By Molly Jordan
Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
Middle school was a jungle. The safest way to navigate its dangerous halls was to make like a chameleon and blend in. In retrospect, the Abercrombie mini-skirt and Ugg combination was a serious fashion don’t, but at the time it was exactly what I wanted to be wearing. I never thought those marshmallow boots flattered my gawky legs, and they certainly weren’t practical. But I wanted—no, needed—Uggs, because everyone else had the exact same pair. Brands like Uggs and Abercrombie, expensive in their own right, were also a form of social capital. They bought the kind of acceptance that only conformity can guarantee.
It is easy to joke about middle school, but when it comes to clothing, my friends at Amherst aren’t much more enlightened than a pack of preteens. There is a uniform. I spend my days dressed indistinguishably from my roommates, in some combination of Lululemon leggings, Bean Boots, and Patagonias. Just like the anxious sixth-grader who went home after her first day of school and insisted on a trip to Abercrombie, I returned home for October break of freshman year in hot pursuit of the perfect Patagonia. We must have had the same Christmas lists that year, as we all returned to school in January that much more adapted, that much more homogenous.
In the spirit of intellectual integrity, I took an informal survey regarding clothing. I wanted to know if anyone had genuinely considered the merits of different fleeces before settling on a Patagonia, or if anyone had compared different yoga pants before deciding Lululemon was the superior brand. The answer, at least among the twenty or so people who responded to my texts, was overwhelmingly no. Most respondents shamelessly added, as if to imply the stupidity of my questions, that they obviously wore those items because everyone else did. Being the astute Amherst students that they are, no one was blind to the societal forces acting upon them. They have learned the language in class and could write eloquently on how the value ascribed to Bean Boots is a social construction, possibly bordering on commodity fetishism. Nonetheless, they have all made the conformity calculation and realized that blending in has its perks.
Dressing like my friends makes life a lot easier. It makes buying clothes and getting dressed a thoughtless task. Therein lies the beauty of conformity. With minimal amounts of effort, I can guarantee myself a basic level of social acceptance. My peers are sure to approve of my outfit because they are wearing the exact same thing. A funky new jacket may earn you some judgmental glances, but a Patagonia Better Sweater in light gray will move you through life seamlessly. You might even make a new friend when someone mistakes you in Val for one of the thirty other kids wearing the same exact zip-up. Conformity is thus a low-risk, high-yield operation. Middle school may be the first time in our lives when we so deeply value the approval of others, but it is certainly not the last. It always feels good to fit in.
My friends’ uniform certainly makes for great Snapchat fodder. “Betches in Barbours” is a timeless caption. But our material conformity has deeper implications. The homogeneity of our clothing choices parallels the human inclination towards conformity in all aspects of life. Desire for approval, and the ease with which conformity allows people to achieve it, plays out in many more important decisions and preferences.
Economics is the most popular major at Amherst, and I don’t think it’s because 70 students in the class of 2013 are passionate about the subject. In fact, Economics has one of the lowest participation rates in the thesis program of any department. There’s no way for me to verify this, but it’s likely, given the sheer number of people who major in Economics, that we are losing writers, artists, etc. to that department. Choosing to be an Economics major is an easy decision. It is a conventional track, one that leads to equally conventional, well-paying jobs.
Conformity allows people to be thoughtless. Thus, conformity, despite all its social benefits, can erode our capability to think critically about the world and about ourselves. When people conform, they may fail to consider the morality of their actions and even disregard what would make them happiest. If people independently evaluated the moral implications of their future careers, my guess is that far fewer graduates would head to Wall Street. If many of Amherst’s Economics majors took a chance, they might find themselves enthralled by other departments and discover real passions in the process.
Even if you’re not on the Patagonia bandwagon, you probably excel at conforming. The college admissions process selects for students who begin pursuing and achieving socially recognized forms of success at a young age. Amherst does not admit iconoclasts and rebels. Amherst admits teenagers who monitor their GPAs, show up to practice and rehearsal, and register with the College Board. Amherst admits students who are able to morph themselves into the ideal Amherst candidate. By attending this school, we all have bought into the conventional form of success that is an elite college (for the newly-upped price of $60,400). We conformed to certain expectations in order to be accepted to this school and further conform in order to succeed, socially and otherwise, within its institutional framework.
Now is probably a good time for the disclaimer. As I write this, I am wearing a Patagonia vest and drinking my third Starbucks of the day, happily an Econ major and excited about a finance internship this summer. I am not one to condemn conformity because I appreciate its power. Amherst students are in the unique posi- tion of being able to use the conformity that they have accumulated thus far in life as a safety net. Knowing we are backed by great friends and a great school should give us the courage to take risks, re-engage our own critical thinking, and just generally do cool stuff. Our friends will not disown us if we show up to Val in a new outfit or try writing for The Indicator. We will still be successful adults, even if we try out an art class or take a year off to travel.
Conformists are not all mindless drones. Deliberate conformity is a conscious decision. Choosing to conform because of perceived advantages is simply a method of attack. But this reasoning has its limits. At a certain point, conformity just for the sake of conformity becomes mindlessness.