photo by Tony Gutierrez, one of many recent photographs of the mothers from the The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they stood in front of the courthouse:

Clonal was in a sense true. All nine of these white women are garbed in nearly identical frocks, a rather loose-fitting style that the press is referring to as “prairie dresses”, made of plain pastel blue, lavender, teal or green fabric, with long sleeves pleated at the shoulders, bodices buttoned all the way up to the collars, and reverse-pleated ankle-length skirts. Not only that, but they all have the same long hairstyle, with the bangs combed up into the French braid that goes down the back. A couple of the women in the photo have greying hair, and there is some variation in height, but little else distinguishes one from another. Antibody was (in an odd sense) true as well, in that their archaically modest clothing was designed to obscure the body shape, and conceal all but the face, neck and hands.

But as I looked at the photograph (and other similar news pictures) I realised something unsettling: I could not tell any of them apart from one another. Aside from fresh military recruits in their uniforms and buzz cuts, I have never seen such uniformity in a group of people. (That some of them may be related to each other only adds to the similarities.)

With my faceblindness (prosopagnosia), I don’t really remember faces. I end up building up a mental gestalt of other features that I use to identify people. But when I am looking at a group of people, I can usually perceive some of the distinguishing characteristics, such as lighter or darker skin tones, longer or shorter hair, beards, glasses, unusual noses, tattoos and whatnot. If I make an especial point to mentally tell myself, “Mary has a mole on her chin,” then that helps me identify her (or it will, after I have sorted people out and figured out which names go with which bodies). But if Jessica and Ashley both have blue eyes and long blonde hair and no unusual distinguishing characteristics, then I have a lot of difficulty telling them apart until I can pattern out their respective voice and gaits and mannerisms.

One of the other distinguishing features that I use is clothing; most people have certain styles or garments that they wear on a regular basis. (I remember one researcher that frequently wore a bright yellow shirt, so he always reminded me of a goldfinch.) If everyone is wearing the same style of clothes, then I have just lost an entire layer of distinguishing characteristics. Even if their self-effacing clothing is slightly more modern than a burka or nun’s habit, it still saps the individuality from the wearer’s body shape, which removes a second layer of information. If everyone is wearing the same hairstyle, then I have lost a third layer of data. When everyone has the same range of hair and skin tones, there goes yet another layer. I have not listened to these people speak on broadcast media, but I am betting that they all have similar accents, having spent their lives in the same small community. There disappears even more potential information.

Because of my disability, I cannot easily distinguish the people around me. And because all of these particular women have had no options in the way they present themselves, I really cannot tell any of them apart. One polygamist’s wife looks like any of his other wives, and their daughters are but smaller versions of the same. Are people really that visually interchangeable to each other? I have no idea. Presumably they can tell each other apart, from life-long familiarity.

But as a faceblind person, I realise that I should avoid situations that involve lots of people in uniforms. I work in education, and suddenly the idea of school uniforms becomes very unsettling. It almost makes me queasy.

Even worse is the idea of being required to spend one’s entire day, and even the entire life, wearing the same style of garment, and looking like everyone else. It is appalling. It’s not that a person must show off or be ostentatious. It’s not that appearances are more important than the other qualities of the person. It’s that people are individuals, and should be allowed to present themselves as such. Even when people dress similarly, they should be able to choose to do so.


  1. 15 October 2008 at 5:27

    I’m faceblind myself, and to me, these women look like the same person, too.
    It reminded me of how everytime I’ve met identical twins, I could easily tell them apart, because of their different personalities, and how they express them through their appearance.

    I think everybody knows that identical twins have a much stronger desire to appear as individuals, because noone really likes to be someone’s clone, except for those, who live in the past, where individuality wasn’t a desired trait, i.e. religious groups.

    It’s interesting what you said about the various layers that distinguish people, and I use them, too, but to some extend only.
    I find them all a bit unreliable, because people change their appearance so often.
    Usually I focus on little quirks and oddities, like people’s gait, or idiosyncratic speech, mannerism, etc.
    The most obvious noticable trait to me is poeple’s charm, or pitiful lack of it.
    It’s no coincidence, that the kind of people who like some uniformity in their clothing style, also have the blandest personalities.

