It was jean shorts and a cropped tank top, probably because we were in the middle of a hot summer, and it was a cute outfit that let them stay cool. Crowds of girls walked around campus wearing similar outfits. I didn’t see any problem with it, but the people around me sure did, and so did Instagram and Twitter. Pictures of groups of girls circulated throughout Barstool’s Instagram with “copy and paste” being a go-to phrase in the comment section, ironically pointing out their “lack of originality.” Their outfit became the symbol of “basic,” a term commonly used as another way to shame women for almost everything they do, when in reality, it’s just a popular form of individuality.
When I think of individuality, I think of a spectrum. On the extreme left, we have the individuality complexes, where every decision we make revolves around being different and standing out from the people around us. On the extreme right, we have the opposite, where we deny ourselves from any ounce of individuality to simply fit in with the crowd. In my experience, we all have to dabble on both sides of the spectrum before actually finding ourselves in the middle.
For most of middle school, I planted myself on the left side of the spectrum. Walking into school every day with dark blue basketball shorts and a dry-fit T-shirt made me feel like I was different, playing into the “not like other girls” trope. This trope centers around — and against — society’s description of “basic” women as unintelligent, uninteresting, talentless and superficial in order to portray them as inferior to men. It forces many women to try to prove themselves as worthy and further distance themselves from the “basic” girl stereotype put upon them. Falling into a spiral of trying to prove myself, I rejected pop music, hated makeup and the color pink and fixated on sports. There’s nothing actually wrong with hating or liking these things, but this persona I adapted by following the “not like other girls” trope felt constricting. I lost touch with the real me.
My box of earrings sat in the corner of my room untouched. The piercings on my ears closed up for the first time since I was a baby. My collection of nail polish was quickly thrown into the trash, all because I did not want to fit into the “stereotypical girl” who liked pink and jewelry and dresses. But the clothes I wore to break away from the stereotypes did not represent me. I simply played into them to stand out. I was not the tomboy that I tried to present myself as, and I felt trapped and constricted playing into this “not like other girls” cliché. By the time eighth grade rolled around, I got tired and felt unhappy with having to avoid the “girly” things I secretly liked for so long. During this time, I started letting new people into my life that drastically changed my lifestyle; our weekends were filled with movie marathons of every “chick flick” that we could think of. My friends would talk about them for hours after we watched, highlighting everything they loved and hated about the movies. In every movie we watched, they picked apart the hidden sexism behind the characters and the plot — the “not like other girls” trope. Before this, I had never even acknowledged the trope’s existence, yet I unknowingly went along with it. I quickly grew to be embarrassed for acting differently just for the sake of being different and playing into a misogynistic cliché. To get past this phase, I pushed myself to the right, but way too far.
Throughout the rest of middle school, and even a large portion of high school, I stayed on the right side of the spectrum. “through the late night” by Travis Scott would blare through my headphones while walking to class, as I would adjust my hair riddled with heat damage from straightening my natural curls. Leggings and a plain or floral top, sometimes a little cropped. White Adidas sneakers instead of Air Force Ones only because the latter were always sold out. And don’t get me wrong, the outfits were cute, but other than the cushy sneakers, it wasn’t me. I dressed like everyone else, used the same slang and listened to the same music — even though I hated what I had become. If everyone blended in, why would I break the pattern? If I broke the pattern, I felt like I would be seen as the same person I was, wearing those oversized basketball shorts just to be perceived as different from the rest. But in reality, trying to conform made me the same person I desperately tried to get away from, but this time in leggings.
A repetitive sequence of left and rights followed, from strictly alternative music and movies, to exclusively pop, and then right back to indie and arthouse. It was only during quarantine that I was forced to focus only on myself. When schools closed and I wasn’t able to see others, I was eventually able to stop comparing myself to my peers and get a remote sense of who I am. But while social interactions decreased, the use of social media quickly replaced it causing setbacks. The continuous use of social media only pushed me further away from discovering myself due to the constantly changing trends displayed on TikTok and Instagram. Platforms like Pinterest are often used to show different style aesthetics. While this can be helpful as inspiration while concocting your own style, the pressure to conform leads to relying too heavily on the application, resulting in people recreating the exact looks without adding any personal touch. Limiting my interactions with the app and other social media, as well as peers, pushed me to find my own style, since there was no one to compare myself to. It gave me a balance between the two polarizing sides: conformity and explicit individuality.
Being in the middle of the spectrum does not mean you’ve found a balance between being “unique” and “basic.” It simply means that the way you dress and act represents you. The middle means you stray away from trying to fulfill the “not like other girls” view, but at the same time you are not overcompensating to conform. You act the way you do because that is who you are and the way you express yourself, not because of how your peers act or don’t act. I, for one, classify myself as pretty “basic,” but it does not bother me the way it did before, because it is me.
From childhood, we’ve been ingrained to believe being like a “stereotypical” woman was a bad thing through the movies we watch and the music we listen to. We’re insulted for acting too “basic,” or like other girls. But at the same time, we’re insulted for acting differently. Society uses the trope they created for us and turns it around to insult us. If a girl acts differently, she’s labeled as “trying too hard” and made fun of for being too quirky or weird. Unfortunately, some men and women will shame you with the very phrase they complimented you with minutes earlier, commenting “not like other girls” as an insult. At this point, it seems like there is not a single thing a girl can do without facing any backlash from society. It’s not only insulting but also hypocritical since men are not held to the same exact standard. In many instances, men “lack originality” in the same way women do. They post the same fishing pictures, listen exclusively to the same rap artists and wear the same Guess shirt that was once the pinnacle of male fashion. Yet, “basic” is still mostly used toward and against girls.
Women often seem to live in a man’s world, where men are allowed to critique us however they please. Some try to control how we act with terms like “basic” and “trying too hard.” What scares some men is losing that hard grip they had over us. When women start to express their true selves, they break away from that grasp. Society can no longer have that control over us as the insults and stereotypes start to have less of an outward effect on us. Some men are scared of that individuality, the middle of the spectrum between conformity and an individuality complex. By sticking to the middle, we express and finally embrace our true selves while also furthering our personal autonomy, breaking the grasp they hold us under.
Now that I have found my middle, my Spotify is now loaded with rap, pop, indie and basically a mix of every genre. The colors pink and light green shine through in all my belongings, poorly complimenting each other. Those white sneakers are now beaten down, but still my first pick. My stash of makeup sits on my desk, waiting to be used. This is my middle. This is me.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org