Life + Health

Non-conformist.

This photo and its caption should come as a surprise to exactly no one. That’s me in the fall of 1992 with my pal Geoff*, accepting our honors after having been voted “Class Non-Conformists” by our peers. The shot appeared in the Rhinebeck High School yearbook the following spring, and to this day I consider my elected status one of my crowning achievements in life.

(Hmmm. Maybe we should’ve done like the Sex Pistols when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and not shown up for our photo. Rats. Opportunity to not conform missed!)

I suppose it’s more common to want to be elected to another Senior Superlative position—Most Likely to Succeed, Most Athletic, Best-Dressed, or even Class Clown—but Non-Conformist was the only spot I ever cared about claiming. The rest seemed to me to be popularity contests, but this? This was an unpopularity contest. Sign me up!

Of course, it’s easy to say that with my supposed non-conformity I was, at least outwardly, conforming quite a bit with what was at that time the exact aesthetic of the teenage “non-conformist”. But no matter. I’ve been a non-conformist since the day I was born. I blame Youngest Child Syndrome (in a family of non-conformists, no less) for my need to be “different” in order to be recognized, and that attitude has served me well over the years. There was a patch of time in Junior High (surprise, surprise) when I was determined to conform to a more mainstream ideal, but I quickly figured out that it wasn’t going to work. By the time I was 13 years old, I had begun to alter my outsides to reflect the fact that inside, I wasn’t one of them.

I know, I know—it’s all so transparent and expected and predictable (though I will offer up the excuse that small-town America in the early-’90s was decidedly less “worldly” than it is today, and I thought I was pretty darned radical with my dyed hair and my at-home ear-piercings), but looking outwardly unlike the rest of the crowd has always given me great comfort and confidence. After all, if I’m doing my own thing, I’m not failing at doing what everyone else is. Right?

In my mid-30s, I struggle with how to visually express my non-conformity in a way that is fashionable, “adult”, and forward-thinking. I worry sometimes that I look like the rest of the masses, and it’s especially tricky (if not impossible) in New York City to look like an outsider or a free-thinker. I’ve got the insides taken care of, but the outsides? I don’t know. The older I get, the harder it is. All I know is that I still want to belong to the Non-Conformist Club, even if accepting membership automatically makes me a hypocrite.

*Geoff, the huge guy standing next to me, is now a musician and stay-at-home-dad…and still a non-conformist.

Speaking of non-conformists, I’m about to head out to Brooklyn for the 2nd-annual Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson birthday celebration, hosted by Spike Lee. It’s going to be a fantastic day. See you there?

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38 Comments

  • Reply Geoff August 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

    I’m the Geoff in that picture. And I agree with Anna. I’ve always been proud of that achievement.

    I don’t have being the youngest child to thank for that, as I am an only child. I’ve always been a non conformist. Before joining Anna at Rhinebeck I went to an all boys private school where the dress code was jacket and tie – I went to school in my ripped jean jacket and changed at school. I was the only one with earings in my class as well.

    Somewhere in college I started to realize that I wasn’t following a fashion trend or trying to fit in with the Metal culture or anything like that… I was just a rock ‘n’ roll kind of guy. In my mid 30’s now, I dress the same way that I did in my early 20’s, and I still wear some of the same t-shirts that I wore in high school, and I don’t look silly doing it- because that’s just me. Not making a statement, not being non-conformist or conformist… and isn’t that really what it’s all about?
    🙂

  • Reply tara August 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Oh Anna, I hear you. Gone are the days that I can (or even would) pat my face down with rice powder and throw on a kimono with my square toed pilgrim shoes. I too know that girl is still inside me somewhere, but (and maybe this is the conformist in me coming out) it is so hard to drop your child off at school or go to a PTA meeting looking like you just spent the last two hours face-down on your mattress listening to The Cure. If you find a way to exhibit your outer-nonconformist, will you please share it?

