The other day Tom and I were on our way to pick Claire and her friend up from the local movie theater, where they’d seen “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” We must have been 30 seconds late, because my phone dinged with a text: Where r u?! As we approached we spotted them standing in front of the theater, but it wasn’t until we pulled right up to the curb and were about to yell out the window for them to hop in that we realized, “That’s not Claire and Helen!” It was two other 14-ish year old girls wearing black leggings, Ugg boots, hooded jackets, upswept ponytails, and holding phones.
Desmond Morris was a renowned animal ethologist for decades before turning to humans as his subject, and publishing The Naked Ape in 1967 (inspiration for a 1980s PBS series). In his extensive study of human behavior, Morris explores the many biological activities that humans share with animals, including: sex; the rearing of young; exploration and migration; finding food; the formation of groups, flocks and tribes; and the seeking of comfort. Morris is intrigued by the ways these biological behaviors have shaped themselves to fit the parameters of modern human population centers, urban places, and technological interface. I was fascinated by his thoughts on the need for humans, and humans that are coming-of-age in particular, to conform to a group through clothing, jewelry, and even mode of communication.
When my independent-minded, free-spirited young daughter became a teenager, suddenly concerned with wearing the exact same clothes as everyone else and talking to her friends primarily via text-message, I felt like a failure. Naomi Klein’s No Logo is coffee table reading in this house, and now my kid only wants to shop at Hollister. Where did I go wrong? Morris’s work re-frames this: no, she’s not a mindless conformist zombie automaton. She’s seeking–and finding–group identity, as humans her age have always done, through the culturally recognized adornments of the day.
Working to change the culture and construct more meaningful identifiers than those desirable by Claire’s peer group over time is an essential goal; but in the meantime, foisting my hippie ways on a teenager who has to go school every day might actually run counter to her positive psycho-biological development. A positive feeling of peer security and belonging at this difficult age sets the stage for creative/artistic individuation in the later teenage years, and into adulthood. Does this mean that I buy her every little conformist tidbit she thinks she wants? Yeah, uh, no. But I do think more compassionately about what these things mean for kids her age.
For more on creating meaningful cultural identities from birth to death, I highly recommend Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul.
[Apologies to all the commenters on this post: we had a techno-glitch, and your comments were lost.]