Being 'alternative' has been a big part of my life for a very long time. As a kid I felt different - whether I was not accepted by the majority of my peers because I felt myself to be different, or whether they noticed I was a bit weird before I did... it became, in my mind, very clear that there was an Us (weirdos, boffs, freaks and geeks) and a Them (you know. The Popular Kids).
The Us and Them thing became an important factor in my life. In my teens, the 'Us' was me and my partner (in our respective guises as a burgeoning mallgoth and a long-haired metalhead) and our friends (a fluctuating assortment of nerds, baby punks, metalheads and other oddballs) and the 'Them' were the local chavs (or townies as we called them then), who hassled us in one way or another on a regular basis. Instead of being a badge of shame, being one of Us, being different from the tracksuited morons we regularly came into contact with, became a mark of pride.
Instead of being unaccepted because I was a bit odd and liked reading, I had decided for myself that I didn't need Them to accept me. Being alternative, to me, meant that I was glad not to be one of Them, and my dress sense, music taste and preferred activities were not only no longer something to feel self-conscious about or to hide (as I had felt in my pre-teen years, trying hard to fit in), but now actively making me something separate.
This mindset continued throughout my teens and into my early twenties. I adopted 'being alternative' as part of my identity, and enjoyed deliberately dressing in a way that marked me out as 'somebody different'. I wanted people to know that I wasn't being force-fed mainstream pop culture; that I had found my own interests and sense of identity outside of mass marketing and the everyday. At times I felt quite militant about it - I wasn't above making snide remarks about 'mundanes'.
When I branched out from Goth into what I now think of as the Flailing Years, careering from one potential subculture to another, and failed to find another scene that felt like it 'fit' me, for a while I became disillusioned with the alternative scenes in general. The things that irritated me in the mainstream (elitism, bullying, body shame etc) were still rife in the alt scenes, at least locally, and I wanted a break from it.
So first I tried 'being normal' for a while, blending in. It was fun at first, I guess because it was new and different, but not only was building a new, would-be-trendy identity hard on my bank balance, it wasn't great for my self-esteem either. I felt like I was being put into competition with other women. Whether this was actually the case, or whether it just seemed to me like younger, trendier, cooler girls with better eyebrows were smirking at my wannabe ass I really don't know, but it seemed that way. I felt like I had back in late primary and early secondary school, when I was always two steps behind the trends and rushing to keep up, to impress the Popular Kids (or at least dissuade them from setting my hair on fire with a Bunsen burner). It reminded me why I chose to remove myself from that whole situation by striking out into 'the alternative' in the first place.
|Little Miss Normal! I don't have many pictures of me in more recent years; when I stopped blogging I stopped taking outfit photos. This is me (in Paris) circa 2013, just after I cut off my dreadlocks.|
|And for comparison, me in 2010.|
However, my forays into the mainstream and back again made me re-think my Us and Them mentality. The friends I remain closest to are a mixed bunch; none of them fashion followers, predominantly self-described nerds, one or two Goths. Whilst the majority of them do not dress in a particularly alternative way, they each have an individual style (which, I might add, seems to have evolved by accident rather than obsessive use of Pinterest) and like things which are a bit different. This got me thinking that being 'alternative' is more than having a sidecut and a pair of cool boots. It's more about a different way of thinking, of looking at things, of accepting one's passions, whether trendy or otherwise. Of not just doing what is dictated to you.
Now that I write this out, it seems fairly obvious. Fashion isn't the be-all and end-all of any subculture. But it took looking 'normal' to show me that sometimes the people that are most 'alternative' and unconventional are not the ones who look it. Simply put, I feel like a shit for occasionally assuming that people who weren't as spooky as me were automatically 'less alternative'. So, I suppose, what I'm asking is:
- what is being 'alternative' to you?
- why do some of us want to mark ourselves out as being other than the norm? Because it's fun to be weird? Because the mainstream is oppressive? Because we have special snowflake syndrome? All of the above?
- can you look 'normal' and still be alternative? (Are some of 'Them', 'Us' in disguise?)
- is blindly following trends in the alternative scenes really any different than following mainstream trends? (DO people blindly follow alternative trends? I have such mixed feelings on this - I don't know if there's a definite answer. I mean, if that was the case for somebody, you're choosing to look different, which I think is always great, but you might still be getting dressed in the mornings according to what somebody else higher up the fashion food chain thinks is cool, rather than expressing something that's uniquely you. Or shaming people who aren't as kewl and different as you. Are some of 'Us', 'Them' in disguise?)
Would love to get some other people's thoughts on this! I'm hoping we can get a discussion going. I don't suppose there is a solid and definite answer to what does or doesn't make a person alternative, but I'm interested to know what you guys think about it.