  • Reply Adam August 29, 2010 at 11:23 am

    I love this post and can relate to it so much! It’s hard being a teacher and trying to look professional yet unique at the same time, especially in small town NY. I don;t want to end up looking like a 36 year old joke, yet I don’t want to blend in with the surroundings. I think I’ve done an ok job, but it can be hard.

  • Reply ephemerette August 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I can definately relate to this feeling, I think because of the way I look people have a tendancy to very easily frame me in as something I’m very much not which I find mildly annoying. I think I’ve made peace with it though and frankly don’t have the time or inclanation to go out of my way to visually point out I might not be the person you think I am, I’ll leave it to those who get to know me to work it out for themselves.

  • Reply kelly w August 29, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    of course, you know that just being truly yourself- even if others may happen to style themselves similarly– is still being non-conformist. You’re not conforming to the masses or what’s ‘expected’– you’re being true to yourself, how you feel.

    Like plenty of other folks on here, I think you’re absolutely striking, but part of what makes you so attractive to me is your ability to embrace your inner dork. I like that you don’t quite realise how stunning you actually are.

  • Reply P August 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    As someone who is kind of new to the whole “adult” thing (mid 20s) its really comforting to know other people have the same issues. As a female in a male dominated field navigating fashion to be taken seriously while staying true to me is pretty hard (on the up/down side standing out isn’t a problem!). I agree with the other poster, if you find the answer please share!!

  • Reply Hayley August 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Same story- different city. I could be over there- standing to your right- but I was voted “Most Original”. I find the flip in styles [metalheads are the new nerds, cheerleaders and jocks are too “involved with school” to be cool and the punks are now the popular hipsters] hilarious.
    Oh and- the newest hipster clothes are pleated, high waisted khakis with button-down shirts. There is no way I could pull that off without looking like a genuine, non-hipster, 90’s soccer mom.
    Just shows that the outsides are more a reflection of status than an interpretation of the insides. To me at least.

    That said, wear whatever you want and wear it well. I also think the Cure loving teen style will always be fashionable.

    Cheers!

  • Reply LL August 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I can soo relate to this post! You must be zoning in on my brain waves or something. I am a total non-conformist with two kids, and a dog. That’s about the only conformist thing about me. At least in my mind 🙂

    Now that I’m in my 30’s I have embraced the non-conformist in me to the fullest. I don’t give a **** what anyone thinks. I do my thing with almost no worries. It’s liberating to be this age, and to be able to accept yourself. In a culture that pushes botox, brow lifts and trout lips, that, to me, is truly not conforming.

  • Reply Fiona August 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQqq3e03EBQ 🙂

  • Reply eva August 29, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Interesting. I struggle with the opposite problem, I wish I could be more mainstream. Being queer and being with people who aren’t quite gender-normative, I’ve found myself and my relationships under scrutiny from my friends, my family, my job, people on the street, servers in restaurants, politicians–in pretty much every aspect of my life, I feel this tremendous pressure to be less nonconformist. Even though I don’t live in an especially homophobic area, there are a million reminders in every place and way that I’m not strictly normal. And in the current political climate, if often seems as if every person I speak to wants me to have an opinion, make a stand–you know, tokenizing. While I won’t apologize for how I am or what I’ve chosen, there are days that I would give anything, anything, to have people treat me like I’m ordinary. Wish I had a choice.

  • Reply Maggie August 29, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    I enjoy looking quite “normal” whilst being more un-mainstream inside. I reckon I’d feel too much of a cliche to look like one too. I prefer being different but it can be wearing sometimes to feel like the only one, at least this way I’m not self-conscious of feeling different if I haven’t chosen to share my ‘differentness’, I can just enjoy carrying it around with me without being pre-judged. And anyway, we really are all different.
    I like your kind of different.

  • Reply Nubby August 29, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Ha, I love this! You’re a true original…I wish we would have had an award like this at my small-town high school. Have fun at the MJ bash!

  • Reply rebecca August 29, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Hey, I went to college with Geoff! Sweet guy. Small world.

