Trendscendance: Moving Beyond Conformity

The holiday break in between the Fall and Spring semester has given me ample time to explore the various shopping malls with my beloved. We pursued the abundance of products, musing over what we saw and gasping at the prices.

Despite my somewhat monastic attitude towards clothing I, like many people, am not immune to the allure of beautiful things, yet being in the mall also brings to mind the manipulative advertising techniques that compel us to purchase products, promising everything from efficiency to happiness, but never anything that might shatter the spell cast by the firms who contrive these campaigns. I wonder about the underlying forces that drive us to buy what people sell and sense their insidious presence inside myself. In a momentarily defiant spirit I am tempted to refuse cosmetics sellers my patronage with the words, “I mustn’t break my vow of humility.” While I will occasionally wear make-up, I prefer very pale powders over anything that might look natural; if I am to wear make-up I want people to know instantaneously rather than think my skin had not been kissed by the sun in years. Although I no longer feel compelled to wear make-up, I have not always felt this way.

Several years I ago I would not leave home without make-up and if you had asked me why I wore it I would insist that it was purely for my own enjoyment but, like so many silly people, I too fell hook, line, and sinker for the potions of perfection. I never consciously tried to impress people but when I look back on myself I realize that I was indeed trying to remedy what I perceived as my faults. Unlike other people, however, I never aspired to sex appeal (a waste of time, in my opinion); being so far without the norms of either sex I never expected to be found sexually appealing because of how I made myself up, and safely dodged that trap. Nevertheless, I was still caught up in a maddening obsession, so much that I fantasized about the cosmetic surgeries I would have when I had the money, and yet regardless of how far I strayed from the norm I was still bothered by a fear of ugliness grounded in how I thought people perceived me.

Now, as a result of several important changes in my life in the last few years, all that is behind me, and the affect these changes have wrought is strong. First, not having had much money of my own to spend I simply could not afford such luxuries and learned to live without them, and as I gradually became engrossed in the humility of socialism and the Craftsman ethic I felt my longing for many materials things decrease. (Besides, it is amusing to tell people that I simply haven’t the time and energy for such finery.) Secondly, the introduction of a mature and loving partner into my life allowed me to see myself from a different perspective, away from the inappropriate standards of beauty I imposed upon myself and towards a better conceptualization of beauty as something created through love. A handsome or pretty face is a delight to see but love confers upon our loved ones a more profound meaning, which I know as beauty. Last but not least, I reclaimed, or rather reinvented, a playful attitude towards clothing I experienced expressly as a child and lost in adolescence when conformity became compulsory.

There are those who will easily make the claim that conformity is wrong and evil, and in many ways they would be right to think so, but calculating the cost of conformity is more difficult than most would expect it to be, and certain more so than some social activists and pop stars claim.

We learn to conform when we are much too young to understand what we are doing, at a time when the fear of losing our parents’ love is a prevalent fear. Absorbed in our own worlds, we are removed from many of the neurotic concerns that torment adult life and struggle to understand the social roles bestowed upon our impressionable heads and through interpersonal relationships through which we are expected to navigate. We stand by our desires and respond to the external prohibitions with defiant protest (“hissy fits,” “temper tantrums,” “YouTube rants”). Our parents must go through great trouble just to get us to wash our hands and faces or to clean our rooms. Such behaviors were the affectations of adults, imposed upon us for some inexplicably cruel reason, but as we grow older we begin to affect the very same attitudes and behaviors we once found so incompatible.

As terrible as our parents’ demands may have felt at the time many of the behaviors we learned from them remain with the majority of us, unseen for what they are and regarded as nothing more than necessity or as common sense. After all, what is the process of toilet training but one of conforming to the demands of our parents in order to win their praise and assure their continued love? We are not born into the world ready to speak with flowery prose; we learn to all throughout our socialization. Many of us get dressed each morning with matching socks and would feel silly if later we discovered that the reverse were true. In its better manifestations conformity is merely the incorporation of external meanings for our own use when it is an effective response to real problems and further the fullest development of our peculiar potentialities.

At its worst conformity means the loss of self within a false but desirable identity, never fulfilling our most heartfelt ambitions, and the sacrifice of happiness for a hollow promise. We adopt culturally shared meanings for the purpose of earning the love, approval, and, or, acceptance of our peers, and the positive self value we attain en route. However, this is ultimately maladaptive, as it won’t inspire genuine love. If I disguise myself and construct a personality according to whatever people want me to be, then how can I expect anyone to actually loveme and not just who I pretend to be? All that I can expect is a shallow relationship predicated on the superficial, fetishistic appreciation of arbitrary and narrowly defined role-playing.

Much has been said and sung about the problem of conformity but too often I find that the solution some people eventually adopt is not a substantial improvement on old habits. To demonstrate that they are definitely not mainstream some people will exaggerate their appearance for that purpose alone but, just as the conformist seeks approval through assimilating popular behavioral patterns, the shallow nonconformist does just the same with anything unpopular. An old acquaintance of mine was once made quite unhappy when one of her favorite animals, the octopus, became a popular ornament on pieces of jewelry, t-shirts, watches, and other fashionable paraphernalia. Instead of rejoicing at the sudden availability of octopus theme products, she held it all in utter disdain because it made her feel ordinary. Of course, her fear was understandable but she quite mistook the source! In any case, the quality of being uniquely different from the mainstream was of greater value to her than any profound interest she might have had in octopuses. In our struggle to resist the tides of conformity we also run the risk of adopting an equally constrictive mode of behavior, one that values appearance above substance just as much as the conformist would, and is just as antithetical and counterproductive to its purpose.

The problem of conformity is not that we have rules but that we have too many and care too much about them. It is an integral part of the Human experience but in excess it can significantly inhibit our individual potential, causing severe distress and dysfunction. There is no simple solution to the problem of conformity. To be creative one must be prepared to give up certainty, to give up easy answers and face the ambiguous abyss of existential anxiety. We must be responsible for our meanings and decide for ourselves what is worth conforming to and what we must live without.