The Double-edged Sword of Non-conformism

conformism quote

I was never a popular girl. Ever. The popular girls in my world scorned and teased me actively in middle school, studiously ignored me in high school. And my actual friends talked a good game about the importance of non-conformism as an important and valuable characteristic. They relied on it as a means of feeling detached and superior, but in reality we all wished to be just a little more like the in-crowd. And we made many concessions to their preferences and edicts, often wore what they said we should, frequently looked and acted how they wanted us to.

Non-conformism was a theme in college, too, and my brainiac friends held up individuality as a brave and worthy trait. Even though we had few truly original thoughts rattling around in our noggins, we prided ourselves on being slightly quirky, making off-kilter choices when we could, and veering from the norm in admittedly convenient ways. We were thrift store shoppers and DIYers while our peers roamed the mall. But sometimes, we roamed the mall for our DIY supplies and made short side trips to the Gap. In secret.

At this point in my life, I feel like I conform less than I ever have. I’m a long-married woman who has no children. I’m an entrepreneur in a down economy. I’m a style blogger who isn’t tanned, toned, and wealthy. I also conform more than I ever have. I am interested in and actively seek out trendy clothing. I listen to whatever the local indie radio station tells me to. I apply light makeup on a daily basis. But as an adult, I hardly ever receive praise or censure for my choices as they relate to conformism.

I look back on all the non-conformist rhetoric of my youth, and feel amused and proud. Declaring myself to be different did create an emotional buffer, and running with a crowd that felt equally odd had its comforts. But looking back on that time also makes me feel somewhat resentful. I feel like, as a teenager and young woman, I fell naturally outside the mainstream and – to ease the pain of default social rejection – was told by my peers that “being a non-conformist” was a good and valuable trait. And unfortunately, that dichotomy made me feel guilty and shameful when I found myself longing to fit in, or dressing and acting in ways that fit smoothly into social norms. It made me feel like a coward and a sell-out, a dolt and a lemming.

Individuality is gold, and non-conformism is brave. But life is social, dressing is social, people are social. And in many ways, we seek to be understood, accepted, connected. Yes, we should express our uniqueness, dress to show our personalities, and feel proud of our differences. But I see absolutely nothing wrong with expressing our mutual desires, dressing to mesh with a group, or feeling proud of what we have in common. ESPECIALLY as young people, when identities are so fluid and social structures so punishing. Anything taken to extremes can become harmful, and conforming to the point that you lose sight of your individuality can be catastrophic. I would never advise anyone at any age to sacrifice all uniqueness for the sake of social acceptance. But a little conformity here and there? It might make your life easier, more fun, less stressful.

Especially when it comes to style. My impression is that the generation of young women coming up right now has more choices than my generation ever had. More is available, more is acceptable, more is affordable. And that means that there are some bold non-conformists roaming the halls of middle and high schools worldwide, shirking trends and flaunting their sartorial choices. My hat is off to them. Even in a world brimming with choices and variety, it takes real chutzpah to purposely stand out. But I hold equal love for the young women who find comfort in dressing like their peers, who relate to their friends through style.

Because in my experience, non-conformism is a double-edged sword. I’d say embrace it if it makes you feel strong and powerful, express yourself as proudly and loudly and often as you can, show the world your uniqueness. But don’t flog yourself for wanting to blend in. Humans are social creatures, and it’s OK to want to belong sometimes.

Background image courtesy Julia Lamphear

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  • Hi, I just found and started reading your blog last week.

    This post is so well-written, thank you for writing this! I hope lots of people will pass along the link, I know I will.

  • Great article Sally. I have so much empathy for your adolescent self, trying to “be yourself” and still be accepted. In those tender years it can be such a struggle. Your voice now is very strong and confident.

  • And besides, the energy it takes to avoid conforming, if it’s hard for some of us, is maybe best spent on things of great import. I’d rather dress boringly, and speak with passion than the other way around. Thank you Sally.

  • Michelle

    I just found this blog and I am already in love. It sounds like you and I hung out with the same types of people. I often look back to my adolescent years and feel a little resentful as well. Maybe even a little regretful. This would be such a fantastic and enlightening read for a young girl on her way to womanhood. Thank you for posting this.

