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What exactly is peer pressure and how do I deal with it?

When I was 13, I used to go to school with a giant carrier bag with all my books in it, and a teeny tiny handbag. We all did it, it was the ‘cool thing to do’, and the rest of the year group followed suit. I sh*t you not. Looking back, it’s totally ridiculous—just take a bigger bag! But it mattered, and the type of carrier bag mattered (Jane Norman or River Island, obvs—no Tesco riff raff)… until the following year, when we all got square black Warehouse bags.

While this is, of course, hilarious, there’s a lesson to be learned here: what’s popular is so fleeting, and often so laughable in hindsight (sometimes bordering on flat-out ridiculous) it questions the very essence of what it means to conform, and why we want to do it in the first place. In essence, it’s governed peer pressure and, more broadly speaking, social expectations.

Now you might be thinking “I take my Herschel rucksack to school because it’s awesome, and I like it, not because my friends do” and that may well be true, but there’s no doubting that we’re all affected by our surroundings (it’s got a technical term, socialisation—sort of like the whole nature/nurture thing)—and if it can affect which bag we take to school. How much else is it affecting, too? What about the way you talk (that ‘voice’ you do with your mates, or the inside jokes you have) or even the way that you treat other people?

I often take pride in the fact I was a ‘nice’ girl at school; that I had friends in different groups and generally got on with most people. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see girls—and admittedly sometimes friends—doing things I didn’t like. I had a friend who constantly ripped into a girl in our year. At the time it was easy to think ‘she’s just joking, everyone takes the piss out of everyone, it’s not really bullying… is it?’ well, yes, it is. While I wouldn’t say I was ‘peer pressured’ into allowing such behaviour, in a way I was. I wouldn’t treat somebody like that, so why didn’t I think to mention it made me uncomfortable? When does not saying something become as bad as actively joining in?

We’ve all heard the ‘good samaritan’ story, but there’s a deeper significance here: peer pressure, or rather social conformity, affects us in ways we probably don’t even realise. No one wants to look like they’re being boring, or awkward, or making a fuss over nothing.

When we were younger, it was quite normal to call something rubbish or boring ‘gay’—I didn’t even consider the implications of that until I was much older, and feel utterly ashamed that it was said so whimsically. But everyone said it, and we didn’t actually mean anything homophobic by it, so it just sort of… happened. I didn’t even think about it.

And that’s the point, peer pressure and conformity isn’t just about being pressured into smoking, or having sex when you’re not ready to, or doing drugs, as your token PSHE lesson on ‘just saying no’ would lead you to believe. It’s important to think about what you’re doing and the reasons behind it—and stand up for how you truly feel and think is right.

If you’ve got butterflies in your stomach, or you feel awkward when a friend does something you don’t agree with, say something. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, it could be as simple as ‘I don’t really feel comfortable with that, so I’m not going to do it’, or it could be a case of simply walking away… or it could be that really, you shouldn’t be friends with them at all.

As I’ve gotten older, our group has become much smaller (the one that constantly ripped that girl in the playground? Shock, we don’t see her anymore. Turns out she’s not a very nice person) but it’s much tighter and we are all significantly happier for it.

While it doesn’t always have to go as far as not being friends with that person, it’s important to have the confidence to speak your mind, stand firm in your opinions and only do and say what you think is right, and be with people that even if they don’t always agree, respect your views.

It’s all about having confidence in yourself—and what’s cooler than being confident and comfortable in your own skin? Be the girl that doesn’t give a crap if they (or anyone else, for that matter) wants to take a teeny tiny handbag and a carrier bag to school… even if everyone’s taking Herschels.


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Image: Mean Girls

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