  • Reply Fat Cat August 30, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Hhmm interesting dilemma. Maybe non-conformists should worry less about how they look, and more about how they think and act. At least that is the question that keeps bugging me.
    In my mid-30s myself, I have noticed that conformity is creeping up on me – corporate job, a ton load of possessions and – most worringly – the occasional right-wing thought (immediately followed by self-scolding for being so stupid). But yes, conformity seems to be very contagious and I am in danger of being contaminated.

  • Reply Frances August 30, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Your honesty is so refreshing, Anna. I was voted into a very similar superlative in my high school yearbook of the mid-1990s, and was alternatingly thrilled/horrified about it at the time. I find that the feeling still lingers. It’s a real challenge, as I age, to find appropriate ways to be an individual, though I quite like Maggie’s approach of outwardly normal (or normal-ish, as the case may be), inwardly weird.

  • Reply Kathleen August 30, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Me too! I was voted most non-conformist in 8th and 9th grade. But apparently everyone else thought that was a bad thing so they did away with it by the time I was in the 10th grade.

    My outfits consisted of Army surplus attire and a whole lot of vintage polyester.

  • Reply Susan August 30, 2010 at 10:33 am

    It’s really hard to look like a non-conformist in New York. It’s a creative city, and just about everyone is of the “looking for something different” type. I always found shopping for my clothes when I traveled was a great way to look different here, though.

  • Reply Julienne August 30, 2010 at 10:50 am

    It doesn’t matter if you look like every one else, If you truly march to the beat of a different drummer it comes through no matter what!

  • Reply Laura August 30, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I’m older than you and was can remember when being a freak was really freaky, and really fun. Yesterday I bought all black school supplies for my 10-year-old because she’s decided she’s “goth.” I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.

  • Reply mommy August 30, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    You are still completely and wonderfully unique to me!

  • Reply Callista August 30, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Thank goodness for your nonconformity. Otherwise, I have a feeling this blog would be about tan walls, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. And I’m thankful that it’s not.

  • Reply marie August 30, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    i would like to present as more adult, but it usually comes out somewhat off. so, here’s to fitting in when you can – there’s a lot of power in that.

    my recommendation is let your actions express your outsider status, rather than your look. you’re a great designer – maybe do some pro bono design work for a cause that is important to you. when it comes up in conversation you will get that bump of cred your appearance isn’t giving you.

    yeah, i know you’ve got a bunch of free time, but really, this is the kind of thing that can grind you down if you ignore it.

    option b is to mentally cultivate quirk. read and think about outsiders and it will fill you from the inside, maybe?

  • Reply Anna at D16 August 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    @Maggie, @Fat Cat, @Frances, @marie: I absolutely agree that being a non-conformist is something that comes from within, but as a visual, aesthetically-minded person, I really feel the need personally to have my outsides be at least somewhat an expression of who I am inside. For better or for worse, our appearances do create first impressions that will be judged. I see outward appearance as a chance to show appreciation for design, fashion, balance, modernity, and freedom of choice — it’s not something that I’m interested in eschewing.

    @marie: I think I’m already there, actually. On all counts. What you read on this blog comprises about 20% of my actual life. 😉

    @eva: Your perspective is really interesting, and it’s one that I wonder about often when thinking back to my childhood in a small town. I come from a family that was very, VERY different from those of my peers, and to that extent, my status as an “outsider” was beyond my control as a child. I know it’s not exactly the same thing that you face in life in as adult, but I do know where you’re coming from. I remember very clearly being used as the token example of a child from a large, non-traditional family, a child with divorced parents, a Jew, a first-generation American, a child of Liberals, a child with self-employed parents — you name it. These are things that might not seem like bit deal as an adult, but when I was a kid, I tired very quickly of having these things constantly pointed out and used as a means to turn me in to some kind of “cause”. We are what we are, though, and no one has the right to expect any of us to live up to a political concept of what we owe the rest of the world as a result of our differences. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  • Reply marie August 30, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    yeah, you seem the type to have way more shit going on than visible here. looking through your style posts just now i am positive i cannot help. you look smashing and special. good luck in your search.