  • I started following your blog about a month ago and I am so encouraged by your posts. Thank you for being you and for sharing your inspiration.

  • anotherjen

    Sal, I’ll bet if you spent high school and university being ‘conformist’ and fitting in to the social norms you’d feel just as duped and be saying the same things from the other side of this (supposed) divide!

    • Sal

      Maybe so. During those years, everyone feels a little lost and isolated, even the ones who seem to “fit in.” The point is not to say, “Oh, I suffered and resent my experiences as a non-conformist youth.” The point is that striking a balance between standing out and blending in can be beneficial.

  • This is wonderful, Sally. I wish I had heard those words when I was teenager, experiencing the same things you did.

    Motivational speaking to pre-teens and teens in your future?

  • Tara

    I never conformed to fit anybody’s ideas of who I should be except my own, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I was Goth in high school and had no desire to fit in with the “normal” kids. I still like to surround myself with people who are different in some way, whether it’s the way they dress, their politics, their philisophy, view on the world, etc. I spend zero time thinking about what other people think of me and appreciate that trait in other people. Conforming is totally boring to me. However, I think it’s quite possible for someone to dress in a more normal/toned-down way because that’s what they feel comfortable with or prefer themselves and not becasue they are conforming to someone else’s preferences. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    • Sam

      My experience as a teenage goth was quite different: I spent tons of time and energy “not caring” what people thought of me. Because of course, I did care. A lot. And my sartorial choices were all very much calculated to stick it to the man.

      An example: Though I secretly liked some stuff in Hot Topic, you couldn’t have paid me to shop there. You see, Hot Topic sold mass-produced, conformist goth clothing that me and my goth friends took great care to shun. So I had to go out of my way to find similar clothes that I liked… hours spent in thrift shops and local botiques. If I truly hadn’t cared what people thought, I would have spent five minutes and half the money buying that goddamned Hot Topic wrist cuff I wanted in the first place.

      • Michelle

        The way I saw the issue, particularly in high school, was that a lot of people spent all their energy trying to be like everyone around them. Sometimes that mean conforming, and sometimes it meant “not conforming”, which, since it was simply in reaction to conformity, was another sort of conformity in my eyes.

        I really thought the best thing to do, and I still think this, is to try to be yourself. I wore blue jeans sometimes because they were easy and I liked them. I didn’t wear them because everyone else did, and I didn’t *avoid* wearing them because everyone else wore them. I wore them because I felt like wearing them.

        As an adult, in some contexts I will make an effort to conform, in order to communicate specific messages about myself using my appearance. That’s still my choice, though…I don’t do it solely to fit in.

  • Veronica

    I have always feel an uncomfortable clash between the two desires that you describe so well. In high school and college, I liked being unique, but sometimes I did want to fit in, and then I felt untrue to my “one-of-a-kind” instincts.
    Thank you for helping me accept and understand the dichotomy. I know intellectually that people who want the world to be black and white are ignoring the complexity of life. However, I get frustrated with myself when my feelings/tendencies/desires don’t fit into neat, distinct boxes.
    Thanks for the reminder to be kind to myself.

  • Hmmm… You’re writing about something kinda complex, but I am left wondering if it’s all such an intellectual thing? A lot of choices about what we feel OK wearing come form a deep and (especially in youth) not overly-analyzed place. The phrase “drawn to” (describing the appeal a certain color or style has for us) is revealing — something about this choices is instinctual.
    The best possible world wouldn’t HAVE this discussion at all. I think in a world without FEAR (of ridicule, embarassment, ostracization, prejudice) we’d wear whatever we damn please– which does NOT mean we’d all suddenly put on peacock feathers– or khaki coveralls!!

  • The Manolo once referred to this, many years ago, as the “Paradox of Not Caring”.

    http://shoeblogs.com/2005/10/25/the-paradox-of-not-caring/

    To quote himself, “These inescapable facts obtain: that clothes are always necessary, and that others they will always judge us by them.”