    I think Laurentius should make a slight differentiation, though:
    People who dress in a simple style for practical reasons can still maintain their individual personality, something Einstein demonstrated perfectly, whereas people who like to dress for uniformity seek a group identity, which is something well worth critizising.

  2. Linda F said,

    21 May 2008 at 17:00

    I’m for uniforms in schools, and I’ll tell you why:

    1) Cost – without an artificial reining-in of clothing purchases being used to display status, too many parents buy horrifically expensive clothing. The problem is worse in the poorer neighborhoods, where students whose parents don’t spend the money get teased unmercifully.

    2) Inappropriateness – I really don’t like teaching students whose body parts are on display, from the too-low tops, to the too-low saggy pants. The fashion for tight tops on budding bodies leaves all their considerable charms on display, much to the distraction of the males in the classes. Outside of uniforms, it can be hard to find clothing that covers a young girl’s modesty.

    3) Gang symbols – too many gangs signal their membership with clothing choices or colors. Maybe that’s not a problem where you teach, but it’s a considerable problem where I teach.

    These are just some of my many reasons favoring uniforms.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    29 April 2008 at 0:10

    Connie, I suspect that their manner of reply might have to do with being overwhelmed in an unfamiliar environment, plus quite possibly a well-trained sense of being “modest” and ” respectful”.

    Larry, It’s not what style they wear; I have my own dress-down for when I do manual labor, and I do have my own rather consistent wardrobe. My issue with the dress was that the uniformity of clothing style and hairstyle (which is apparently required within their subculture) makes it dang near impossible to tell one person from another. I already have trouble telling people apart, without everyone wearing the same style of clothes and hair.

  4. 28 April 2008 at 22:34

    I have been thinking more about why this particular post disturbed me so much.

    I think it was because of the way in which a different religious culture was being disparaged as if there were no choice in the matter.

    for what it is worth Quakers used to dress in a plain fashion so they would not stand out as ostentatious and vain. When clothing styles changed and there sticking to tradition became more expensive and in it’s own way ostentatious (through it’s difference) the practice was largely abandoned.

    Throughout most of history the working and peasant classes were not able to dress in anything but basic and utilitarian fashion and there were even sumptuary laws to forbid it.

    I particularly dislike people who criticise the way another dresses because of the way I chose to dress a lot of the time.

    I look at back at old photographs and historically people used to dress very much alike, it was just the culture and mores of the time, just as all goths look alike to me.

    If you want to disagree with these people do it on genuine theological grounds, not judgemental or aesthetic ones.

    You know that paradigm of autistic desirability, the oft exemplified “poster child” Einstein used to have a row of identical suits so he did not have to make difficult choices as to the way he dressed?

    William Morris that great Socialist likewise used to dress down compared to his contemporaries in a plain serge suit and wideawake hat, a style we would probably associate with the Amish these days.

    Working people dressed down because they would get dirty and did not have a plethora of clean clothes to change into. That was the way for my dad, and his generation right into the 1980’s it did not make him less individual.

  5. Connie said,

    28 April 2008 at 22:18

    To me it wasn’t just the way they dressed, or their hair that disturbed me. What disturbed me more was the similar demeanor they all exhibited. Many of the women I saw interviewed had this sleepy, mousy voice and heavy eyelids – as if they could barely keep their eyes open. It was almost as if they appeared sedated…

    Has anyone else observed that? I’d be curious to read other comments…

  6. Catana said,

    27 April 2008 at 13:25

    That photo is really kind of scary. It’s rare to see a group of people with so little individual identity. Their “uniform” is typical of groups which suppress personal identity, especially in women. And I imagine the tendency to choose styles from a previous era, as is also true of Hasidic Jews, is just one more way of removing oneself from the influences of the modern era. When women are involved, it would also help confine them to old paternalistic notions of femaleness–inferiority, submission, subordination, etc.

  7. 27 April 2008 at 12:35

    To me, the dress styles of various tribes of youth rebellion over the ages have tended to me to appear to be uniforms and to have that clonal quality.

    If people wish to dress alike, then so be it, if people chose not to dress at all, then so be it.

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