  • Reply tara August 30, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Goodness, this has been an interesting topic. So interesting, that I keep coming back to your site to check on the comments folks are leaving. I realize that my comment might have not been well thought out. I was having a “stream of consciousness” kind of moment. I also realize that being a non-conformist goes waaaay beyond what we look like on the outside. However, since you were addressing your feelings on how to match the insides to the outsides, I just felt free to go with that. In reading some of the other comments, I am amazed at the responses here. And humbled to be honest. What I may take for granted, many people do not. This has been really fascinating to me.

  • Reply Another Anna August 30, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Great post and discussion. After living in big and medium cities in the midwest, I’ve had to move to a town of >5,000 for a teaching job at a very preppy college. It’s been a hard transition as I’ve felt caught between feeling I need to conform (so as to earn my authority in a classroom of very judgmental undergrads) and my own desire to rebel against the unofficial dress code here. I’m not done figuring this one out, so I really appreciated the initial post and all the comments. I have some good food for thought for awhile. Thanks everyone.

  • Reply Persephone August 31, 2010 at 9:31 am

    This post really speaks to me. Turning 35 this year has hit me a little harder than I imagined it would, because as part of my non-conformism, I vowed never to be negative about my age.

    I found this easy up until now, but it appears that in my mind, 35 is ‘crunch time’ for a woman in so many ways. Ageing, fertility, taking over at times, burdensome matriarchal roles and not quite knowing where to go style-wise seems to be a common theme for a lot of us.

  • Reply dew i September 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    identity crisis.
    It’s hard to “look” like a non-conformist when you’re not living a life like one.

    corporate job,steady paycheck, home owner, pied-à-terre in the city, credit, husband, health insurance etc. These are the things of upwardly mobile middle class mainstream values.

  • Reply Anna at D16 September 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    @dewi: I disagree with you completely.

    I personally define a “non-conformist” as someone who subscribes to edicts that they have deemed ethical and admirable as a result of thought and consideration and knowledge, rather than following a group mentality. Period.

    The last time I checked, having a steady job doesn’t preclude any of that. Where would you draw the line, anyway? Does merely having a formal education prevent someone from being a “non-conformist”? If so, we’re in a whole lot of trouble.

    You know very little about what kind of life I’m living. The whole does not always neatly add up to the sum of its parts.

  • Reply Christine September 3, 2010 at 12:30 am

    It’s nice to read the comments. This issue has so many perspectives. I was just reading something today that quoted the philosopher Sextus as saying “the wise man is always similar to himself.” Anna, I like your above definition of non-conformity, that it’s based in something of a quest for wisdom, starting with considered thought, and then may extend to outward manifestations. My struggle with the appearance portion of non-conformity is that conformity of thought exists in both the most mundane and the most creative fields. While in art school, I worked a decidedly non-creative job, and I found myself at a loss for wardrobe. I wanted to distinguish myself both from the art-world conformists and the business-world conformists. Though I still don’t feel I’ve worked it all out, to this point, I take Sextus’ advice. I wear what feels right, comfortable, and honest to me, that I might be like myself.

  • Reply Lori E September 3, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I was voted “Most Radical” in my senior class much to the dismay of my mother. 🙂 I am still considered somewhat radical in my sphere of influence. What has always bothered me though is the importance placed on the “cool” factor of being different. At the ripe old age of 38, I have found the coolest people, the ones I most want to be around, are the people that know they aren’t all that cool and don’t really care. Sure, I still like to be unique and raise interesting questions and topics in conversation (I have never really understood why politics and religion are taboo… lol) but some of my best friends are quiet, granite counter top kind of people that have a heart of gold. The outside of a person is so misleading and is usually no measure of the qualities inside. But this Christian conservative, animal loving, environmentally concerned Door Sixteen fan still loves a good pair of sunglasses, a cool pair of boots (preferably Frye) and U2 (or Modern English or B-52’s or…) on the radio…

  • Reply jd September 4, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    *non·con·form·ist

    a person who refuses to conform, as to established customs, attitudes, or ideas.