    This is the problem, to be non-conformist in dress, takes the great deal of effort and emotional fortitude, things which may perhaps be better applied to being non-conformist in thought. Thus, the person who dresses funny, but thinks the same as everyone else, is far less interesting than the person who dresses like everyone else, but thinks differently.

    • Sal

      Wow. Love that, Manolo. And can honestly say the idea had never occurred to me.

    • M

      I think one thing you must keep in mind is that for some people dressing “like everyone else” takes WAY more effort, time and thought that dressing in a “funny” manner.

      Some things that are rather conformist in idea, make me look like a clown! I have such weird proportions (small shoulders, medium bust, smallish tummy, wide hips, larger butt and larger legs with super muscular calves and large feet for someone my size), that it’s extremely difficult to find “conformist” items that look right on me. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but it is something to consider. Even my cousin, who both acted and modeled for some time spent years beating herself up about her large legs on an otherwise slender frame when the pattern is almost certainly hereditary. I love walking and I’m not going to conform for the sake of conforming when I really need to focus on having a pair of shoes on my feet that let me walk for miles in urban conditions without pain.

  • Lynn

    Doesn’t this also depend on context? For example, when I worked for an elected official who often took controversial positions in favor of social justice, I dressed conservatively so that I would not take away from her. Today I have the latitude to dress as I please, but I agree with Lisa that in general I would rather dress boringly and have people listen to what I have to say than the other way around. In a perfect world this would not be the case, but ……

    • Sal

      It could be argued that nearly everything in life depends on context!

  • I agree that this is a complex issue. I sometimes feel that non-conforming is the new conforming, you know? There is pressure to express yourself with your clothes like never before. (Look different! Look like you’re an individual!) I guess the most important thing is the ability to choose. As long as we have that, I don’t care if we might look like we are conforming, or not conforming. It’s the inside that matters! 🙂

  • Marsha Calhoun

    Brava! Trust you to make room for everybody . . . and give them something to think about.

  • I find that I vacillate between conforming and challenging expectations, sometimes on a daily basis. As always, fashion is a way to express group membership (or outsider status!) and I’ve never fit into just one group. I think few people ever do. So, some days I’m a schluppy brainiac wearing comfy tees and jeans, while other days I’m a flouncy fashionista with Miss Piggy as my mentor. Some days I feel girly, other days I feel more androgynous. Thankfully my wardrobe can accommodate all of my moods and a variety of different occasions!!

  • M

    I’ve always been on the fringes of conformity. My life situations just didn’t allow me to conform. Due to a family member sexually abusing people in my school and a lack of money to move away from the location, I was severely ostracized in elementary school and onward. People were told by their parents to not associate with me because of the family member. This forced social isolation caused me to focus on very different aspects of myself. It didn’t matter what I wore or didn’t wear, people were not supposed to associate with me either way. I was heavy though, and 20 years ago it was much more difficult to find flattering clothes in plus sizes for those that are super young. I didn’t have much choice. I got to jr. high and was pushed forward into more advanced grades for certain classes. If I wasn’t going to be true to myself (and I would come home crying I was so bored with school, asking if I had done something wrong to have that experience), it’s just how I was.

    After the family member died at the beginning of my high school years, I had this feeling that I could just forget what happened and I effectively transferred to a different school, putting me around different people. At that point, I started just hearing very negative and random things about how I looked.. I knew I didn’t look like others, but I also felt like that was me. I felt conflicted. I was convinced people hated me because of how I looked, but I didn’t know if or how I could look like others.

    I went to college a thousand miles away from where I grew up – for certain no one had to know anything about my life unless I told them! It didn’t work well. I was still weird, doing my own thing, but I was still very conflicted. I felt I was supposed to be doing different things based on messages from others, but I really didn’t have that desire or those interests in the same ways. This is really where some of the bad feelings came from. Luckily (or not) I went to a college filled with some of the weirdest and smartest people I’ve probably and ever will meet.

