Loco Parentis: U R What U Wear

Clothes make the man — but not the teenager anymore, apparently.

I got a hint over Christmas break. The day after New Year’s, Marcy was leaving for a semester at a university in Mexico. It’s actually her second visit; she was there for a semester in 2008, too. Last time, she tossed some running shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops in her suitcase and that was that. This go-round, however, was different, because now she knew that Mexican women don’t wear running shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops; they wear sundresses and heels. And that’s what she had to go shopping for.

“There aren’t a lot of places selling sundresses this time of year,” I pointed out to her, which made her break into tears:

“I have to have sundresses, Mom! How else am I going to fit in?”

I didn’t, under the circumstances, point out that at five-10, she’s probably nine inches taller than the average Mexican female — not to mention her blue eyes and blond hair. What was the point? She was convinced heels and sundresses would do the trick.

That’s when it dawned on me: This is why school uniforms worked. Even if kids know in their hearts they don’t fit in, those khakis and collars provide the illusion they do — that they’re more like than unlike their peers. That’s something to cling to, when you’re 16 or 17 and convinced that nobody in the entire history of the universe has ever been so unloved and misunderstood as you.  

But beyond that, technology has splintered us into smaller and smaller slivers of commonality. We don’t go to movie theaters anymore; we download Netflix. We don’t play softball together; we ride stationary bikes while listening to headphones. We don’t leave our houses to meet our neighbors. We don’t even leave to find soulmates; we do that via the computer, too. This is the downside to our celebration of individuality: We no longer remember how to get along. We’re stuck fumbling to find means of interacting with one another, setting up artificial constructs like “One Book, One Philadelphia,” and Classmates.com, and choice tables at restaurants that you eat at, not with loved ones, but with strangers. The more -LinkedIn we get, the more lonely we are. “I wish you and Dad had more friends,” Jake’s told me more than once. I used to read this as his way of saying he’d reap benefits if we were more social — he’d get invited to parties with us, or at least get to stay home alone while we went out. Lately I see it more as a lament, both for our solitude, and for what lies ahead for him. We’ve pushed the American Dream to its peculiar conclusion, moved away from crowded cities to the suburbs to live in self-sufficient castles, and even inside those to be apart, each of us sitting alone, staring at our own small computer screen.

Khakis and a polo, though — they proclaim, “I belong to something greater than myself.” In a single generation, we’ve gone from longing to stand apart to being desperate to connect.