It's no secret that I'm a self-proclaimed fashionista. I love fashion, and I love making and wearing spectacular, interesting, and outrageous things, as well as pushing the boundaries of gender norms. Clothing is one of the most fun, creative, and personal ways that we can express ourselves. Some time ago, I was wearing a burgundy velvet coat while I was out and about. Actually, that coat was one of my tamest outfits, and not something I made myself. In fact, it was a replica of Aragorn's coat from the scene in Return of the King at the very end when the fellowship is reunited in Rivendell. I wore it into one store, and a young child, a girl of perhaps six or so, took notice. With a look of wonder, she said, "Wow!", then tugged on her mother's sleeve, pointed to me, and said, "he looks like a magician!" I smiled and gave a small, slow bow. She smiled back with amazement. Then, not five minutes later, in another store right next door, a couple of boys took notice of me. They looked to be about twelve or thirteen. The expressions on their faces were somewhat different than the girl's. When they thought I wasn't looking, they pointed, laughed, and I distinctly heard the words "stupid" and "gay" muttered. How interesting.
The age at which children develop a "theory of mind" is often called the "age of reason". (I've always been given to understand that this is approximately eight years old, though I'm not sure.) It is an inevitable, necessary, and crucial development, but something tragic also seems to happen to a great many children at this age. They are often inevitably poisoned by the media, their peers, and society. The little girl didn't see an idiot or an outcast who was stupid for not conforming to the typical clothing norms. She saw something amazing and wondrous, and she left the store with new ideas. The older boys saw an idiot, and left the store wondering why someone would do something so stupid. Why? What's the difference? It's not much of a mystery, really. As we grow, we pick up all sorts of information from a multitude of sources about how we're supposed to be in the world, what's acceptable and what's not, and so forth. As we soak up more and more information, we start to helplessly form pictures of what people should be, and then judge those who don't fit that image. Adolescents in particular often deem anyone who doesn't conform into just the right boxes to be a fool worthy of ridicule. The young child, however, hasn't yet had the opportunity to be told that people in her culture are supposed to only wear pants and shirts, and that dresses are only for girls, and that boys have short hair, and that girls like pink unicorns and boys like red monster trucks. The child sees possibilities. For the child, the world is open, and full of opportunities. If something looks awesome, or cool, or beautiful, then it is. The child doesn't stop to question the outfit, or the hairstyle, or whatever it is, and run in through a mental database, checking and cross referencing to determine if it fits the cultural norm, and then rejecting it if it doesn't. The only question that matters to the child is simple: "Do I like it?"
As we grow, we seem to lose so many of the possibilities that are, in principle, always open to us. When we're young, there's so many ideas that seem fun and wonderful, though at that underdeveloped age, we haven't the knowledge, experience, skills, tools, or presence of mind to articulate them, or do much with them. As we age, we are fed the information from our peers and the media, and we begin to think that our ideas were stupid, that we can't dress that way, or do or like that thing we wanted to. Most of us conform to one or another degree, consciously or otherwise. I believe that much of our creativity and individuality is stifled, unbeknownst to us. So much of what makes us beautiful is lost when we reach the age at which chief among our primary concerns becomes what others think of us.
I can speak to this from personal experience. As I said, I have always loved fashion and costumes. As a child, there was rarely a time at home when I didn't have a bed sheet tied around me as a cape or cloak. I didn't wear anything outlandish as a child when I went out of the house, however, because my parents just bought me normal clothes, obviously. As I grew up, I began to desire to wear more unusual things, but I dared not because I was too afraid. I just conformed to the societal norms. I was bullied in school for my appearance, and most of this torment was just incomprehensible to me, and still is. I liked wearing graphic tees in elementary school with pictures of things I liked. Animal shirts were my favorites. I had several shirts with rattlesnakes on them, with the snakes coiling around the front and back. I was actually teased for wearing that, if you can believe it. I had another shirt with tree frogs on it, perched on high up jungle canopy branches, with a clever caption that said "friends in high places". I bought that shirt in Las Vegas, and some of the proceeds went to protect endangered species, including some tree frogs. I got made fun of for that as well. The insults were as devoid of intelligence as you could possibly get. Other kids would basically just point, laugh, and mutter something like "Huh huh huh, frogs, dumb!" I also had long hair until the beginning of eighth grade, which I was tormented for on a daily basis, simply because I was male. All of that changed when I started high school. I cut my hair, and I replaced my wardrobe with plain, solid color tees and cargo pants. All black, grey, and earth tones. That was it. Black, grey, brown, beige. If the color wasn't present in a lifeless, post-apocalyptic Fallout world, then it wasn't on my body, period. I adopted a high school camouflage--my appearance was designed to make me invisible. My entire image was crafted to leave no lasting memory. I was recognizable only as deja vú, and dismissed just as quickly. Anonymity was my name; silence, my native tongue. You get the idea. Point is, it worked. The bullying stopped for the rest of my school days.
