On Being an Individual (Just Like Everyone Else)

Back in the late 90s, my then-boyfriend had a copy of The Official Slacker's Handbook. I'm not sure how seriously the book was supposed to be taken and I'm not sure how seriously he - who already had long hair and a goatee and a copy of Clerks - took it either. I always read it through eyerolls, with a studied look of, "Chuh! What sort of slacker needs this explained to them?" tiedyed onto my face. But I read it multiple times and, really, honestly, truly, I will admit that I saw it as a validation of a lot of my choices. Secondhand XXXL men's T-shirts? Pierced nose? Job in a video store? Check, check, check! I was getting this slacker thing right!

I've written before about the benefits of a subculture identity for those of us who don't feel that we fit in, but for anyone who hasn't memorised my every archived blog post, here's the gist:

Subculture identities allow those of who feel different from the crowd to identify a crowd (albeit sometimes a small one) of our own. We slackers may have called ourselves "individual" but what we really meant was "not following the conventional life path". There was never anything individual about my shaved head, Doc Martins or my love of Faith No More, but they were the easily recognisable markers of an indie-grunge-slacker-kid. They helped people with similar outlooks identify me and those people's dress sense helped me identify them. There was a point when I could go into one of two slacker dive bars on any given night of the week and be sure to find a gaggle of slackers just like me.

Except that we were never really just like each other. We were only ever amplifying the similarities because they helped us to feel connected.

I read and loved Jeff Noon and Douglas Coupland and Peter Bagge, just like everybody else [said they] did, but I kept quiet about quite enjoying my flatmate's stash of chick lit and hating American Psycho. I played up the parts of myself which made me part of the group and kept some other parts of myself hidden away from view.

I don't suppose that's entirely healthy but I would bet that, for many young and insecure "outsiders", it's perfectly normal.

Sometimes I notice the same sort of subculture homogeneity on lifestyle blogs. Bloggers emphasise their peach and aqua dress collection, kitten-faced porcelain and nostalgic gadgets but a solitary few ever write about how their favourite film is Crank and cupcakes make their teeth feel funny.

Perhaps this is all genuine. Perhaps I'm putting my own youthful neuroses onto newbie bloggers but I tend to think this is an attempt for shy young things to feel like they fit in on the internet.

But don't we eventually all have to grow up into ourselves? Or shouldn't we, at least?

One of the things which most appealed to me about Steve - and which I still admire in him - was his quiet certainty in his own tastes. He has shades of games geek, with his IT job and his weekends shooting CGI skeletons, and he has shades of metalhead, with his love of roary music and his scary T-shirts, but he never tries to change his look or fake enthusiasms just to fit in with the scene; he has never apologised for his more obscure hobbies just to make the cool kids like him; no amount of pressure from me will ever make him wear a checked shirt or like The Moldy Peaches. He's just Steve.

Being an individual is something that I had to learn to do. I always thought I was doing my own thing. I was proud to like L7 instead of Take That. I was proud to wear Cons instead of Nikes. I was proud to pierce my nose before my ears. But, within my group, I was always a lot more open about the differences we shared than the ones we didn't.

Somewhere along the way, I've got past a lot of that. I'm not going to claim to be immune to pop culture because that's nonsense - I still find myself looking at Pinterest suggestions and thinking, "But... didn't I come up with that first?"; I am obviously, absolutely influenced by the things which I see around me (and a lot of those things are blogs) - but these days I'm a lot more open about which bits of it work for me and which bits don't.

Copper pipes and marquee letters and macarons? All good. Dip-dyed clothes and brussels sprouts and intricate nail art? Not for me. I don't fancy Ryan Gosling and I don't like sushi and I think sometimes you can have too many items with kawaii faces on them.

But what I realised most, when I sat down to write this, was that I'm not even sure what my subculture is any more. I've long since left the "slacker" path behind me; I'm not a "geek" although several of my friends would describe themselves that way; I don't feel like a "hipster" even if I do write a blog; I don't consider myself "mainstream" despite the career and the mortgage.

On the other hand, I'm a little bit of all of the above.

So what does that make me? An individual? Or adaptable? Or desperate to please?

You know what? I don't think it matters any more. I feel utterly secure in saying that I'm "me".


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot lately! (Seriously, it sometimes seems like you're writing the thoughts I'm having, expressing them more eloquently than I ever could.)

    I was a bit of a goth kid in high school, and even then I was noticing how all the goth kids looked alike, under the guise of "being different", of course. I'm turning 30 this summer, and the one thing I've been focusing on more and more is learning to enjoy the things I like, and in some cases, remember what those things even are. Somewhere along the way I've abandoned certain hobbies, styles of dress, etc., that I still really enjoy. I feel like after so many years of trying to fit in with this or that crowd, I really just want to go back to being myself. (Big caveat: I never felt that I conformed entirely with the people around me, but I can see how they shaped me. This used to happen frequently with people I dated, without a conscious effort on my part. While I think it's normal, I'm glad I'm becoming comfortable enough to be myself again.)

  2. I love this:

    "Except that we were never really just like each other. We were only ever amplifying the similarities because they helped us to feel connected."

    Rob is a lot like Steve - never had to learn how to be an individual, it's just always come naturally to him. It took me a long time to figure out who I was and that it was okay to like or not like things on my own rather than as a reflection of what someone else did or didn't like...if that makes sense. Anyway thanks for the thought-provoking post this Sunday :)

  3. I remember feeling so offended when one of the boys at school accused me of being a fashion victim. I WAS AN INDIVIDUAL.

    Changing when you date someone is a whole other story. I don't think I ever made big changes for a relationship, but there were probably some small ones - it feels a lot healthier being a relationship where neither of us is changing/trying to get the other to change so that we make a good match (spoiler: that doesn't work).

  4. I flipping love this! It's sort of what I had in mind when I started off writing my post, but it all went off on a tangent (as per usual).

  5. Agreed. I never changed in a big way to suit the person I dated, but I remember, especially as a teenager, trying to make this or that boyfriend's interests my interests too. While there's nothing wrong with expanding your horizons, it's also possible to be changing for the wrong reasons.

  6. This veered off from the post I intended to write!

  7. So true. I do think that being an individual is something that most people need to 'learn' to do, girls in particular. I'm never too sure about subcultures - like you, I can fit parts of myself into many of them. I guess that makes us individuals in that we're not pigeonholing ourselves into one place or changing ourselves in order to fit into a certain group. We just are who we are, and I guess that's a postmodern subculture in itself.

  8. Ha! I guess so! But doesn't a subculture need a cool name? Something do with Gloria Gaynor, maybe...? *sings* "I am what I am..."

  9. i'm the same way; i don't know what my label would be anymore. WHAT AM I?

  10. I love this post a lot. I have too many thoughts to put them in some kind of coherent order though. I am often called a hipster but I'm not really, I just like certain things that are hipster (big glasses, records and my bike? Are those things actually hipster anyway?) but whatever. I used to be called a goth when I wasn't and a "topshop indie" kind then they realised I actually liked the music and all sorts. Often loner as I really did not fit in or did and didn't all at once? People are just people right?

  11. Well, I hope so! Though I suppose I'm guilty of lumping all the "mainstream" people together into one big indistinguishable blob and assuming they ALL love the same music and TV shows and so on...


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