Conformity. From an early age it is something we are taught – to fit in, to be like others, to want to be like others. Society operates that way. It works on our deep-seated desire to belong, to act in a certain way, to meet approval , to want what we see is desirable that others have, or to own the things society expects us to have. A home, perhaps a car, a job – children maybe. It is a form of control, without which, I suppose, life as we know it wouldn’t function.
The majority of teens, today, will follow a pattern – hair styles that are deemed on trend, clothing from popular chain stores – nothing too ‘out there’, make-up inspired by YouTubers and of course the ubiquitous Sports logos. If you follow these rules you fit in. Those who don’t, risk the ridicule and suspicion of their peers. A sad but true fact. And many of us, as parents, buy into that need because we remember times when we, ourselves, didn’t fit in at one point and how that made us feel.
In my teenage years there was a trend to be ‘alternative’, which of course by becoming a trend, wasn’t at all. Depending on who you hung out with, you conformed. A punk rocker sitting in a pub on the King’s Road, London would barely have raised an eyebrow – but walking down a suburban high street may have rustled many a feather. Maybe you belonged to a group of Goths in your local town – but still you conformed to the group. To truly rebel you would have to have gone out with your black-eyed, spikey-haired friends, as a Nick Haywood/ Simon Le Bon look-alike to the local Goth drinking hole !
I am aware that I have always modified my behaviour, desires or appearance to fit in with others. Having to wear spectacles from the age of 6 to 13 was a huge dent in my confidence. I hated being ‘Four-Eyes’. When I hit my 13th Birthday I was told I could have contact lenses. Not the soft, comfortable sorts we wear today but lumps of glass that took forever to get used to. But it didn’t matter. I felt normal again.
School crazes are also part of this need to belong. When I was 8 we had a bizarre class craze of using Vicks inhalers. We would sit there unscrewing the things, sticking them up our nostrils then putting them back in our pockets or pencil cases – all day long !
Throughout my school life, there was always the girl that wore the best version of the school uniform, that I wanted to emulate. The hue and thread of the pullover would be slightly different, the skirt would be perfectly fashionable, the shirt collar just that little bit trendier than most school shirts. The rest of us would be playing catch-up.
Nowadays, I try to pretend not to bother about trends or brands, but I can’t help but get a feeling of gleeful satisfaction if I am bought something that modern society has declared desirable – a pair of Ugg boots or a Jo Malone perfume, or I treat myself to a lipstick from a high-end cosmetic company. It feels special. I feel I have bought a little piece of belonging to a different lifestyle. I remember my first pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. They felt so good. I wore them with pride, happy to show off the logo. That sense of belonging to something better. Weird and somewhat embarrassing to admit !
In many ways, though, my life has not conformed. I dropped out of university. I married a foreigner. I have never had to worry about rent or a mortgage and I think that, in turn, has made me less ambitious. I turn my nose up at spending money on bettering our home and prefer, instead, to spend money on a holiday every year, much to my Dad’s bemusement as he observes the state of our kitchen floor and misted double-glazing.
Sometimes, I wish my home life and marriage was more like others. But of course we all think that. We all have the version we present to the outside world and the truthful reality, with all its nuances, known only to the people involved. And life has shown me that there is no right or wrong way to conduct a relationship, as long as both parties are happy.
It takes bravery and supreme self-confidence to truly buck the trend of ‘normal’ living – to not care what people think of you and your choices – to know that all that matters is that you believe in you – to not seek the approval of others. I still find myself wanting to be a people-pleaser and to fit in, but age and experience now allow me to feel more comfortable in my choices and not to make it my goal in life.
It’s OK to be different.