" I think the reward for conformity is everyone likes you but yourself." Rita Mae Brown
When I was 14 years old, all I wanted in the world was a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, with the famous pony logo clearly visible on my upper left chest. At the time, I was attending a Catholic high school that required we wear uniforms but every now and then, we had a "regular clothes day" and that's when the status symbols were pulled out. That's when I wore my Ralph Lauren pink polo shirt. Except I had a dilemma: I often felt chilly without a sweater, but wearing a sweater would hide the RL logo, and I simply couldn't have that, so I chose to be uncomfortably chilly to display my status symbol, an icon that bestowed inclusivity to an exclusive club; self-esteem to an insecure girl; acceptance from strangers.
Years later, I look back at that time and realize I never really stopped looking for validation outside myself by conforming to what I was told was trendy and acceptable. Maybe not until very recently. Now in my mid-forties, I'm finally beginning to question the social paradigms and mass marketing to which I've been told to conform. I've always had a rebellious streak, studying theatre and philosophy in university and seeking out whatever was counter-culture but a large part of me, whether I wanted to admit it or not, was still very much a conformist. I never truly touched upon my authenticity or if I did, it was fleeting. I was much more concerned with the perception of me through the eyes of others. I never really had the courage to be fully "me", not like some of the artists I admired: Björk, David Bowie, Prince.
To this day, everyone remembers Björk's swan Oscar dress. She wore it on March 25, 2001. I can't remember what anyone wore to last week's Golden Globes ceremony. She set the fashion world ablaze with both praise and criticism but no one could deny it was original. She dared to break the mold and wear something she was passionate about. Although, in her infinite wisdom, Björk has been quoted as saying: "It's just a dress". We're so quick to react to anything that doesn't fit into a tight little box that we can understand; when we can't nullify what is perceived as a threat to our version of reality, we lash out. Or maybe we're upset because deep down, we wish we had the courage to live life on our own terms.
I can only speak for myself, but caring less about what others think has only increased for me with age; the older I get, the less I care about other people's opinions. That's not to say I'm completely immune to what others think of me or how they perceive me but I'm just starting to touch on my "core" as an individual, and beginning to realize that what others think of me has no effect on my inner being; so someone's opinion of me, whether it be positive or negative, doesn't heighten or lessen my existence; it's just someone's opinion.
Of course, in the age of social media, the pendulum has certainly swung in one direction: you'd better care what others think of you, lest you be dubbed a "loser" with very few "friends" or "followers". This is quickly becoming a subject of many discussions about the effects of social media. Are we obsessed with being liked? I'm currently reading Brett Easton Ellis' book White, in which he discusses the cult of "likability" where we all present a highly curated version of ourselves online in order to be liked. This has also created a new kind of conformity: our opinions on matters such as climate change, the #metoo movement, racism, violence, discrimination, movies, tv, current events, art, gender politics, fashion, feminism, religion, etc... had better conform to the politically correct status quo or we will be virtually attacked, shamed for daring to ask questions or displaying independent thoughts that may offend.
Social media has not so much become the democratization vehicle it's been touted to be but more of a self-image prison and a pathway to a new kind of censorship of anything perceived as "offensive", even if it's simply asking a question about what has been collectively determined to be the "truth" by the politically correct gods. I'm not saying social media is completely evil and should be eradicated but we do need to remain vigilant about its effects on our behaviour and on free speech. Being able to express only what is not offensive, is not a free society; it's one bound by an overreaching political correctness that demonizes anyone who does not conform. How would Socrates, Galileo, Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand be perceived if they were on social media today? If the predominant belief were that the world is flat and someone posted on social media: "Are we sure about that? I suspect it might be round". They would be swiftly shamed, trolled, cyber-bullied and unfriended.
I'll always remember George Carlin in one of his stand-up routines, urging us to "question everything", even our most cherished beliefs. Here's a link to a YouTube clip if you're interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo-QIY7ys-k
I've done away with my Ralph Lauren polo shirt and do wear white after Labour Day, and I question everything because to not do so only contributes to the slow and steady erosion of true democracy and freedom.