    *in·di·vid·u·al·ist

    a person who shows great independence or individuality in thought or action.

    what do you guys think? is there a difference between being an individualist and a non-conformist?

    it is so interesting what clothing communicates. goeff doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, he is just being himself. ana is struggling with how to visually express herself. i am just curious ana, is there something you want to wear, a way you want to look that you feel that you cannot?

    “One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”

    -from Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness

  • Reply Anna at D16 September 4, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    TO ALL: I really meant for this to be a lighthearted, humorous post, and didn’t expect it to take such a serious turn in the comments. If I had known things were going to go this way, I would have put a little more care and consideration into what I originally wrote. I’m sorry if I’ve stepped into waters that I’m too sidetracked to delve into very deeply for the time being.

    @Lori E: For what it’s worth, I have never cared about being “cool”. In fact, I’m really uncomfortable when someone insinuates that I’m part of a “cool club”. It’s something that ONLY happens online, this kind of misperception of who/what I am. In real life, I am always on the outside — I’m never part of the group, I never look “right”, and I am extremely insecure and uncomfortable in groups of people. I’m only comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

    @jd: First off, it’s Anna…not “Ana”. Sorry, but that’s a pet peeve of mine. 😉

    To answer your question, though, no — there is nothing that I want to wear or any way that I want to look that I cannot (aside from the limitations of the skin and body I was born with, but that’s not what this is about). I work in an extremely casual environment — totally anti-corporate and laid-back. My issues with appearance and expression stem primarily from how difficult it is to stand out (at least visually) from the crowd in New York City with the kind of style that I am drawn to. I have no interest in look “different” just for the sake of being different or shocking — I want only to stick to my own ideas of what is beautiful, modern, and forward-thinking. The thing is, there are a whole lot of other people in NYC doing exactly the same thing.

    Now, if I go anywhere else (even just 30 miles outside of NYC), I stick out like a sore thumb. 😀

  • Reply dew i September 5, 2010 at 9:01 am

    If you still feel your inner non conformist, you are.
    Manhattan you look like all the other nonconformist, artists, fashionista’s and individuals who come here from elsewhere. This can makes life comfortable, we who have chosen Manhattan are landsmen, individuals all together.

    I’m a native, Manhattan, it’s always been filled with people who were considered “the outsiders” elsewhere, here we look the same!

  • Reply Cussot September 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Just an aside, but props to the photographer who took that wonderful shot of you and Geoff.

    I’m a generation older than the two of you, but it’s an evocative enough image that I can picture myself standing behind (in front of?) that fence, too.

  • Reply Lori E September 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Anna, I totally get where you are coming from and I hope I wasn’t offensive in anyway. I struggled with my above post and I still don’t feel like I conveyed my feelings well. I tend to be a little too open with my opinions and sometimes they don’t come out the way I intend. Probably why my husband did not “allow” me to bring up politics at my class reunion… 🙂 Ol’ stick-in-the-mud… Seriously, though, I enjoyed this topic and love your blog. And once again, if I offended, my apologies…

  • Reply Grumble Girl September 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    You know how hard I’m diggin’ your non-conformist self, right sistah? Proud…

  • Reply Jana March 17, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Haha! I totally relate to this. I’ve always had social anxiety which translates into large groups of strangers giving me panic attacks, yet I am more afraid of actually being seen as one of those people so it’s a lose-lose. AKA—my mind is fucked. 😉

    At the end of the day, I’d rather be different w/panic attacks than a clone w/panic attacks. Even if being different means my parents, still to this day, can’t stand me. (They love me, they do not like me. I accept the difference. HA!) They somehow never got over my 12 year old self cutting off all my hair, dying it black & buying everything in black. I got more “adult” as I got older but I still manage to look like an alien in my ultra-conservative Oklahoman job.

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