My mother was a nonconformist. She was an artist, peripatetic and mildly eccentric. She built sculptures out of bowling balls; she marched on Washington; she was a liberal hippie in a conservative state. I, on the other hand, was a staunch conformist. In fifth grade I wanted jams—those long, surfer-inspired shorts—jelly shoes, an asymmetrical haircut, the Don Johnson rolled-up sleeves jacket, the Swatch. If it was trendy, I wanted it.
This drove my mother crazy. She loved to poke through thrift shops for vintage finds, to assemble outfits in unusual colors and fabrics. Whenever I’d request a trip to The Limited, she’d sigh and try to argue me into a thrifting trip instead.
But my clothes requests weren’t because I didn’t have a mind of my own or even because I was fashion conscious. No, it was actually because I wanted to go unnoticed. Instinctively I felt that that blending in was the key to social security. I wanted attention for other things—drama club, music club, some pitiful attempts at athletics. But clothes? Nope. If I looked like every other girl in school, I considered it a good day.
It turns out I may have been on to something with my desire to blend in. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science indicates that teenagers who conform to their peer group may be healthier as adults, reports Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard.
Psychologists at the University of Virginia interviewed kids each year from the ages of 13 to 17, asking them about their best same-sex friend (not always the same person from year to year). The friend was also interviewed, answering questions about the general quality of the friendship and five specific questions about how well the subject conformed to “peer norms.” The researchers then contacted the subjects at ages 25, 26 and 27 and asked them to provide reports on their physical and emotional health.
The researchers found that the adults who had close friendships as teens and “a pattern of acquiescence to social norms in adolescent peer relationships” reported better health. They noted that adolescent conformity may be something that teens instinctively gravitate towards, knowing that it’s better for their overall well-being. Teens have a particularly strong focus on peer relationships (breaking news to anyone who’s ever been a teen or has a teen!); Jacobs notes: “The intense adolescent focus on forming and maintaining peer relationships may well result from an instinctive recognition that these relationships are linked to well-being.”
I’ve always felt vaguely lame for not trying to stand out more in middle school and high school. I fit in with my pack of drama geeks, itself a subculture with social norms. Jacobs notes that the UVA results “align nicely” with the findings of another study—that 1980s teenage heavy-metal fans went on to become happy, productive members of society. They conformed to their peer group, subculture though it was, and found comfort and support in their metalhead identity.
In other words, fitting in with the other kids has benefits. As much as I’d like to encourage my sons to do their own thing or not care what anyone else thinks, well, we’re social animals, and even as adults we conform to social norms. We’re not going to show up at a black-tie wedding in jeans, for example, no matter how individualistic we are.
For both teens and adults, the real concern is social isolation. Jacobs writes: “[A]dolescence is also a time for discovering your unique gifts and interests. But this research suggests parents who push too hard in that direction may be putting their kids at risk for future health problems.”
So I’m not going to be too worried if my son wants to get the same school clothes as everyone else this year or if he seems to be inclined to “go along to get along” (barring major ethical lapses, of course). It’s good for him to form strong friendships with his classmates, within their specific kid culture. I’m inclined to support that, even if it means a trip to The Limited.