I spent this weekend at a rehearsal, in the company of people I had never met before, but who shared a few key interests with me. Within a few hours I was chatting and chilled. Now, I don’t make friends easily (thanks, social anxieties!) so to feel relaxed around new acquaintances that quickly is a pretty big deal for me. Needless to say, I arrived home a few hours ago in high spirits.
My children were dropped off an hour or so later, in similarly good moods. We had the usual kerfuffle at the door with shoes and bags, with the only noticeable difference being that The Girl had been to a party at which face-paint was on offer, and had insisted on keeping the painted on Catwoman mask for me to see. Honestly, it was a pretty good job. I could tell who she was before she told me, which is always a plus.
So, to the point. We were sitting downstairs together before bed, and she gradually started to look a little uneasy. I could see the expression deepen as she told me her friends had Shopkins facepaint. Oh dear, I thought. I know where this is going.
Sure enough, the next thing she said was an expression of regret about her choice.
“Don’t you like Catwoman?” I asked.
No, that wasn’t the problem. Nor was it that she preferred Shopkins, or was unhappy about how her face looked. In all honesty, I don’t think she could really articulate what was wrong. And in fairness to her, it’s a challenging concept for a young child to put into words.
The crux of it, I think, is that she’s almost six now, and she’s picked up on the fact that in some hard-to-define way, fitting in and being the same is good, and being different is… not fitting in.
She’s in Year One, so I don’t think they’ve yet reached the stage of picking on the kids who are different (and the school is very inclusive, which I think helps prevent that attitude getting too entrenched anyway), but society as a whole has an unerring tendency to guide people into this mindset. Fashion. Trends. Adverts. They all, subtly or (usually) otherwise, guide people to the conclusion that fitting in is good, and sticking out really isn’t.
So when my daughter, aged five, chose to have her face painted as Catwoman, and several of her friends chose to be (identical) Shopkins, she was left with that odd, hard-to-place feeling that somehow she’d done something…not wrong, but not entirely right, either.
And it’s awful. A five-year-old girl feeling like she made a bad choice for being a character she loves, because it’s not the same as everyone else. As far as I know, no one even said anything about it. It’s just a concept she has already internalised.
When I was younger, I worried a lot about this myself. I always knew, deep down, that I didn’t fit in, and for a long time this made me panic and try extra hard to mask that fact. Now, I won’t ever claim I tried to fit in with the popular kids (it was never gonna happen), but I certainly did my best not to stand out, either. One of my best friends once described my wardrobe as the sort of thing “normal people wear in films”. I never quite passed for real-life normal, but I had near-as-dammit down to an art. I faded into the background like a movie extra. Never the centre of attention, but still part of the crowd.
I nodded and smiled when the conversation turned to TV shows I didn’t watch, or the attractiveness of actors whose names I seldom knew. I painstakingly taught myself to recognise double entendres and laugh with the rest, and I got used to never mentioning my quirkier interests, or denying them outright if people spoke ill of them. (“Oh, yeah. People should absolutely get more fresh air and not spend all their time playing computer games. It’s not healthy!”)
It took me a long time to have the courage to not care, and before I could be myself, I had to try out various alter-egos. I had my faux-goth phase. My jewellery-as-armour phase. My ostentatious-I-don’t-care phase. The last one still flares up now and then, but mostly, these days I have settled into quietly doing and wearing whatever the hell I want.
Still. The road to get here was long enough that the thought of my daughter setting off down it fills me with sadness. As her mother, I don’t want her to be at the start of a long road filled with heartache and self-doubt. I don’t want my daughter’s future to be a war between enjoying the things she really loves to their fullest, and putting some of her interests aside so she can avoid feeling like a pariah.
We had a conversation before she went to bed. I don’t think she really took it in, but that’s okay, because I’m very prepared to have it again, as many times as she needs to. It wasn’t long, but I made sure to tell her that I thought she looked fantastic with her Catwoman face paint, and that, if there was one thing I wanted her to learn from me, it was to be herself, always. To do things because she wanted to. And if it happens that the thing she wants to do is the same as the thing her friends want? Hey, great, no problem! But if it’s different, that’s not a problem either.
And this time, aged five, there wasn’t a problem. There wasn’t a: “Well why did you pick that.” So part of me feels a little like I sprang the “be yourself” speech early. But another part knows that for it to really stick, you have to either grow up with it or learn the hard way. And the hard way really, really stinks.
When the cliques start (and my memories of what teenagers are like assures me they will), I want my children – both of them, although The Boy has so far shown little signs of noticing what happens outside of books – to have the confidence in themselves to be themselves. Because you know, several times this weekend, I had the passionate wish that I had met that group of people earlier. That I hadn’t spent so many years thinking there were only a handful of people who got me, when it turned out that, all along, there was a place where I could feel entirely at home.
So the message I want my children to learn is this:
Don’t “fit in”. Find the people who fit you, instead. It’s well worth the extra time it might take to find them.