Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Defense of UnCool Self-Expression

A bit of a rant, which you may agree or disagree with at your pleasure -

One of the neatest things about being in school - whether undergraduate or graduate - is the vast variety of people you come into contact with. My perception, although it may be skewed, is that once you get into the working world your pool of friends becomes much harder to expand. If you spend all day at work, with the same set of people, you have to go outside work to find new friends. Sometimes you can do it with hobbies, but you only have so many hours left outside work. You can also find people in church or religious activities, or maybe your neighbors.

But nothing compares to the format of school - every semester you are thrown into four or five new classes with a new set of people to get to know. People move in and out of the dorms, putting you in contact with people not in your major. And you have endless choices of extracurricular activities - student clubs, athletics, service organizations, and whatever else you can imagine, each an additional opportunity to find people to meet and mingle with. For at least four years - maybe eight or ten if you go to grad school - you are practically a people-meeting MACHINE. Even in engineering. I can only imagine the effect is magnified in areas dependent on networking - business kids, anyone? I sometimes think that's the ONLY reason they go to school. :)

Suffice it to say I have been honored over the years to meet unique people of all personalities and persuasions. I have been stretched and challenged in my moral beliefs, my political beliefs, and in my technical and business acumen. I have made friends that I cherish that I never would have met otherwise.

I say all that to preface this story: Last week I found myself in the company of a new set of people. A friend invited me along to hang out one evening, and I met all of his friends. I was enjoying myself, trying to be sociable. It's a stretch, but I can manage it once in a while.... :)

And then the conversation turned to self-expression.

Ah, what an excellent topic!

The conversation began when one girl proudly showed off her new tattoo, and we began talking about the design of tattoos and how they can be used as self-expression. I was skeptical, because the tattoo was a tribal rose above her butt-crack, and I'm not sure how original that is or what exactly she was trying to express. But hey, I'll go along with it. I've seen some gorgeous tattoos, and they can have a lot of meaning for people.

And then we moved on to piercings. Let me mention that most of the people in this group had piercings, tattoos, colored hair. Enthusiastically, they all jumped in - "Yeah, it's so weird how piercings are still not socially acceptable." "People are, like, totally intolerant." "I'm just modifying my own body, what's the big deal?" And, from the guy with a ring through his nose, "So hard to be taken seriously."

Again, I have no problem with people with piercings. My problem was that I never heard any one of them say something like, "I got my piercing because I really like the way it looks." Or, "My hair is pink because pink makes me happy." Or, "I got my tattoo in honor of my battle with cancer." None of them were making their "self-expression" choices because of some part of THEMSELVES that they were trying to EXPRESS, but because of the acceptance of their friends, or the perceived fit in the culture they identified with. They were making their choices simply to be anti-normal. And if all you are is anti-everybody-else, perhaps that's not particularly unique either...

And sadly, what could have been a really interesting discussion quickly took an odd turn. This group continued on to begin bashing particular kinds of people - Christians, white-collar business people, conservative people - for not being self-expressive enough. Wait, what? Is it really that they aren't self-expressive, or that you don't like what they are expressing?

And I realized suddenly that what these people thought was that anyone who didn't look like THEM - the classic "alternative" look, which I'll cynically call "Hot Topic chic" - was suppressing their self-expression. That if you didn't look like them, you must not be celebrating your individual self, and you had succumbed to popular mainstream culture.

And thus, the hypocrisy of tolerance. Only tolerant of people like yourself. Only unique if you look like the other unique people look.

I was sitting there, not sure I had anything much to add to the conversation, and I contemplated what I looked like to these people. I have no tattoos, and a very safe two piercings in my ears. Brown hair, shoulder length, ponytail, glasses, no makeup. A Hanes T-shirt, denim skirt, orange tights, and sneakers. I am absolutely not bucking The Man. I do not support any causes on Facebook, I do not sneer righteously at political topics I disagree with.

You know who really doesn't care about "mainstream" culture? The Asian girl on my floor who just won an award for pistol shooting. The kid in my class who has a needle and thread carefully stashed in his baseball cap, because it may be useful to him. The kid who wears a cape, because HE thinks it's cool. The girl who wears a tophat and sleeps whenever she feels like it. They know who they are, and what's important to them, and they are each truly unique.

You know how I express myself?

By how I carry myself. By my speech. By my actions. By my treatment of my friends and colleagues. By the care and pride I take in my home and my work. I express myself every stinkin' day through who I am.

I have no need to make myself "alternative." I don't feel the need to be meta and ironically support counterculture. I ride a bike because it is convenient, not because it's the eco-conscious image I want to portray.

