The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
As a person who has completed 15 years of public schooling and 20 years of simply existing in America, I was taught to strive to be exceptional. While we typically use that word with positive connotations, the dictionary defines it as “unusual.” If someone called me unusual, I wouldn’t consider it a compliment. However, we idealize a specific type of unusual, considered above average in terms of skill or character. Another word that is often thrown around is unique, which tends to suggest the same above average quality as exceptional.
We are taught that it is good to be unlike others, as long as we are essentially leaning towards the “winning” side of unlikeness. This suggests that there is also a “losing” side as well as a broad, equally disappointing “average” category. I encourage those who have natural passions or talents that might automatically sort them into the “winning” category. However, I heavily discourage one of the biggest lessons we receive from our surroundings growing up in America; in order to succeed, one has to be fundamentally different from others, or special. We see this everywhere in media, from the competitive process of selecting the most exceptional individual to be crowned winner in various reality TV series, to the fictional stories told of a “chosen one,” as seen in Harry Potter. In advertisements for cosmetics, we are drawn to a particularly shiny highlighter because we are told that it will make us “pop,” or stand out.
I should probably address that there are certain words for the phenomenon I’ve been describing, and one of them is called individuality. I acknowledge the positive aspects of individuality; it can be interpreted to promote acceptance of born differences and quirks across people. This interpretation is comforting in that it combats excessive comparison through emphasizing the value in uniqueness. Ironically, this is often not how individuality is executed in social reality. Rather, it produces a ranking of winners and losers.
While I’ve been discussing micro-level qualities, such as personality or talent, stratification occurs especially in the context of race, gender, sexuality and class. Although, this is more related to the idea of individualism rather than individuality. Individualism encourages self-reliance and the importance of individual needs over society as a whole. It fails to address that marginalized social groups are pre-sorted into the “losing” side. In these cases, there isn’t even the option to strive to be what’s considered “better,” unlike how there could be for micro-level attributes such as skills, personality, etc.
A tragically common occurrence is heterosexual men fetishizing the concept of their respective romantic interest being “unlike other girls.” If I ever hear this personally, I’d choke on my own vomit before being able to scream the thought that constantly crosses my mind- Why is it so bad to be like other girls? This example demonstrates the intersection between individuality and sexism in the way that most women (quite literally all but one) are sorted into the “losing” side of unlikeness, or even worse, the horrifically “average” category. I believe all women are magic, and this magic is infinite when women support one another. Unfortunately, media fails to encourage a sense of unified womanhood; I read something the other day that reported a shockingly low statistic of not only female representation, but portrayal of female friendships or positive relationships in top Hollywood films.
I don’t want to be different from other girls, in the same way that I am sick of striving to be exceptional in every other part of life. I am privileged in the sense that I was pre-sorted into a few “winning” social groups. But, I feel that constantly seeking to “win” or be “the best” in categories in which I do have some mobility (such as appearance, abilities, fashion, character, etc) perpetuates the same dynamic that has already been harmful on a socio-political level to disadvantaged groups. That dynamic normalizes the existence of a select few “haves” and a vast sea of competing “have nots.” It is okay to be like other people. In fact, relating to one another is what holds communities together.
I want to reiterate that I am not discouraging the development of unique qualities or skills among people that may set them apart, simply that this is not a requirement for every aspect of one’s being in order to find success and happiness. It is unhealthy to constantly strive to be better than or different from everybody else. This world is too populated by people who offer a sense of connection over similarities to be stressed about forcing differences that may give you an advantage over them.
I know that what I’m preaching is not always possible when navigating a fundamentally capitalistic culture (be the best, make the most money), but the least we can do is change harmful messages about individuality or individualism on the levels that we can. One good start would be to teach young straight boys to not tell their love interests that they’re “not like other girls.” Because at this point in my life, I will proudly declare that I am indeed like other girls, and in the future, I will gladly teach my daughters or nieces that it’s a beautiful thing to be like other girls too.