There’s a meme going around in which an attractive person is shown wearing fashionable clothing in public. Typically they’re wearing something a little over the top, or at the very least rugged in a high-end way. The caption of the post or the text displayed over the image reads, “Live your life.”

If you trace such messages back to their source, it’s remarkable how they promulgate. This one started out as a reference to a hip-hop song by T.I. and Rihanna, which, if you watch the video, evokes a sense of not giving a damn about what other people think, regardless of how you spend your time and how you earn your money. This devil may care attitude then carried over to a few clothing brands, including American Eagle, and was presented primarily when young, good-looking people were shown dressed to the nines while doing things that would likely ruin the clothing they were wearing. After a few years, this concept arrived in the blogging scene, and fashion bloggers started displaying a well-dressed guy or gal, strutting or otherwise owning their look, decked out in the finest something-or-another, the phrase appropriated for the image they evoked.

We use such images to help define ourselves to the world. It’s no mistake that outdoorsy styles are in just as fashion companies release a new fashion line, appropriating the lumberjack-ish look that’s experienced a resurgence in artsy areas. This, then, provides a shorthand for people to use in how they dress. By wearing these clothes, I am showing my fondness for not just this shirt, but the lifestyle associated with it. I make things. I’m a little old fashioned; maybe I have a turn-table. I’m hearkening back to simpler times, though still making use of modern technology. This shirt tells you how I’m living my life.

Just as we appropriate the shorthand imagery that clothing labels provide us with, we are appropriated by them. We’re walking billboards for their brands, and as we’re out ‘living our lives,’ showing what tribe we’re a part of by dressing the part, others look at us, our actions, our social groups, our Instagrams and tweets, and think, “Okay, this person is someone I’d like to emulate. How do I look more like them? How do I fit in with that crowd?” And the cycle continues.

Appropriation is natural. It’s an extension of how we, as babies, look at adults to see how to act, and as teens look to older kids to see how to act, and as adults look to the youth to see how to act. It’s an endless cycle that has new players, all these brands, but it needn’t be a negative cycle. If we’re aware of this tendency, and can self-reflect about why we’re appropriating and what these inherited brand ideologies represent, we can benefit from those pre-packaged collections of meaning, while also more clearly expressing who we are to the people around us.

We can, in short, more clearly speak by using words and phrases others have carefully strung together for us.

It has to be an intentional thing, though, lest we find ourselves appropriated and, resultantly, representing ideas and people we probably don’t want to be associated with. Remember in the late-90s and early-2000s when the GAP brands were exposed as using child labor in Southeast Asia? These were brands that represented a very specific, preppy-inspired lifestyle to those who wore their clothing. Wear a GAP-branded shirt and you were sporty and clean-cut. Collegiate.

Post-scandal, wearing their clothing made a person look socially tone-deaf; unaware of what was happening in the world. They looked like someone who wore tidy polo shirts and skirts at the expense of tormented children in a developing country. I think most people wearing their clothing at the time wouldn’t have expressed their views as such, and likely would have been horrified to find out that this was the perception others had of them. Regardless, the company took a major hit, their branding efforts were reduced to ashes for a time, and they struggled to rebuild and regain their audience’s trust.

As we appropriate, we are appropriated. Branding goes both ways, and every purchasing decision you make, if the product is something you wear or use in public, says something to others about you, overtly or covertly, whether we’re aware of it or not.

This knowledge can be used to our advantage when we align with companies we believe in and brands that represent our points of view. But it can also cause us to be all talk, no walk. It can apply to us labels we don’t actually align with, or haven’t earned, lessening the incentive to ever earn them. To actually live our lives.

Know who it is you’re forming these relationships with and support the companies that align with your values. This is how we shape the corporate environment that depends on us as carriers for their messages and slogans. This is how we become willing and capable participants in the appropriation cycle, rather than simply hosts, ignorant of the billboards we wear, and the messages they spread.

This essay was originally published in my free newsletter.

Update: April 21, 2017

It’s been interesting watching the hipster-throwback look evolve over the years. The lumberjack thing has subsided, but the beard trend is still going strong. And there’s old-fashioned-looking tech everywhere these days.