Creeping Conformity, Batman! Or why grow a spine?


This might be the most memorable quote I’ve seen all year, or longer. Kevin Williamson, in National Review: “There is no marriage as stable and enduring as that of ignorance and certitude.

He cited a case in point of this woman, living in the prototype WASP enclave of the Main Line (near Philadelphia) who “sniffed that she could hardly endure trips to visit her husband’s family in the South because she was physically nauseated just by being present in a place that had once seen slavery. She said this with practically orgasmic moral self-satisfaction while standing on what had been the grounds of Richard Harrison’s tobacco plantation, the largest slave operation of its kind in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. She had a keen sense of morality but a somewhat less keen sense of history.” Perfect! Pride, oozing out of her pores; self righteousness is the glue binds ignorance and certitude.

Arguably, the most common pronouncement of certitude that betrays ignorance of history is the endlessly repeated lament, “kids today are worse than ever”. What inevitably follows is a list of examples of our progeny’s lack of respect, gratitude, appreciation for traditions, blessings, virtues. Such is cited as evidence that society is falling apart. Nope, it’s just the mantra of the short-sighted, leavened with parental disappointment, that forgets how they were as kids. Every generation rebels against the values–or is it the hypocrisy of not upholding the values they preach–of the previous generation. Why? CONFORMITY! Yes, I wrote “rebels” in the previous sentence, but rebellion against parental or elders’ values is itself conformity. Just yesterday, I watched the movie, School of Rock (circa 2003), again. Jack Black plays the “rebellious” ne’er do well, who tries to convince prep school kids that rock and roll is the best way to “stick it to the Man.” These kids, from wealthy families, don’t understand who “the Man” is (too bad for them that “toxic masculinity” hadn’t caught on yet), but they dutifully follow anyway. Conformity masquerading as “personal style” or “power” is beautifully captured by two very “mainstream” media organs (the boldprint comments below are mine).

From the Washington Post: It was the morning of the first day of senior year, and Sky Bloomer had her back-to-school outfit ready to go: red-and-black Air Jordan Retro sneakers, black leggings and a tight, spaghetti-strap crop top with a koi fish print from Urban Outfitters. The tall teenager with long brown hair walked out of her bedroom and swung on her backpack, feeling “powerful,” she recalled. Then, her parents saw her.

We can imagine what came next, can’t we? I’m not letting you leave the house looking like that,” said her mother, Tara Bloomer, telling her daughter that she looked like an “easy girl” or “prostitute.” Minutes after she left for school in a friend’s car, Sky’s father called her cellphone, telling her, “truly powerful and intelligent women don’t have to show off everything they have.” “Okay, misogynist,” she replied. The pressure of conformity inclines teenagers to look a certain way on Instagram and other social media platforms, subtly equating validation with “likes” and comments. Sky Bloomer says her outfits are about expression, not the likes she gets from her peers, the friends who post flame emojis and comments like “queen” and “so prettyy.”

The WaPo article continues: Sydney Acuff, a 17-year-old senior at Blair High School, started wearing more revealing clothes last school year after a breakup with a boyfriend who was “very controlling and very manipulative,” she said. “I wanted to rebel against him. That was one way I did it.” She stopped wearing bras and started wearing “a lot of semi-see-through tops, a lot of camisoles,” Sydney said. “My midriff is almost always showing to some extent.” When she was coping with the breakup, she noticed that she was posting more selfies on social media. “Am I doing this because I want to, or am I doing this because I know these people are going to make me feel good for a certain amount of time and then I’ll go back to feeling sad?” she reflected. “That’s something I have to be careful with and have to be mindful of.” But as the teenager has grown more confident in her body, her clothes have been a way for her to experiment, to be creative, she said.

As the father of three daughters, I am grateful that they grew out of the teenage years before the new lexicon of conformity included Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, VSCO and even more obscure applications.

From Anne Milou has always had an affinity for oversized T-shirts, scrunchies and Puka shell necklaces. But recently Milou, who lives in the Netherlands, learned there’s a name for the beachy, laid-back way she and scores of other teenage girls dress. “I’ve never really labeled myself as a ‘VSCO girl’ until it really became a trend, and I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m a ‘VSCO girl’ now!'” Milou, 16, told NBC News via Instagram messenger. “VSCO girls,” named for the aesthetic derived from the photo editing app VSCO — formerly known as VSCO Cam — which lets users share photos and make preset filters to help keep their images looking uniform, is the latest teen iteration of “preppy” style with a casual beach-inspired flair. It’s an aesthetic that has taken over Gen Z-dominated corners of the internet such as short-form video app TikTok and photo-sharing app Instagram.

