Monday, February 8, 2010

Much ado over a red belt - when is it appropriate to stand out?

In the past few days, a few different scenarios have flitted across my radar that all present the same conflict: when is it more appropriate or advantageous to just be a part of a group or community, and when is it best to just be an individual?

It's tricky. Many, even most, socialized people do desire on some level to be a part of something greater than themselves, be it a group of friends, a neighborhood community, an activist group, a sports team or artists' collective. However, for the past several decades it's been seen as distinctly uncool to be one of the masses, to be a conformist, and to not assert yourself as an individual. So we operate within these groups, or within these understood rules and boundaries, but we try to stand out at the same time.

I was watching an episode of Bridezillas (don't judge me) where there was a battle going on between the Bridezilla and her sister, because her sister didn't want to take out her nose ring for the wedding photos. The bride-to-be was a loathsome human being, as evidenced by the rest of the episode, but the show was suggesting that she was being unreasonable over this particular point as well. I kind of wonder if she was. Not because I'm personally against nose rings (I'm not and wouldn't ban them from my wedding photos) but because I don't think it's out of line to ask that your wedding party look how you want them for your wedding photos. The sister was shooting back at her like "My nose ring is a part of ME, and MY individual expression, and you should understand because you have a tattoo for the same reason," etc. I get that it's tough to have to sacrifice your personal expression to conform, but I think the sister needed to understand that the bride is the one that's going to have the wedding album, to have her wedding pictures framed in her home, and who is going to generally be seeing a lot more of those photos than anyone else will. It wasn't like the bride was demanding that her sister permanently take out her nose ring; she just didn't want it in the photos. The sister eventually agreed to take out the ring, but then on the day of the wedding she interviewed to say that (I'm paraphrasing here) she was taking advantage of the fact that the Bridezilla was distracted by a bunch of other stuff and hopefully wouldn't notice if she left her nose ring in. As much as by that point I wanted to see the bride suffer (like I said, loathsome human being) I felt bad for her that her sister was basically playing her just so that she could make her small individual statement that would mean so little to her, but so much to the bride, in the long run when the pictures came out.

This me vs. group conflict was a constant one as part of being in a sorority. In my house, it was there on the individual level - "I'm in a sorority, but I'm not like other sorority girls. I'm different." Amusingly, it was on the level of the house too - "Our house isn't like those other houses. We're different." And after awhile I started to wonder to myself, "Does every sorority say that about their house?" Even the top houses - the "typical" blonde, bubbly, you name it houses - why wouldn't they say that about themselves? It might be that they say "We're not like those other houses because we strive to be the best" and we say "We're not like those other houses because we strive to be ourselves" (how alternative! how hip!), but we're still committing ourselves to a group. And that group comes with its inter/nationally-prescribed rules, expectations, and mentality that each chapter chooses either to accept or to work around (but never ignore - they're always there.)

As much as a sorority seems to people who never went Greek as one of the prototypical conformist organizations, catering to Stepford Barbies and no one really else, there were actually lots of opportunities where we were encouraged to be ourselves. Ironically, rush was actually one of those times. The more individually cool, different, and uniquely awesome each of us were, the more it reflected on the house as being collectively cool, different, and uniquely awesome. So even though rush was all about pushing the house as a name brand, we were required to stand out from the rest as individual people and give the girls going through rush a reason to remember us by.

But then there's the conflict. It seems many sororities seem to be having a personality crisis wherein the best thing to do to seem relevant in today's universities is to push individualism; however, they're deeply rooted in traditionalism and, indeed, rituals that separate the Greek system ideal from other clubs that group like-minded people on campuses. This last week, a picture went up that reminded my friends and I that during an event meant to honor one of our sisters, another girl in the house (perhaps unconsciously) tried to stand out, specifically, by not following the all-black dress code imposed on all girls in the house who were not the sister being honored. It may have been that she just thought the red belt would add a nice contrast and dimension to her personal outfit, and it probably would have if it weren't for the fact that everyone else was wearing black and not allowing themselves to "pop" for a reason.

Based on these two anecdotes, it would seem that a good rule of thumb is that it's almost always appropriate to be an individual, but when there is a day or event where specifically someone else is meant to have the spotlight, it's probably prudent to defer to them. That doesn't mean, in the case of the Bridezilla, giving them whatever they want without blinking, but it does mean allowing her to have a visual aesthetic where the eye goes to her. It's okay to sacrifice a few hours of your individualism to allow her wedding pictures to look the way she wants, or to let the honored sister's colorful dress be the standout in the room.

At the end of the day, you're still you.

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