I am a female mechanical engineer, raised by homeschooling instead of public school, five years younger than everyone else, who can drive a backhoe, loves both cooking and construction, and chooses to live with undergrads so she can help mentor them. Don't you dare tell me that you are alternative and I am not. Just because I don't express myself the way you do, don't wear spikes or J.Crew or identify with any specific culture group, does not negate my own uniqueness or that fact that I AM indeed self-expressive. In fact, don't you think that precisely NOT having a group to identify with means that you are unique? Even, dare say, a true outlier?

The reason you don't see my self-expression is because I don't whack you on the head with it. I don't need to spend my day crafting the image I portray to the world at large. I don't need to modify my body through tattoos or piercings or hooks in my nose, because I'm not here to prove myself to anyone. I have no need to SHOCK people to get them to notice me, or to ensure that I'm "thinking outside the box" or "swimming against the stream" or whatever other cliche you care to insert. I just figure out what it is that I like - ME, not what culture dictates, or what counter-culture dictates - and what I WANT, then I DO it.

And I am willing to pound my stake in the sand and say that being comfortable with who I am, being proud of my accomplishments because I earned them, being secure in my personal self-worth without worrying about the image I portray, and following my dreams because they are MY dreams - THAT, my friends, is alternative. THAT is self-expression.

And my orange tights may be self-expression too. I do take a lot of flak from my girls about those orange tights not being cool. :)


  1. IF they're bashing other groups of people like that, is it because they are insecure about their identities?

    I meet some once in a while and despite trying to let these comment roll off like water on a duck (i.e. working on my self-confidence), it still can be a drag.


  2. Or this group could be in a growing up phase or assholes in general.

    I got my first tattoo at 16 and my huge back tattoo at 18. During UG, I had a blue mohawk and up to 9 piercings at one time. I was also TA'ing for two different classes and was effectively teaching one of them. I also worked at the mall nearly full time and weighted tables on the side.

    I don't know what I was trying to express then but I think it was something like "different for the sake of being different".

    You can look like that and be a normal student in engineering and still function in society. I think you just met a group of dumb people who haven't matured yet.

    FYI, the tattoo above the ass crack is affectionately referred to as the "tramp stamp".

  3. Very interesting post especially for the fact that I am a PhD graduate student in a Biophysics/Biochemistry program and have piercings and tattoos. As a matter of fact I have 10 piercings in each ear. When I started graduated school I actually had hair long enough to cover most of my ears so no one could see my piercings as I did not want that to influence their impression of me scientifically and I was nervous and awkward. I remember when I finally cut my hair shorter after 6-8 months and everyone said "Wow, when did you acquire all those piercings?". It is really interesting though because none of my friends have piercings to this extent and none of the faculty treat me differently(in fact they seem to have a lot of respect for me, i.e. inviting me over for drinks and such, stopping by to talk science often). I would like to think that I am judged by my work, intelligence and science and not by the way I look and I think this is for the most part true. I think this is one of the few times when how I dress or look truly becomes self-expression because I have no significant outside forces trying to influence me to dress or look a certain way.

    I don't generally think that tattoos and piercings are ever looked down upon, it is the actions and attitudes of some of the people who have them that is looked down upon. But by saying people have a "tramp stamp" is just as prejudice as people with tattoos and piercings knocking a "conservative look". Difference is good, why can't people just be who they are whether it is for the correct or incorrect reason? Anyways, all just my opinion.

  4. Awesome post! I used to fear that I had no sense of self-expression whatsoever. I was the workaholic nerd that ranted on a little bit too much about some pop-sci book I just read. Then I realised that my nerdiness is my self-expression, and I stopped giving myself a hard time trying to manufacture a (rather, my perceived) socially-acceptable form of expression.

    I think you land into trouble when you try to emulate a group's behaviour and deny who you are. People notice when you're being genuine and I'm pleased that I don't need to pretend with my group of friends.

    I'm done with trying to manufacture. I only thought about a piercing for a week, then I bought more books instead.

  5. Great to hear all the comments, that people are expressing themselves in all manner of ways!

    @Gears, I can't imagine handling all of that at the same time - that's amazing.

    @JayZ, it's encouraging to hear that how you looked didn't have a bearing on the science. You are correct - I need to make sure I don't look down on "tramp stamps," just as I don't want other people to look down on plain conservative me.

    @MuKa, I agree - never ends well to deny who you are. Good for you deciding to be genuinely yourself!

  6. Most people wear uniforms of one sort or another, regardless of what they think.