“It’s probably the most popular trend I’ve seen come off the internet. I see it constantly,” said Caprese Wippich, 18, of California, who calls herself a “retired ‘VSCO girl'” and makes TikTok videos about the aesthetic. Hailee Dent, 16, of Oklahoma, who said she noticed the “VSCO girl” trend pop up about three months ago, added that she doesn’t consider herself to be a “VSCO girl,” but said her personal interests align with parts of the trend. There are several specific hallmarks of a “VSCO girl,” which includes scrunchies, oversized T-shirts, clothing from the store Brandy Melville, Vans, Pura Vida bracelets, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks and Puka shell necklaces. Another integral part of the “VSCO girl” lifestyle is being environmentally conscious, as a key component to the style is the use of products such as metal straws and Hydro Flasks to “save the turtles.” “That’s a really interesting aspect of the ‘VSCO girl’ aesthetic. Here’s this little environmental part and that’s fun. The girls who weren’t interested in protecting the environment before are now all upset about it because it’s part of their aesthetic now,” Wippich said.

“VSCO girls” tend to be middle and high school age and the trend starts to peter out among college age students and older, according to Wippich. This aligns with the VSCO app’s overall user base, 75 percent of which are under age 25, according to Julie Inouye, VSCO’s vice president of communications. “We love seeing teens come together to express who they are and how they see the world(Does anyone notice how the “come together” and “express who they are” phrases are incompatible? It’s like saying “conformity leads to individuality.”). “Whether you own a scrunchie or not, all are welcome to VSCO and we will continue to provide a safe space where you can share your diverse experiences and points of view,” Inouye said in a statement emailed to NBC News.

Wippich, who works at Brandy Melville, said that she believes part of why the trend is so popular among high school-age girls is because of its accessibility and because there are very few financial and social constraints to the look. “The e-boy and e-girl style is not as implementable because no one wants to walk around like an e-girl and e-boy. It’s fun to do on internet, but I don’t think that’s how people want to go out,” Wippich said. “This is an easy way to have an aesthetic in your life.” The dressed-down, causal aesthetic was popularized, in part, by internet personalities like YouTube star Emma Chamberlain, whose low-effort style helped her rocket to 8 million YouTube subscribers and 7.7 million Instagram followers in less than two years, according to The Atlantic. Followers=conformity.

My whole Instagram and Twitter (and TikTok) timelines are covered in ‘VSCO girls,'” Milou said. Wippich and Milou have both used TikTok to share their “VSCO girl” style and trendy tips. Milou even posted her own “‘VSCO girl’ check” on TikTok, a trend in which the user shows off all the things that make them a “VSCO girl.” In her video, Milou included all the classic indicators of a “VSCO girl,” such as a mountain of colorful scrunchies, tubes of Burt’s Bees lip balm and a carefully curated, color-coded rack of shirts in black, white, yellow, red and blue.

Wippich said she notices “VSCO girls” being teased heavily on TikTok, which she said she finds upsetting, adding that most videos she sees don’t accurately portray the trend. “Why mock someone for something they’re doing that doesn’t hurt you?” Wippich said. “Most people do it because they want followers and clout.Followers=conformity=clout? Although she considers herself a former “VSCO girl,” Wippich said she still has a lot of appreciation for the trend and the girls she meets who subscribe to it, who have helped her grow her TikTok account. When she’s at work, she said she’s sometimes recognized by the 15 to 20 “VSCO girls” who visit her store every day and have seen her VSCO-tagged TikTok videos. “Brandy Melville is bigger brand for ‘VSCO girls,’ and I go to the store and I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a ‘VSCO girl!”” she said. “I don’t think there’s any other aesthetic that’s that identifiable.”

All things considered, apart from the internal stress generated by the pressure to conform to rapidly changing trends, most of the conformity described above is relatively benign. It’s better than “brownshirts”, “goose-stepping” and “Seig Heil.”