Through it all however, I secretly wished to wear unusual and outrageous things, and even things that broke gender norms. Even as a teenager, I started having thoughts about why dresses and skirts are only supposed to be for females. There was one boy at my high school who didn't let anyone else dictate how he dressed. He had long hair, and he dressed in a gothic, effeminate style, and he looked f*ckin' awesome. One day he wore a long, black coat with an A-line dress cut from the waist down, and corset lacings in the back. He looked a lot like this:
I thought it looked amazing. Of course, that boy was a social outcast, and was tormented incessantly. The poisoning actually infected me as well, though I wouldn't realize it for some years. I was actually afraid to talk to him, partly because I knew that if I did, I would instantly be branded an outcast as well, but also because I actually had a subconscious suspicion that there must be something wrong with him if everyone hated and tormented him that much. Where there was that much smoke, there had to be some fire. How sad! How toxic that was, for it turns out that he was a perfectly nice guy, and might have made a great friend.
Now, the sad truth is that I actually think that my camouflage was in my best interest, and I'm not sorry I did it. The tragic reality is that high school is f*cking cruel, and for many, it's just better and easier to blend in, take the path of least resistance, ride it out, keep your head down, and just get through it. Pick your battles and all. For many, adulthood is a better time for social experimentation. Sometimes, standing out and being yourself in school is just too painful to be worth it. If you have the strength and fortitude, and you can take the abuse, then major props to you. I couldn't.
After high school however, I started having more and more desire to wear different and fancy things. I would look longingly at Final Fantasy characters and wish I could wear things like that. For ten years I looked, longed, and daydreamed, but tried nothing, all because the poison was too deeply entrenched. I didn't try wearing anything unusual because I literally didn't think I could. The thought didn't even register. It was as if it was illegal. Society had taught me what I was allowed to wear: pants, shorts, shirts, and that was it. I mean, the very notion that I actually could wear anything else didn't even cross my mind, and wouldn't until I was twenty-eight. I finally figured out how reality works, and the floodgates opened. The poison just vanished, almost overnight, like shattering glass, and I could finally see. The possibilities that existed in childhood were still there. What looks cool actually is cool. If you love the way an outfit in some fantasy video game looks, then there's no reason you can't wear it in real life! It doesn't look stupid! The rules society makes up are arbitrary and meaningless. Much of what we think matters doesn't. Of course, even though I had figured that out, it would take many more difficult years of trying to wear these things in public before I would feel comfortable. The first time was a black, ancient Greek styled skirt modeled after what Kratos wears in God of War, and a top modeled after Cloud's sleeveless shirt in Advent Children. I went with my mom to the wild bird store to get some seed for her feeders. I was shaking from fear. I was terrified. I went in, walked around the store for about thirty seconds, and ran right back out to the car, relieved to be in private again. There was no one in the store but one employee--a kind, sweet, middle-aged woman.
It took years of conditioning before I would feel bold and comfortable, but I believe I'm finally there. I grew my hair long again, and I wear all the things I've always wanted to, everything I looked longingly at, saying, "I wish I could..." Some hurdles remain, and I'm always pushing the boundaries, but I now regularly go out to malls, stores, and restaurants dressed like Fang from Final Fantasy 13, and I feel great doing it. That's just one example.
In principle, there is no reason why our mental development must come with this tragic corruption. Developing a theory of mind needn't come bundled with this extra software that makes us judge, conform, and reject anything that doesn't fit into the boxes that society has constructed. We can grow and learn without losing the endless possibilities we had as children.
We begin life as a blank slate. As we reach the age of reason, we acquire many positive skills and knowledge, but we also become poisoned. We forget what could be, and focus only on what is. Many free themselves of the poison as adults, and realize how immature those narrow minded views were. Many do not, and many who do have already lost many of their best years to be their authentic selves. A lucky few have a natural immunity to the poison. Most do not. Only through continued knowledge, exposure, and wisdom do we stand a chance of finding a cure.