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