Be Your Own Woman
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Be Your Own Woman

Think you left peer pressure behind in high school? Uh-uh. It's the same force that makes you feel squirmy to conform to whatever your social circle is doing or thinking. How to keep your friends and still be yourself.

Fashion Faux Pas

We all have one article of clothing in our closet that speaks to us, and this is what it says: What the hell were you thinking? For me, this item is something called a shrug. It's hot pink and made of rabbit fur. Here is how I came to own it: I walked into a party, and nearly every female in the room was wearing one. It was like the road company of Little Bunny FuFu. True, these women were all about 6 feet tall and size 2, but I was not dissuaded: If I wore one, surely I would radiate the same winsome quality!

Approximately one month later, rabbit-fur shrugs had vanished from the face of the earth -- just as I was ready to don the one I had just bought for $300. I would like to tell you that this incident occurred during my copycat teenage years. But no -- I was 40. Winsome I was not.

I mention this mortifying episode because fashion is merely the most benign of the myriad ways we are swayed by the tastes and opinions of others. I do not hate myself (much) because of the shrug. I do, however, wallow in self-loathing whenever my desire not to make waves stops me from confronting others who are being offensive or ignorant.

Recently, for example, I told a group of friends over lunch about another friend who had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. "Didn't she smoke like two packs a day?" retorted my friend Janine. "Face it, she had it coming." Heads nodded all around, and another friend suggested that it's the same with overweight people who have strokes: You reap what you sow.

I wanted to scream, Hey, you smug morons, my mother was fat and had a stroke; no one "deserves" a stroke or cancer. But then I stopped myself. I mean, I'm not pro-smoking or pro-fat, am I? So I said nothing. Later, I thought of the famous line from Les Miserables: "If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!"

All Grown Up

Peer pressure does not afflict only children and teenagers -- we grown-ups are every bit as susceptible. "We like to think that as we mature, we grow to prize our individuality," says Lauren Solotar, PhD, chief psychologist of the May Institute, in Norwood, Massachusetts. "But most of us don't want to stand out. We worry all the time about what others think. You have to be very comfortable with yourself to risk public disapproval."

Americans like to see themselves as rugged individualists, but experts say puh-leaze. "We live in the United States of Generica," says clinical social worker Toni Raiten-D'Antonio, author of The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real (HCI, 2004). "If we don't conform to these generic standards of what we're supposed to be, punishment is heaped upon us from a culture that says we're inadequate if we don't have the right clothes, the right car, the right body -- or the right ideas. These messages swirl around us like toxic gas."

That's not to say that peer pressure doesn't have its upside. Humans are, at heart, amoral mammals: Left to our own devices, most of us would be bathing once a year and eating our neighbors' pets. Happily, there is this phenomenon called civilization, which demands certain niceties of behavior toward our fellow humans. The Ten Commandments may represent the ultimate form of peer pressure, but it's probably useful to feel ashamed of, say, murdering, stealing, or dishonoring your parents.

But those are the Big Issues, the rules that keep society intact. In our day-to-day lives, the pressure to do what we think those around us want can, at minimum, keep us from realizing our potential. At worst, peer pressure can create perpetual anxiety, sink us into debt, turn friends into enemies, and alienate us from our true selves.

Fitting In

Research confirms how badly the average person wants to identify with a larger group -- and does so by ignoring his own character and conforming to community standards (whether rational or not). Recently research about suicide bombers was compiled by Ohio State University, in Columbus. Far from being the ignorant, impoverished zealots one might imagine, the majority were educated, reasonably well off, and "not necessarily from fanatically religious families," according to Todd Stewart, a retired Air Force general and one of the lead researchers. The bomber wannabes' responses to questions differed depending on whether they were interviewed in a group or alone. In a group, they showed knee-jerk, cultlike support for the idea that sacrificing one's life in the service of God and country was worth it. Interviewed alone, their answers were nuanced and laced with doubt. When they weren't worrying about what their peers thought, they could expose their very human, very real selves.

With any luck, no one reading this is a suicide bomber. But on a more quotidian level, are you, too, ignoring who you are so as not to stand out or to get the approval of your community? Are you piling on extra hours at work even though your kids need you to oversee their homework simply because the woman in the next cubicle is still there when you're heading for the door? A Rutgers University study revealed that about 75 percent of workers upped their own work hours to match those of their colleagues, regardless of how long it actually took to complete their tasks.

Groupthink infects us even when it is blatantly, laughably obvious that we are acting against our own best interests. Take online shopping, for example. In a 2001 study at the State University of New York at Buffalo's School of Management, Paul Dholakia, PhD, studied the bidding patterns of eBay shoppers over a three-week period. He found that consumers gravitated toward items that already had one or more existing bids, while ignoring identical or even superior unbid-for items in the same category. Shoppers fell prey to a kind of online peer pressure that Dr. Dholakia calls "herd-behavior bias": Lacking direct contact with the seller or the item, they assumed that if people were bidding on an item, it must be good, or better than an identical item that no one had bid on. Certain books and movies become best sellers and box-office successes, while other equally good or better products sink like stones, for roughly the same reasons: Consumers, following the herd, shell out money for the commodity that everyone else seems to want and shun those with no apparent constituency.

