Cultural conformity is primarily the provence of the young. Remember how we all railed against school uniform only to end up all wearing the same clothes anyway (jeans, I prefer to forget the shell suit years....) There is a safety in conformity and in belonging. This is how the whole gang culture came into being. Any shared cultural identity marks you out as having a secure place in the world.
Individuality is a funny thing. You look at schools for example and there is a very definite demarcation into groups and types. American sit coms illustrate this beautifully with their camps of jocks, nerds, preppies and goths (I don't pretend to understand, I'm not an American teenager). But each group has a definite cultural identity. And you have to fit in with the beliefs and identity of the group to be part of it. You wouldn't be accepted by the goths for example if your favourite colour was yellow.....(Funnily enough my favourite colour actually is primrose yellow. I would obviously never have made it as a Goth!).
In our formative years, individuality is more about finding which group we have to compromise least of ourselves to belong to. I remember being told by one friend that she didn't want to smoke but she had to because her mates did. Another secretly hated the grunge group Nirvana but to admit it would have been social suicide within the crowd she went around with.
Its too simple to write it off as peer pressure. The sense of belonging goes deeper than that. To cease to belong to the group threatens not only your status but your own cultural identity. It is worth the compromises to be able to stand up and say this is me and this is what I identify with.
Even by university there was still a certain amount of compromising going on. I had already suspected by this point that I personally was unlikely to fit neatly into any type. After all, nobody else went to lectures in a fur coat and their nightie! But I would keep some of my less conventional likes to myself. I kept the whole ABBA thing pretty quiet. And I didn't tell my generally high brow friends that I still read Enid Blyton books on the sly (or that I cheated at every board game we ever played. Oh dear friends if you knew how much of your monopoly money and scrabble tiles has enjoyed a stint in my bra.......)
It was never a case of pretending though. All the things I said I liked, I liked. I just presented one facet of the overall reality. Complex things us humans, there is more than one side to all of us. I'd be very suspicious of anyone who only likes one type of music or one kind of book or film. Chances are they just want to look good......
Now that's all well and good in your teens. But there comes a time (and I'm certain its your thirties) when you throw off the cloak of belonging and you start to think about who you actually are and what you genuinely want. And the things you didn"t want to lose face over in your younger days suddenly become less important. I'm ok telling you now that I've got a few Jason Donovan tracks on my ipod. I'm not embarrassed to say that I've read all of Jilly Cooper's books at least three times. I even read glossy magazines when it takes my fancy.
I think other people's opinions matter more when you are younger. There were people I desperately wanted to approve of me and people I desperately didn't. Now I find I am singularly unconcerned with what anyone thinks of me. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I do occasionally still go for the shock factor - one very drunken evening a couple of years ago I ended up showing one of my poor work colleagues some pictures of mine that probably scarred the lad for life. (Naughty of me!) But in general living your life for yourself is about self honesty, not trying to impress, shock or disturb. Its much more about being oblivious as to the opinions of others and going about your business for you and you alone.
Although I've talked about it being a youth thing, I sadly still see a lot of cultural identification going on in my own peer group even today. Those silly bags with the Scottie dogs (!) the tramp stamp, the Pandora bracelet...... Its still look at me, I belong, let me be in your gang. And I think its a shame. I think hiding behind labels and cultural symbols belies a total lack of confidence. I think people are ashamed to admit who they really are and as a result put so much wasted effort into following the crowd.
So I'll offer them a touch of insight (because I'm nice like that). Throw your designer labels away and trog round a few charity shops. Try a few different styles and see what you WANT to wear rather than what you think you should. And do something you have never done before that absolutely everybody will think the worse of you for. Rejoice in a bit of good old fashioned disapproval! (Try taking your clothes off on the M1, it can be awfully liberating). And stick your Pandora bracelet in the bin. Right now. Think of it as a membership card for a group that you don't need to belong to any more.
The whole idea of living your life for you and not through the eyes of others is beautifully expressed in a poem by Charlotte Mew. I love the idea that the girl in the poem finds her own identity as she steps out of the shadows of trying to emulate and impress. There is a real beauty in being an individual and living your life in a way that is entirely true for you and you alone.
I so liked Spring last year
Because you were here;
The thrushes too
Because it was these you so liked to hear
I so liked you.
This year's a different thing,
I'll not think of you.
But I'll like Spring because it is simply Spring
As the thrushes do.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1072242 (benavery)
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