Maybe You Should Try Not Being So Much Yourself.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When I was a teenager, I bathed maybe once a week. I also didn’t believe in combing my hair. And my junk continually itched, so I’d have to reach down and scratch my balls from time to time, which – I am reluctant to say – I’d do in class.

I could not understand why I was so alone in high school.

And if life was a movie, what I would have learned after a whacky adventure was that I just needed to be more myself! Stay true to me, and friendships will follow.

Whereas the truth was that I stunk like a velour-clad hobo. And according to the social mores of the school, I’d marked myself as a weirdo.

Fortunately, as time went by, I paid attention to the signs. When I asked, “Why am I so alone?” I made note of the things that the bullies made fun of me for – and my unwashed hair and self-crotch-grabbing were top on the list.

After months of loneliness, I started to think, “….Maybe this is something that people care about.”

Because I wasn’t dodging showers thanks to some moral commitment – I just didn’t think it was all that important. My hair was uncombed because I never noticed anyone’s hair, so why would I notice mine? And while yeah, my balls itched, I wasn’t on a crusade to make people care about public testicular manipulation. I was itchy, so I scratched.

I couldn’t see how these irrelevant things mattered to anyone.

Out of sheer curiosity, I performed a scientific experiment: for a semester, I’d do these stupid things and see what happened. So I started to comb my hair. (Being me, I flipped to “combing my hair obsessively,” to the point where people made fun of me for my nervous habit of combing my hair, but hey, at least that was an improvement.) I showered more often – which had the unexpected benefit of making my junk itch less. And when I had to scratch the jimmies, I went into the bathroom like, apparently, normal people did.

You know what happened?

I discovered that people cared about really stupid things.

I won’t say I became the belle of the ball, but the average kids in the school went from “actively mocking me” to “ignoring me” – which, let me tell you, is a major upgrade when you’re getting bullied.

The science teachers taught me how old scientists had discovered tiny, invisible creatures called bacteria that nobody could see, but caused huge changes in life. I sympathized. Because in my Great Washing Experiment, I had discovered that there were invisible rules – things I utterly did not care about myself, but apparently made other people act in wildly different methods.

I came to realize that my personality was, in large part, an unconscious negotiation. Showing up in Cheeto-stained clothes told people something about how I was going to interact with them. They reacted accordingly.

If I paid attention to these invisible rules, I could change what people thought of me.

And as time went by, I discovered these rules weren’t “invisible” so much as “invisible to me.” My Mom had yelled at me to shower. My Dad had told me to stop scratching myself. But I had written all of these warnings off because I didn’t think they should make a difference to people, and so I’d just quietly erased the knowledge.

Over and over and over again.

So I quietly began renegotiating my personality – what did other people care about that I didn’t? It turns out that they didn’t like me changing the topic to something more interesting all that much. Nor did they like it when I raised my voice when I got excited.

Did I want to give up raising my voice when I got excited?

What elements were me, and what elements were negotiable?

“Who I was” became a careful dance. Because some things I didn’t care about – taking ten minutes to shower every morning felt like wasted time, but it really made my life better, so I went for it. Yet other things I did care about – I liked D&D, dammit, and if talking about my noble paladin Delvin Goodheart made me a nerd, then maybe I was a nerd.

I had to calculate costs for these invisible rules. People judged me by my clothing – should I put in the effort to learn how to dress really well, or should I do the bare minimum not to be shunned? (I dressed in nothing but black T-shirts and jeans for years because picking out the “right” clothing stressed me out – but that was enough to be acceptable in most places.)

I learned when you could get away with a good dick joke and when to let the opportunity slide – usually through paying attention to awkward silences and going, “Oh, that’s probably bad, isn’t it?” I learned what sorts of conversations made people uncomfortable, and what made them welcome.

I learned that paying attention was a skill. Those invisible rules? You had to look for them. People often didn’t tell you how you’d fucked up – you had to watch for the tensed shoulders, the glance to one side that said I am hunting for an escape from you.

Slowly, I became someone who was actually kind of liked. I’d become the sort of person who not only got invited to parties, but was actually welcomed at them.

And other unwashed nerds started to envy me. They’d corner me, telling me how I didn’t know what it was like, I was never really a nerd, I mean, look, people like you.

And I’d reply, “I know you think my personality is something inherent – but I used to be a nut-grabbing, unwashed outcast. You can get here from there, man – I know because I did it. And maybe it all starts from believing that there are low-cost ways you can change yourself positively to make a difference with other people. You jus have to pay attention.”

“Nah,” they’d say. “Some people just have it. And others don’t.”

And I want to tell them about the invisible rules. I want to tell them how yes, the way they stand too close to me makes a difference, and the way they arrogantly cut me off in mid-sentence makes a difference, and the way they forgot to wear deodorant this morning makes a difference. I want to tell them that yes, I know you don’t think it should make a difference, but there’s a distinction between the way you want the world to work and the way it does right now, and the sooner you can adjust to at least being aware of all these silly social customs, even if you never actually follow them, the sooner your life will start to change for the better.

But I remember me, back in the day. I remember Mom yelling at me that I had to comb my hair, and me going, “Who cares about that?”

A lot of people, as it turns out. And if I’d chosen not to comb my hair because I believed that my wild mane was important to who I was, and I had strode out to my eighth-grade class knowing that some people would think less of me for it, then that would have been an acceptable cost.

But I didn’t. Like these nerds haranguing me about my personality, I walked out with uncombed hair because I didn’t care, and because of that I blithely assumed that nobody else *could* care.

Alas. The world has an ugly way of teaching you lessons, even if you never learn them.

5 Comments

  1. Rosemarie
    Dec 22, 2016

    I have done this.

  2. Mark
    Dec 22, 2016

    Nice essay and one that rings very familiar. For me it was a weird hairstyle and being both a bit of a know-it-all and strangely obsessed with pleasing everyone that got me bullied a bit in high school. This mostly stopped after I cut my hair a bit differently and stopped trying to please everyone. Would have been nice to have read this essay then to give some context on why all of this happened.

  3. Joshua
    Dec 23, 2016

    I sort of think of this in the same category as why the War on Drugs is responsible for the Meth epidemic. When someone lies to you regularly, you are less inclined to believe them, even when they say true things.

    Marijuana isn’t as bad as they have always claimed it is. It’s basically harmless, and they act like it’s the worst thing ever (or at least they did when I was a kid). They ALSO act like meth is the worst thing ever … and it holyshitnofoolin is. It’s the boy who cried wolf.

    Well, once you’ve figured out that a whole bunch of the things that society values are stupid bullshit, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “ALL the things society values are stupid bullshit!”

    • Alexis Lantgen
      Jan 3, 2017

      What’s funny is that it is all stupid bullshit, if you take a long view of things. Bathing once a week would have been super clean for the Middle Ages (though unacceptable in Ancient Rome, where people were nearly as clean as they are today). On the other hand, being visibly shaken or upset at the sight of slaves being forced to murder each other in a massive public spectacle would have made you a loser weakling in Ancient Rome. Culture is unique to every time and place, and to be socially astute is too find out what that culture values.

      In some cultures, I’d definitely rather be an outcast, so long as that didn’t mean getting burned at the stake. Showering is a small sacrifice, though:)

  4. Helbling
    Dec 25, 2016

    This resonates with me so so hard. Only it took literal years to work it out, because y’know, girl expectations when it comes to hygiene and appearances are different to boy expectations. And in many ways still ongoing.

    *mutters annoyed things about emotional labour*

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