Struggle against conformity is tough

From my disc jockey booth at the front of the room, it was easy to watch the interactions between the young girls dancing in front of me at the party before their beauty pageant.
While most of the girls were friendly to each other, some of them had expressions resembling less a smile and more the wide grin of panic seen in terrified chimpanzees. At an event like this, with its emphasis on beauty, some obviously felt they didn’t add up.
Given all the information about the dangers of focusing on body image, I can’t imagine encouraging a young girl to participate in a pageant, unless it was some new-age variety that was primarily focused on talent.
The girls seemed to respond in one of three ways. There were those who fit in from the start, not just because of their appearance, but because of their attitude and comfort level. These girls seemed to feel good about themselves and make friends easily.
Others followed these girls, still easily interacting with the others in the small groups that were formed. But a third portion seemed out of place, uncomfortable and nervous.
This third group stayed quiet throughout the night, even as the others were making friends and feeling more confident over time. This cycle could be called a negative-feedback loop, in that it keeps getting worse over time.
In a sense, this night was a condensed version of what happens to children over a period of time, say, a school year. When a person has fit in from the beginning, not only do they make friends based on that, but they learn better interpersonal skills.
At the same time, those who are criticized or teased from the beginning can suffer long after the criticism ends. By having mostly negative interactions, they can retreat into themselves and become painfully introverted.
The violent school shootings show what can happen when people feel so alienated. So far, boys have been doing most of the violent acts. But for each of those people whose frustration and pain explode, there are millions who are quietly unhappy and becoming worse by the day.
Although emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills play a large part in how a person is treated, the importance put on physical beauty, clothes, hair and makeup can be a big factor in alienating kids from each other.
The urge to conform in schools is very strong. Middle school years can be some of the toughest times. A child is thrown into a much larger school with many strangers, classes with different teachers and perhaps a few of the friends made during grade school.
Given this, the effects of teasing or alienation can be magnified as there may be few positive experiences to counter them.
Some schools have recognized the pressure to conform and tried to limit them by requiring uniforms or prohibiting makeup. Some would say that shielding children child from expectations that will be around throughout their lives might be called foolish because they need to learn how to fit in with others.
But many students of smaller private schools and home schooling who have not been exposed to the conformist dogma of large middle schools and high schools seem to be better at recognizing true worth in people and not being swept along with the crowd.
Is there nothing that can be done to minimize the amazing pressure on children to conform? It seems like such a waste to have all these kids trying to be the same, wasting their individualism, or at least delaying it for years.
As I meet people from my childhood after a number of years, we reminisce about our middle and high school years with fondness. I consider myself lucky to have gone to a private school for the middle school years.
But for many students, heading into a large public middle school each day can feel like entering a war zone. Add to that some problems at home and pubescent growing pains, and it is amazing that kids make it through school without breaking down.
Perhaps these trials make most people stronger. Rather than hide in a shell of fear, some stick it out, retain some individuality, and flourish once in the real world, where people are less critical and there is more room for different viewpoints.
I remember a poignant scene in which an individualistic classmate fled in tears, tired of feeling alienated because she dressed and looked different. When she came back the next day, she had cut her formerly long and disheveled hair, and was wearing makeup.
Whether this should be taken as a lesson in socialization or as a sell-out to the prevailing fashion is questionable. But, it did lead to happier days once people realized she was trying to fit in and they cut her some slack.
The residue of middle and high school criticisms remains as students head to college. It makes students look over their shoulders, wondering if anyone is criticizing them. It pushes for conformity among the crowd of party-goers wearing baseball caps and identical clothing.
Thankfully, most of us can learn to ignore people who are shallow and critical. We can try every day to recognize the person in everyone, and see the beauty in people not traditionally portrayed as such. And we can try to mold ourselves into our own ideal, and be less susceptible to the messages of others, whether they are advertisers or peers.
But I envision my fears coming back when I pick up my child from school and she is crying because someone teased her about her hair or clothes. And despite all that I have learned, I won’t be able to do much about it — except to find her a smaller school with happier, less judgmental children.
Brian Close’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]