Friday, October 05, 2012

Growing into our identities is a tough, lifelong process

From today's Briefing:

I am unapologetically uncool.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I was younger, I was self-consciously uncool.

Each year I become a little more comfortable with my circumstances and choices and less likely to feel diminished because of what I wear or drive or listen to or watch.

Now, I’m not immune to the lures of product placement and glossy magazines and emails from my favorite retailers. I am more likely, though, to make decisions based on what I want, not so much on what I assume my peers would want.

There’s nothing like an hour with middle-school students to remember the old days, when peers naturally held greater sway than family or even myself.

I’m currently leading a youth Sunday school class through a series of lessons on peer pressure.

Part of a recent lesson focused on identifying current status symbols. Just asking the question made me feel, well, uncool.

The thoughtful seventh- and eighth-graders who I lead obliged, drawing pictures and writing lists of the most essential pieces of middle school popularity.

One girl spent her time drawing portraits of members of the band One Direction.

The only boy in class that morning made a list of a bunch of sports and electronics and one item of clothing I’d never heard of — Nike Elite socks.

What makes these socks special — so much so that my student owns a dozen pair? Double layers and cushioning. An array of colors and an intangible cool factor.

What also sets them apart: the price. Each pair costs $14.

That’s cheap compared with the item at the top of the girls’ lists: Miss Me jeans. The current favored jeans for tweens and teens, according the girls in my class, will set you back about $100 — the equivalent of seven or eight pairs of Elite socks.

“Everything that’s considered cool costs a lot of money,” one student said with a hint of defeat.

It sure feels that way sometimes, especially when you’re 12 or 13 and you’re more aware of consumer goods but still too young to get a real job to earn the money to fund the latest styles. And you’re more aware of your own emerging identity but still too young to concretely define it.

If I could communicate with 12-year-old me, I would acknowledge that it’s tough wearing jeans from Sears when most of the other girls are wearing Gloria Vanderbilt. Because 12-year-old girls in general, and 12-year-old me specifically, require confirmation and empathy.

And then I’d visit about the kind of identity that really matters, intangibles like compassion and curiosity, humility and patience, integrity and determination. I wouldn’t dwell too long on my 2012 list of status symbols, though, because 12-year-old me would scarcely believe a list that in no way aligns with her list from 1984. Where are the jelly shoes, legwarmers and ribbon belts?

There’s no going back, of course, and that’s for the best. The journey from then to now is partly what shapes our identity. We have to pine for what we can’t have — and experience some related disappointment — to appreciate what we do have and to realize how insignificant the cool, expensive stuff really is.

We have to grow into our identities, separated from consumer goods and peer influence, at our own pace.

We have to find unabashed comfort with who we are — regardless of the socks on our feet or the rhinestones on — or missing from — our back pockets.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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