    In the last few years, I feel like I’ve done a better job of figuring out how to let go of that pressure and feeling to do something different and do a better job of following my intuition. It’s a circuitous path at times, but I find myself so happy with what is happening. Sometimes it’s not that I don’t want the same big ideas as others, but I have a much different approach to get there and what aspects I really care about. It’s only now that I find people that have known me for long periods of time saying things to the effect of we always saw you as being a little weird, and out of the norm, but that’s why we like you. And I realize I appreciate those aspects of myself and I appreciate when those around me do as well… I’m not really out to impress those that only would because of some more conformist ideas.

    I think the thing is, the more you enjoy what you are doing, the more you will attract others. And not all of those people will be exactly like you, but that’s fine because they know a lot of people too! If you’ve done reading of things like Malcolm Gladwells “The Tipping Point” before, there is a concept that even in a society, not everyone serves the same purposes. Some people serve as originators or key distributors of ideas and patterns, while others are more secondary spreaders of information. I don’t think it would be good for society for everyone to be a conformist or else nothing would ever change – change lives in pushing, jumping over or manipulating boundaries, introducing new ideas, putting together old ideas in a new way or just simply sharing old ideas with a new-to-them audience. With only conformity, issues with society would never get brought to the surface or fixed. The thing is, being a non-confirmist does not mean being a jerk, being completely introverted all the time, or any of a variety of other extreme-anti social behavior.

  • Linb

    Yes, context is everything: conformity in one situation is non-conformity in another. How lovely to be able to grow up and out of a situation where you felt you never quite fit in; and leave home to find the others who accept you as you are, and who think as you do, and who adopt you into a family-of-invention. I am loved and accepted within my family — great fortune, as so many are not happy in their family-of-birth — but have moved household so many times that my family-of-invention now stretches from sea to sea.

  • Aisling

    Great post! It’s ok to be different but it’s ok to be the same too! I think as a teenager, I was so worried that I wasn’t as good at being the same so I radically tried to be different to show people that it was my choice not to be the same, as an adult I’m comfortable enough with myself that I don’t try as much and its so much less exhausting!

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  • Sara

    I’ve been mulling over this post for a couple days now and trying to put my finger on what exactly rankles me so much about it. I think it’s that this particular idea of “conformity” you’re hanging on to is pretty superficial and narrowly focused. As a heterosexual (married, even) Caucasian woman with a perfectly normal body who works for yourself, you are privileged to even have the decision about whether you want to conform or not. For those of us who are a different race, or a female in a male-dominated profession, homosexual, or some other deviation from the societal “norm” instead have to struggle with going out of our way to “conform” (or really, “pass”) to overcompensate for our otherness, which automatically puts us at a disadvantage in the perception of many of those higher up in the power structure. It is about looks, so relevant to this blog, but goes much deeper. You seem like a nice and well-meaning person, but this post ultimately comes off as smug and blind to the more adult issues surrounding “conformity” (a phrase I don’t think I’ve even heard anyone use seriously since high school), and I don’t think you should be congratulated for that. That you posit this as your struggle is insulting to those of us who actually have to subsume parts of their very identity to succeed.

    • Sal

      So a post I which I share my own honest thoughts and experiences with the concept of conformity, and in which I specifically discuss them in terms of my own upbringing and childhood, is smug? This was never meant to be dismissive of those whose struggles to feel accepted or whose choices to conform are more fraught than my own, which I believe is quite clear in the tone of the post itself. I am not purposely insulting others merely by having had these experiences as a privileged person, nor by examining or discussing these ideas from my own perspective. In fact, my aim was to help anyone who’d had similar experiences to my own feel less isolated.

      And yes, this is an incredibly narrowly focused examination of the concept. That was quite intentional. This blog discusses ideas surrounding style and body image, so the post focuses on dress. Specifically dress as dealt with by kids and teens. Since the deeper levels aren’t directly relevant to my blog, I focused on the surface.

      That said, you have made a boatload of assumptions about me and my privilege. You don’t know me, don’t know my history, don’t know my background, don’t know why or how I might’ve been discriminated against in the past. You don’t know what I looked like as a kid, or where I grew up, how my sexuality developed, or what I’ve dealt with over the years. You’ve decided that the person you view through the incredibly narrow focus of this website and through the filter of your own experiences and assumptions is all there is to me. It isn’t. Yet you felt perfectly free to shame me for failing to consider other perspectives.