Every day I shove my way through the long, crowded halls of the high school, and I sometimes feel like I am entering unprepared into the midst of an impromptu fashion show. All around me, students model flowing dresses, ripped jeans, fishnet leggings, winged eyeliner, frilly skirts, platform boots, oversized band shirts, printed crop tops and elaborate collections of jewelry that collide and clink as they stride towards their next class. I used to think I was interesting for dying the tips of my hair purple, but now, among the emerging boldness of my peers, I merely fade into the background.
It seems that as we get older, high schoolers are increasingly turning towards more adventurous, personal styles. This exciting trend perhaps partly attributes itself to the influx of time alone to self-reflect during the pandemic and the rising presence of fashion trends on TikTok. But in Brookline, I notice, it seems to be mostly feminine-presenting people who have embraced this cultural development. The boys—in their sweatpants, hoodies and cotton t-shirts—at times look strikingly the same to me.
This major discrepancy in clothing patterns along gender lines speaks to societal issues in a larger sense. More so than ever before, girls and gender non-conforming people reject cultural expectations. We liberate ourselves to dress how we like, thus producing a thrilling diversity of creative expression.
Of course, not all feminine-presenting students are wearing flashy, elaborate outfits on a daily basis, but should they choose to, that risk is more encouraged within the social framework of the high school. And yet, the masculine identity, almost entirely devoid of clothing variation at the high school, remains repressed.
Straight, cisgender boys exist tentatively in our society. We teach them to be hyper-aware of any move that veers too feminine and, out of this fear, boys limit themselves to what they know will be accepted. In staggering numbers they dress the same as each other and ultimately blend into an embodiment of stereotypes.
I worry that in doing so, they stifle an innate human need for self-expression. Personal style is an outlet to interpret and explore our emotional existence, and when we force ourselves to assimilate into the crowd, we lose the ability to fully discover our own identities. In this sense, conformity can deprive us from the most interesting and exciting parts of adolescence.
When we stop hiding from the unknown depths of our complicated identities, there is a sense of freedom that radiates from our interactions with each other. We reconnect with an intrinsic open mindedness that makes us excited to absorb the world. We become less judgmental, more friendly and at peace.
But for many of the masculine-presenting students at the high school, it seems there is an unspoken acknowledgement place, restricting how they can dress, talk and interact with each other into a narrow set of learned mannerisms.
This underlying current of toxic masculinity creeps throughout the high school, perhaps extending into other aspects of our culture. From what I’ve noticed, feminine-identifying people are more friendly and quicker to compliment each other than their masculine identifying counterparts. Is it too feminine to be nice?
When I talk to my peers about schoolwork, the boys I know are less likely to admit to working hard. They cling to the “I barely studied” or “I did that in ten minutes.” Is it too feminine to put effort into school work?
I often get the feeling that when boys talk with each other there are inclinations, thoughts and feelings that hide under the surface. Instead of saying what they would naturally, they filter their personality into a confined language and lean into humor at all times. Is it too feminine to say what you really think? Is it too feminine to be serious sometimes? The list goes on and on.
I do not envy the position of the straight cisgender boy. Surely plenty of boys at the high school, if not most, feel completely content with the clothes that they wear. But it is the expectation of sameness, the absence of option, that robs them from considering the beautiful complexities and mysteries of our existence.
Fashion is a way of outwardly communicating the unexplainable inner happenings of our minds and souls. When societally ingrained attitudes prevent this self-expression for some people, we are all worse off.