Chapter 11: Facing peer pressure

Peer pressure is powerful. It is so powerful that it can make us ditch our principles, values, and habits, only because we want to belong. We are social creatures; hence why we fear nothing more than social exclusion. We know that defying norms often leads to negative judgements which, in turn, can cause exclusion. But we do not want to be excluded. Accordingly, we comply with the group. We rather conform than risk facing bad judgement even though this might entail hiding our true selves. Besides, we may secretly admire the brave among us who stand against the group, challenge the norm, and strongly defend themselves against negative evaluation, accepting that the group may turn away from them.

We have all seen the ugly face of peer pressure before. It probably peaked during puberty when we were just starting to search for and establish our self-identity. During adolescence our values and principles were easily knocked over like a cardboard  by the wind. Looking back onto my teenage-self, I remember a dozen incidences where peer pressure forced me into compromising myself. I can now only shake my head in disbelief about my teenage-self because my teenage-self was incredibly self-conscious, unsure, easily overturned, extremely suggestible, and overly concerned about “fitting in”.

My fear of negative judgement, of being bullied and excluded, extended so far that I did not even flinch from harming myself. Imagine a high school’s girls’ changing room just before PE class. You can straightforwardly picture the loaded potential for mean comparison, for bullies, for body-shaming, and for an ocean of tears cried in silence. I did not only hate having to get changed in front of everyone, I dreaded the very day of PE class every week. I felt ashamed exposing my body because of my body hair. I knew that girls in my class shaved…like full-body shaved, and I knew how disgusted they were by any hair not growing on their heads, especially pubic hair.

Having very dark and strong body hair, I had to deal with pejorative comments about it. I had to endure the girls, and boys (though not in the changing room), examine me with disgusted faces. At some point I felt too cornered, too uncomfortable, and too embarrassed. I thus started to shave full-body as well. The problem was however that I hurt myself every single time I shaved because I was born with eczema – a skin condition that does not react well to constant shaving. To make it even worse, I had to shave about every third day as my hair was growing too quickly. Because of that I was soon sprinkled in red, dry, itchy spots, especially on my thighs and intimate areas. They were painful and ugly. Yet, I was willing to let my skin suffer if it meant that the girls would not bully me for my body hair.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Similarly, peer pressure coerced me into replacing pads with tampons on days of PE class although it was physical ordeal for me to use tampons. In addition to physically abusing my own body, peer pressure got me to violate the fundamental ethical moral of being honest and authentic. For instance, I pretended that I had kissed a boy before, and I lied about having had a boyfriend in the past; I lied because I did not want to be left out by my friends who were all more experienced with boys than I was back at that time.  I was horrified by the idea of admitting that I had been untouched as I was afraid of my friends’ gossip and jokes about me. My perceived norm of the amount of experience a girl should have had with a boy by age 16 got me believing that no experience with a boy meant that I was ugly, unlovable, and boring.

You may question my definition of friendship, seeing that I called girls who made fun of me my friends. I agree, they were not truly my friends, but I did not realise that as an insecure teenager. Some part of my heart is very much bleeding now, thinking back to my high school time – to how powerful peer pressure had ruled over me. With age, I learned that true friends would never judge, or bully; I learned that any person who does not even try to understand where I am coming from is not worth my time or energy. With growing confidence, I also learned how to stand my ground against peer pressure – at least I am trying to resist it more determinedly nowadays. Nevertheless, I occasionally still catch myself being enslaved to peer pressure.

Last weekend, for example, I was on the verge of throwing my resolution to not drink over board. I had been invited to a BYOB-kind-of birthday party. I totally did not feel like drinking alcohol. Picturing myself being interrogated at the party about my lack of an alcoholic drink got me worrying though. Such an interrogation has happened to me quite a few times when I was out with friends and other less familiar people. I cannot explain to you why but people seem to feel the necessity to strongly doubt my decision for staying sober, and to forcefully inquire about the reasons for my abstinence. On the other hand, nobody would persistently ask why you decided to drink tonight. Nobody questions your decision to consume alcohol on a night out since it is perceived as the social norm. In contrast, if you are the one person not conforming, you stand out, you get questions, and you can be never sure whether the “Good on you” comment is meant genuinely.

I ended up defeating peer pressure, arriving at said party without any alcoholic drink. Opposed to my expectation, I was totally fine (this time) as my friends respected my decision without questioning it. I got spared to stand the test against peer pressure on this occasion. Be that as it may, you and I – we all will face peer pressure so many more times in the future, I am certain.

Nobody will ever fully escape the fangs of peer pressure. Feeling peer pressure is human and it is not entirely functionless, in fact. Experiencing peer pressure shows that you care about social norms and caring about social rules is essential for our society to survive as we would otherwise end up in a world of anarchy and chaos.

“The trick is to succumb to enough pressure that you do not drive your peers away, but not so much that you end up in a situation in which you are dead or otherwise uncomfortable. This is a difficult trick, and most people never master it, and end up dead or uncomfortable at least once during their lives.”

Lemony Snicket, The End

So, how do we go on from here? Well, first of all, remember that it is normal and okay to feel peer pressure as long as we carefully monitor how much power it has over us. Nobody will blame you for giving in to peer pressure because we all know how hard it is to not succumb to the pressure. Whenever you may face peer pressure again, know that resisting it will almost certainly involve tackling feelings of uncomfort, fears of devaluation, and temptations to feign fitting in with the group. At the same time, know that in the long run you will most likely regret it more if you had disguised yourself, and held back, than if you had fought the pressure to conform. Staying true to yourself, following your very own, unique, and wonderful way will ultimately reward you more than you may believe in the moment when the pressure arises.  

There is two sides to the coin as well. One is to be the individual that defeats peer pressure, the other is to be the group that does not encourage peer pressure in the first place. A group that clearly does not welcome, or understand deviation from its group norms manifests the very source of peer pressure. Therefore, be the group that encourages and repsects diversity as long as this non-conformity does not hurt any member of your group. Being different is what makes people interesting; diversity invites us to learn and understand; and respecting the decisions others make, without judging them, is key to disburden us from peer pressure.

Treat others as you would like to be treated

The Golden Rule

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