|Putting on arias.|
It’s still a vivid memory. It was second grade and we were lined up outside the auditorium waiting to go inside for either the Christmas or Spring pageant. (I was always relegated to the chorus, not because I could in any way carry a tune but because I had an infallible memory for lyrics, and was often the only one still singing the by the 8th verse of “My Darling Clementine.”) We were nervous, giggling. I remember letting out a chortle which I unsuccessfully tried to stifle, and out of nowhere, from someone I regarded as one of my friends it came: “Susan W—–, [yes, she used my full name] who do you think you ARE?” The tone of derision felt like a punch to the gut. I couldn’t quite figure out what code of conduct I’d violated, in what way I’d stepped over a line of socially approved behavior.
Looking back, it’s obvious that my classmate’s remark was a total non-sequitur, and probably a result of her own stage jitters. But reinforced perhaps by my mother’s disdain for those who she perceived as “snobs” or who “put on airs” that who do you think you ARE? stuck with me and became a mental refrain that told me I didn’t deserve to stand out and should keep to my place. My family’s moral/social sartorial code also frowned on the bright, the tight, the loud and brash. Ladies were humble and modest and quiet and didn’t call attention to themselves. They didn’t let compliments go to their head lest they become full of themselves. Pride was something to be avoided rather than embraced.
Fitting In trumped Standing Out. (“The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down.”) But I did stand out in ways that often garnered criticism. I was a plump child in an era where that was unusual and where people felt free to remark upon it. My mother kept my sister’s and my hair cut in short boyish pixies while all of my female classmates had long hair. I pined to be thin and have long hair, which in my mind were the two things that meant fitting in. I was one of the first girls in my class to need to wear a bra and then was almost always been bustier than my peers, which brought on a kind of sexual attention that I hadn’t asked for and didn’t know how to handle.
And it wasn’t just about appearance; I was told in no uncertain terms to tone down my academic achievements lest I scare off the boys. I was taught don’t toot your own horn, (which was something I eventually had to unlearn to a certain degree in order to progress in my career). Displays of anger were unladylike. Be a good sport, meant going along with the group, not expressing a dissenting opinion or desire.
So for much of my life, it felt safer to hide. To hide my body, to hide the desire to be seen, noticed, acknowledged.
Yet my exuberant self would break out from time to time. I was always drawn to sequins, lamé and leopard print. I’d often be the first one at the party on the dance floor. During my Renaissance Faire days, I found the costume gave me carte blanche to ham it up on stage, sing bawdy songs (still off-key), flirt shamelessly. I loved the attention and lack of judgement. And sometimes my exuberant self still comes forward and begs for bright colors, a bit of sparkle, a redder shade of hair color, to turn up the volume belt out the lyrics to a favorite song.
It’s human nature to want to fit in to some degree. We are social animals, and our survival depended on being part of a group. This is hardwired in us, I believe. But so is the desire to be seen as a unique individual, and style is one of the ways we express that desire. We’ve talked a lot in the blogosphere about women of a certain age and how we become invisible; I think our own fears about standing out sometimes play into this. Many of us came of age in a culture that didn’t applaud standing out, as much as we may have wanted to do so, and that early conditioning can be a bitch to overcome. Granted, there’s an extreme level of attention seeking that smacks of desperation, but when we dress and act in a way that’s a true expression of our most vital selves we gain confidence and power.
We all have our own equilibrium between Fitting In and Standing Out, and it can shift from day to day. I’m working to get to a point where fear of judgement has little to do with my style choices, and the only lines I worry about stepping over are my own. I’m not totally there yet. But I’m turning my friend’s question around and on its head, and asking myself without judgement and with an open heart and mind, “Who Do You Think You Are?” in order to get closer to that goal.
“Know who you are and dress accordingly.” –Tim Gunn
Do you still struggle with Fitting In vs. Standing Out? I’d love to hear about some of the positive ways in which you proudly stand out.
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