How To Identify The "Conformity Paradox" — And Why It's So Dangerous

In chasing an aesthetic, did we forget who we are? Or did we sacrifice our individuality for a different flavor of conformity?

group of women all dressed in the same aesthetic GaudiLab | Shutterstock

Editor's Note: This is a part of YourTango's Opinion section where individual authors can provide varying perspectives for wide-ranging political, social, and personal commentary on issues.

With all the talk about the movie Oppenheimer hitting the news, I was getting a couple of flashbacks to my past as a high schooler with ties to Student Pugwash. This was a program that had to deal with nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project.


I miss STEM sometimes. I get nostalgic for the old me some days, especially when it comes to the books I read. The other day, I was thinking about a book I read back in the day: Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.

As the name suggests, the book was written by Oppenheimer Project member and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman — a major player in the game who was famous for being a genius with a well-rounded past.

Later on that day, I started a chat with my husband about my early school days and casually mentioned that the only school where I wasn’t bullied that badly was in private school.

It was a school with uniforms, and I’m a fan of uniforms for that reason. I loved how easy it was to connect with people when we all looked the same and didn’t worry about fashion or who could afford expensive clothes.


That’s when I started to realize something that was amiss. For all the individualism we tout, I’m starting to see it as a form of looksism. Let me explain what I noticed in a series of photographs and videos.

​RELATED: 4 Rare Traits Of People Who Know How To Think For Themselves

This is a photograph of Dr. Feynman, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

Richard Feynman looks like…well, he looks like just about everyone from the 1940s, doesn’t he? He has woolen socks, a white button-down shirt, shoes made of leather, and uh, pants, I guess.

Feynman, while a remarkable man, looked totally unremarkable — albeit, a a bit handsome. If I asked you to pick him out from a crowd, I don’t think you would be able to. In a 1940s photo, he’d be another face in a sea of people who looked just like him.


And yet, Feynman was famous for making a nuclear bomb, playing the bongos, lockpicking, surfing, and hanging out with frat boys. Feynman was incredibly well-rounded and was a Renaissance man to the core.

​RELATED: Women Reveal How They Really Feel About Dating Guys In Fraternities

Now let’s look at Pablo Picasso.

Right now, you are watching Pablo Picasso painting something. When he wasn’t shirtless, he was wearing button-down shirts and sweater vests. He looked like everyone’s grandpa. And yet, this was Pablo Picasso.


This is unusual because he was one of the most important creative minds of the 20th century, especially prior to 1950. If you were not an art student, you probably couldn’t pick him out from a crowd.

However, if you found out he was Picasso, I’m willing to bet that you would be ready to sit down and listen to him speak regardless of what he wore. I know I would be.

​RELATED: 6 Nonconformist Zodiac Signs Who Don't Care What Other People Think Of Them

This is where I started to notice a conformity paradox affecting our society.

Prior to 1960, society was far more conformist than it was today.

When most people think about geniuses, they think about people who look like Salvador Dali, have crazy hair like Einstein, or have that spark of madness like Jodorowski. However, prior to 1950, those people were the exception — not the rule.


Most of the greatest minds of that time were fairly plain-looking people. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out from a crowd unless you knew them well. They all still wore the same things and had the same accent.

The concept of subcultures and counterculture movements was fringe at best prior to 1950. Even when they existed, people generally dressed the same as their neighbors. You could not tell the difference between a scientist and a shoe salesman back in the day.

Back then, people dressed the same, talked the same, went to the same schools, and even ate the same foods. Everyone had the same "look" to them. If your clothing was a bit too weird, you could easily end up attacked in the street. It was a corporate-mandated form of looksism.

​RELATED: Forget Being Normal — Why Social Norms Are Meant To Be Broken


This is a photograph series of 90s club kids.

#Mypeople, right? Well, yes, but there’s something to be seen here. Every single club kid in this photo was doing their own designs and makeup; it was a rebellion about partying and being yourself.


Do you know what’s interesting about this, though? Most of the people of the 90s club kid scene ended up making money writing about their experiences or by being media personalities based on the outfits they wore back then.

Speaking as a raver and a club kid myself, the movement was defined by the pursuit of an aesthetic — and drugs, but mostly the aesthetic. Everything else kind of went into the backseat the more that looks and outfits mattered.

As someone in the NY underground rave scene, I can’t help but notice how often I am in a room with everyone who speaks the same, thinks the same things, has the same habits, and eats the same food. They all have the same hobbies, too.

The underground rave scene is so uniform that it’s actually rare to see people develop romantic relationships with outsiders. Every married couple I know who lasted either becomes one of us or they break up before they walk down the aisle.


My Conformity Paradox suggests that more conformist societies encourage uniqueness through personality.

Think about it this way: our current society tends to divide people into identities that are fairly prefabricated. You can identify by your race or sexuality by your aesthetics or by the subculture you joined.

In a high-conformity society, everyone looks the same and behaves the same. While you may have an emphasis on your race, gender, or nationality, the truth is that most people will still all fit in the same box — more or less.

So, how do you figure out what makes you different in a high-conformity society? It’s simple: you have to develop your personality. You set yourself apart by your personality, your hobbies, and what you know.


In a low-conformity, high-aesthetic/subculture society, you can tell which “clique” a person is in by the clothes they wear and where they hang out. Your clothing can often become a replacement for your personality. At times, it can even predict your job.

Look at this photograph of a guy. He’s your everyday normal dude. Is he an artist or a tech guy? A lot of us would guess tech because of the glasses and button-down shirt. But, didn’t we just reduce him to a label based on his looks?

What if he’s the next Alec Monopoly?


We wouldn’t know. We put that much stock in how people look and the subcultures and identities we associate with people.

In chasing an aesthetic, we may conform more than we would if everyone dressed the same.

The author of this article holding a bling necklace and wearing pink

Photo: Courtesy of author.

​RELATED: Man Uses Fake Influencer App To Document How He Gets Treated When People Think He's Famous


Our society has become so obsessed with picking the right clothes and image to fit the mold, we've actively started to trim away the curiosity and enrichment that once defined us. Looksism is winning and not in a good way.

I don’t know about you, but I know way too many people who won’t do something if it’s not for Instagram or money. Being different in a way that doesn’t cost money is a lot harder these days, simply because it seems to be a dying art.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a deeply aesthetic person who expresses my emotions via clothes quite often — but I’m not just a subculture. I can’t name how many people I know, though, who are entirely wrapped up in a subculture and limit their growth by doing so.

I don’t know what to say here, because every major subculture and identity out there was made as a result of a need for differentiation or statement-making. And yet, here we are, muzzling our potential for the same pursuit of identity that once freed us.


Having realized this, I’ve made a note to myself to avoid judging people right off the bat by the clothes they wear. You never know whether the raver you're talking to is a writer…or if that old grandpa you just met was a friend of Dali’s.

RELATED: How To Be Genuinely Popular — In A Way That's Not Grossly Fake

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, Newtheory Magazine, and others.