I tend to write about things that I’ve experienced myself, and since I’m a sociology student, I also tend to enjoy making generalizations. So as always, feel free to shoot me down constructively, but I think I have a hunch about something:

The schools I attended before college were pretty anxious spaces – they were really good public schools where the focus for pretty much everyone in my classes was about getting into the most elite college possible. In fact, everything we did was assessed on the basis of how much it would help you get into a good college. Everyone knew each other’s SAT I & II scores, grades, and extracurricular activities. Everyone knew which extracurricular activities were more important, everyone knew which classes were more important, and everyone knew which schools were the best. This was how, for most of us, we saw the path for success; the path to become authentic, successful selves. Nothing else was more important.

The problem comes, of course, when you forget that some other things in your life are important. Like when you process your worth based on these communal definitions of success about limited kinds of academic performance, and any failures along the way risk indicating that you are nothing, a nobody. And should you fail, you have to be prepared to explain your failure along a narrative of success (“well, I didn’t do so well on the verbal section of the SAT I, but I got a perfect on the SAT II Writing Section, and my personal statement is very well written”). Any admissions officer at an elite college or university knows that the narrative of your school performance and your life, for that matter, directly affects your relative chances at being admitted.

I think what’s pretty commonly known is that although this kind of thinking seems limited to academic performance and admission to the nation’s best colleges, it’s also the logic that seems to follow a lot about other kinds of ideals – especially gender ideals. Gender and sexuality are narratives like any other. It’s a combination of images of success at any given time and their meaning along various hierarchies (Brad Pitt - unwaveringly masculine sexual ideal; Reese Witherspoon - intelligent and appropriately beautiful relationship ideal; Barack Obama - attractive, traditionally masculine, reliable leader). If you’re aiming to be a leader by society’s standards, you can pick one or a few of these ideals and carve your narrative on the path to success. Some people go at any length, carving not only their mind but also their body, the way they relate to others, their physical movements – what kind of handshake they give or how they posture.

Not everyone abides by these intense performance regimes, I don’t think. But a lot of people do, and I’d argue that nearly everyone does at some level. In the U.S. and other highly developed countries we seem to think we have these limitless possibilities of the self – so much opportunity. You can do anything! But it’s not really true, of course. There are rules washing over us all the time, reminding us of the consequences of certain thoughts and actions.

What would happen if the world ignored you because they don’t approve? You would be ignored. You won’t make friends. You can’t relate to other people. You won’t get a job. You won’t be sexually or romantically desirable. You won’t find love, which from what you’ve heard, means everything in life. You won’t get married, and you won’t have kids. You will be missing from the stories celebrated by everyone. And there’s nothing worse than that.

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