by Molly Alessandra Cooper
It was never cool to be different at school. Going unnoticed was much easier, unless you liked being the centre of attention in the popular-kid kind of way. There was no self-reflection or attempt to analyse what kind of person we were growing to be: fitting in came first. To be unique was ‘weird’, to have some kind of quirky interest was to be regarded as a ‘freak’. No one was trying to form a one-of-a-kind personality; school was a judgmental environment, it would have been risky to ask us not to care what others thought at such a paramount time in our social development. We had to go through this stage of conformity so that we could know who we didn’t want to be.
Everyone tried something different every now and then, but often fashion choices or hobbies would just be phases, following a disapproving opinion of another. I spent a few days wearing pink-and-green fluorescent eyeshadow (one colour per eye, of course), until someone ‘anonymously’ commented on its hideousness over Bebo one night. After that, I realised that actually, I didn’t want to stand out yet. I felt like I needed to justify anything individual about myself, and wasn’t quite sure how the eyeshadow reflected whoever I was, so held off on anything too mad for a few years.
During GCSE years, my friends and I wanted to go against the grain, and spent a few years struggling to identify as a trio of ‘emos’, which did not fail to draw unkind attention. By sixth form we’d relaxed a little. That we didn’t have to wear school uniform gave us a chance to express who we wanted to be – wearing band T-shirts as a point of discussion, or sitting comfortably in Abercrombie hoodies as we grew more interested in “and respected each other in new ways. Suddenly, having the same trainers as everyone else was the last thing we wanted to do. We experimented with hair dye and vintage clothes, wanting to be a little different. We’d got through secondary school, survived hiding our quirks, and now it was time to start creating our personalities. I hope it was our maturity and intelligence that caused this change, not the fact that all the bullies had dropped out by then.
“We’d got through secondary school, survived hiding our quirks, and now it was time to start creating our personalities”
‘Cool’ used to describe popularity – a specifically defined group of people. Now that we’re more tolerant, it describes someone who’s admirably different to us. ‘Cool’ is the once ‘geek’ who excelled at school and is now successful in a niche and fascinating field; ‘cool’ is the girl who was the timid ‘loser’ in Year 9 when she didn’t conform to the fashion of skinny black school trousers, but is now an articulate and popular blogger, speaking up about things important to her. ‘Cool’ is someone who understands that they’re not supposed to be identical to their friends.
Due to the pressure from the vast range of opportunities open to us which we are expected to fulfil, my generation has an identity anxiety. Talking about ourselves and reflection is encouraged, not shameful. There’s a lot of us. We’re competing with a lot of friends, not the mean girl gang. We’re not there to fight or to push others under; we have to figure out what it is that makes us different to the next person: what is it that we can contribute to so many different conversations? What is it that we do which is intoxicatingly alienating to the older generations? What keeps us from answering something better than ‘not much’ to a question about plans for the weekend/year/decade /life?
To be ‘normal’ is boring – we figured that out a while ago, when we found out the cool kids at prom actually might have been a little one-dimensional. We’re a generation with side-hustles and many groups of friends, and we’re hard to impress. We’re observant, using every resource we can grasp hold of to delve deeper into what we’re interested in, we travel and explore. We enjoy getting lost with the intention to expand our potential. We want to stand out, not to be the centre of attention, but so we can be described as ‘You know her . . . the one who makes pottery? Really into 90s hip hop? Cool fluorescent eyeshadow?’ Rather than, ‘You know, the brown-haired girl? Sort of tall?’
We want to have passions, to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of (at least) one. We’re not embarrassed to have a unique quality, something to be recognised by. We announce our individuality with a sense of pride.