Danger Zone

One of the most common consequences of our culture of conformity, of course, is debt. In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, millions of Americans have credit card debt. According to the Federal Reserve, more than 40 percent of us spend more money than we earn.

Carole Newton, a Web producer in Berkeley, California, got hot-tub fever after seeing her girlfriend's model. "It was this amazing Plexiglas jobbie with tons of jets, housed in a redwood shelter," Newton recalls. "We couldn't afford it, but it seemed like such a sign of the good life that I couldn't resist." Had she looked up, however, she might have noticed the phone wires up and down her street that prevented a crane from hoisting the tub into her backyard. "So now a grill rests on the slab of concrete we poured for the tub," Newton says with a sigh, before noting enviously that the friend with the hot tub has just acquired a fancy new $5,500 grill.

Even those of us who are deaf to the siren song of high-end hot tubs have a hard time resisting the pressure to trade up in one all-consuming area: appearance. "On any night of the week you can watch people 'improve,' if you want to call it that, on shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan," notes Elaine Zelley, PhD, assistant professor of communication at La Salle University, in Philadelphia. "People no longer find it creepy or weird." Dr. Zelley herself is hardly immune to the anxiety reflected in those shows. "I'm 31 years old," she says, "and I'm looking in the mirror saying, 'Okay, I don't have wrinkles -- yet. Do my friends have wrinkles?'"

Dr. Zelley just completed a study of college-age women and their tendency to compare themselves with their best female friend. It is no surprise, perhaps, that women with eating disorders are more apt to compare themselves with peers in both appearance and possession of "material artifacts" (clothes, jewelry). The anxiety to conform to society's beauty ideals, it seems, spills over into other areas.

Undoubtedly the role in which adults feel peer pressure most keenly -- even more than the pressure to live in a McMansion or to be a perfect size 6 -- is as parents. In no other realm of life is it so hard to buck the prevailing wisdom, whatever that wisdom may be. Some of us can brave being thought of as a bad person; few will risk being thought a bad mother.

In a society where the debate over working mothers versus stay-at-home moms rages unabated, pity the woman who is the minority in a community where one choice dominates. Elizabeth Connors, 53, a divorcee from Litchfield, Connecticut, has always held a job while raising her three school-age children -- a rarity in her town. "A friend who has never had a career always says, 'My job is raising my child -- my priorities are just different from yours.' Comments like that cut me to the quick because they make me feel I've made the wrong choices."

Here's my own confession: I am afraid to ask the other mothers in my 3-year-old twins' nursery school whether they are getting tutoring for their kids. I know, rationally, that tutoring a 3-year-old is absurd. I also know that if I heard that all the other mothers were doing it, I'd probably sign right up.

Steps to Take

Would that there were a switch we could turn on and off to regulate our need for approval from others. In the absence of such a nifty device, say psychologists, there are steps we can take to free ourselves -- at least partially -- from the tyranny of the crowd.

1. Figure out what matters -- to you, not to others. Recently Raiten-D'Antonio saw a deodorant commercial that emphasized the importance of beautiful armpits. "A young woman was on a subway, and the men around her looked at her armpit and nodded approvingly. And I thought, It's come to this? Now I have to worry about the condition of my armpits?"

The answer is no, you don't. We are so bombarded with messages from our consumer culture that we can completely lose touch with our own values. So the next time you feel that you simply must have something you saw in the pages of a magazine or in your neighbor's driveway, ask yourself, Is this really important to me?

2. Start small. If you're annoyed at yourself for always bowing to others' opinions, "find a subject that is not too inflammatory, where you feel reasonably knowledgeable and armed with enough data to defend your stance," suggests Dr. Solotar. "Maybe it's something as simple as a movie where your opinion is at odds with the majority." If you're training yourself to stand firm, though, "avoid starting with a political discussion, where emotions run high." Ditto discussions in the workplace, where some opinions really are best kept to yourself.

3. Talk yourself down. An inner monologue can help quell your anxiety about, say, expressing an unpopular opinion or buying a pair of shoes you like but that might be considered unstylish. (Clogs, anyone?) "Tell yourself, My opinion counts," advises Dr. Solotar. "I am not wrong just because I'm in the minority."

4. Ask yourself, Am I too harsh in my assessments of others? "A critical step in learning not to be bothered by others' judgments is becoming less judgmental yourself," Dr. Solotar points out. "So the next time you feel anxious about what others think, consider whether it might be because you are so judgmental of others and are merely assuming the same of them." The toughest critics are often the people who are most cowed by peer pressure.

5. Consider how you want to be remembered. "After you're gone, people won't talk about the car you owned or how thin your thighs were after the lipo," says Raiten- D'Antonio. "They'll remember who you were." Even if you are not universally loved, "being real is its own reward, because your life becomes a custom-designed work of art."

Now, I won't swear there isn't another pink rabbit-fur shrug in my future. But the next time someone asks me what I think and I know my opinion won't be popular.... Well, just for novelty's sake, I'll try telling the truth.