The urge to conform & the instinct that whispers its not right

There have been a couple of exceedingly thoughtful articles/opinion pieces lately that while different, are both about the pressure to conform, especially for girls. First was Amy Taylor’s brilliant piece in response to the Abercrombie & Fitch “Why we hate fat people” brouhaha, An Open Letter from a ‘Fat Chick’ to Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, and then today, I read Rachel Simmons’ The Damaging Message of Proms.

Both pieces are aimed a girls and young women and both spoke to me both as the young girl I once was and as the parent I am now.

Fair warning, I kind of suck at editorial/opinion pieces—there’s a reason I’m a novelist and not a journalist—my type of rambliness lends itself so much more effectively to fictional narrative than fact-based or opinion pieces, so if you continue reading, my apologies.

As an preteen/adolescent, I desperately wanted to conform… I thought. I blame ABC’s Afterschool Specials and McDonald’s commercials. While the Afterschool specials themselves were a little too preachy/Very Special Message for me, the McDonald’s commercials were like crack. They portrayed these groups of carefree, homogeneous kids (the 70s equivalent of the Abercrombie & Fitch “ideal”) cavorting along safe, autumn-leaf-strewn streets in some ubiquitous New England or Midwest Small Town on their way to share a bag of fries while sipping creamy shakes.

I grew up in Miami. Palm fronds, not autumn leaves were my norm. I was the only Cuban girl in my (then) white, middle-class neighborhood. My education, while typically public school for the 70s/80s, was differentiated by the fact that I was designated “gifted” and singled out to attend special classes twice a week. I was painfully shy and bookish and didn’t make friends easily.

But I had a McDonald’s.

So I’d hie myself off to Mickey D’s a couple times a week and pretend I was with a group of carefree friends with whom I could share my fries and cavort down autumn-leaf strewn streets. (First sign, maybe, that I was maybe destined to become a writer, but of course I didn’t recognize it back then.) I so desperately wanted to conform and be like everyone else— in a way, it was an expectation desired of me by my parents as well. After all, they were both immigrants and wanted the American Dream for their kids—one reason we lived in a white middle-class neighborhood in North Dade, rather than in the Cuban enclaves of Hialeah or South Miami which would have demanded a different sort of conformity.

At the same time, however, my mother, in particular, always made a point of stressing how different I was. How special. How I shouldn’t want to be like anyone else. Mixed messages, much? (Especially since “different” for her came with rules. It had to be “different” the way she wanted, not necessarily the way I actually was.) Ultimately, though, she wasn’t wrong. I really wasn’t like others and even as a kid, as much as I thought I wanted to conform, as much effort as I made at times, there was still an insidious voice within me whispering how it wasn’t me. Factors I had no control over, such as my ethnicity, my physical build, my intellect, coupled with my own personal interests and the pursuits I chose for myself (drum corps, classically trained pianist , figure skating) conspired to keep me just outside the norm. All through high school and even into college, I was at war with myself—fighting to be like everyone else while my natural inclinations led me down wildly divergent paths.

It resulted in a deeply unhappy and wildly insecure adolescence and young adulthood. I couldn’t help but make the choices I made yet found myself incredibly defensive and embarrassed about having to defend them.

I’m 45 now. I’ve lived in the Midwest and experienced those small towns with their autumn leaf strewn streets. I’ve done conventional in that I got the sort of college degree I thought I should. I realized, after a lot of trial and error how very not conventional and ordinary I am. I have reached a somewhat uneasy peace with my intellect. I have come to far more comfortable terms with my rebellious nature. I’m angry about all the time wasted as an adolescent and young adult; time spent chasing a concept fed to me as an ideal that took me a long time to realize wasn’t my ideal.

I wonder what I could have been, had I been more confident and less susceptible to all those images flashed before me during all those Afterschool Specials and McDonald’s commercials. Had I not had Brooke Shields and her slim-hipped 5’11” body telling us there was nothing between her and her Calvins.

On the other hand, having had the experiences I had—even the educational background I have—did give me the confidence to make choices for my own kids I might not have been capable of making otherwise. I was able to recognize their differences very early on and rather than simply declare “Oh, you’re different, revel in it,” and expect that to be enough, I went out of my way to give them the tools to cope with their unique gifts. (Yes, all kids are unique & wonderful & mine aren’t necessarily Special Snowflakes, but they’re my Special Snowflakes, dammit.)

Because I saw in them shades of how I was as a student and because of my background in education, I was able to recognize that a standardized public school education wasn’t going to cut it for either of them. While it was important for them to grow up around family during formative years, we knew staying in Florida for the long haul wouldn’t be healthy for them, so we moved to Seattle where they would have greater freedom to explore who they are and who they want to be and where we’d have better educational opportunities for them.

The only conformity I wanted for them was to who they are.

I look at them now, at 16 and 15 and see the people they’re growing up into and while I still feel vestiges of anger for all the time I wasted trying to be someone I wasn’t—someone the ads and popular culture and even my teachers tried to tell me I should be—at the same time if it’s allowed me the perspective by which I can give my kids greater confidence and freedom to discover who they are, well then, I guess I’d attempt to conform all over again.

Because in the end, the rebel in me always wins.


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