How Do You Define Yourself?

An “Are You A Preppie?” poster came out my first year of college. I had never heard the term “preppie” – then looked around me at the University of Virginia and realized I was surrounded by them. Was I a preppie? No. But would my choice of college tell others I was? Probably.

Like it or not, you’re defined to a great measure by the groups you choose to be part of or choose to not be part of. At UVa, I knew that preppie wasn’t my crowd, but they appeared to be the leaders and I like running things, so could I try to fit in?

My first attempt was purchasing a white Izod shirt. The first time I pulled it in, I felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes so I yanked it off, took out a seam ripper, and with a few quick tugs, took off the small alligator patch from the front left pocket. The shirt looked a little blank so I stitched the alligator back on – upside down. Now I appeared to be a preppie until someone got close and noticed that my alligator had gone belly up.

It was a silly statement, but it was awkward to not fit in and the shirt felt like a “pass” to belong. I knew it wasn’t me, but I had chosen to go to this University. I was going to make this work.

Next up: I joined a sorority. I thought this would be a great way to break through the UVa preppie facade and really get to know a group of women. Going through rush, I straightened my hair. I put away my cowboy boots and long skirts. I went to frat parties with my future sorority sisters. I smiled a lot. I laughed politely. We drank. And I got a bid to join the group. I felt honored and exclusive. It was good.

Except that most of my new sisters were extremely wealthy. Most had gone to private high schools. One’s mother was a senior exec at CBS News. Another one’s father was a US Senator. Someone else had ties to the governor’s mansion. They talked about the latest fashions. And who had traveled where. And who was anorexic, eating only popcorn and drinking coffee. My conversations with them were short and awkward. I knew this wasn’t my crowd and smile as I might, I was miserable.

At the end of my second year, I planned my escape: I’d do a semester-long Outward Bound course in the hills of western North Carolina. I imagined Outward Bound would be the antithesis of UVa. I pictured living off the land. Having honest, open discussions around a campfire. Laughing out loud. And truly being myself.

The next fall, I loaded up my backpack and headed south. And don’t you know, everyone on the course but me wanted to be an outdoor leader? They’d read all the recommended books before we started. They seemed to like being woken up at 4:00 in the morning and told to go on a three-mile run. They dug the weeks without a shower. And dirty hair. And dirty nails. And saying, “Go for it.”

On OB, there were no campfires – OB is a minimal impact group. Everyone was usually too exhausted by nightfall to have even the glimmer of a good talk. And the “uniform” wasn’t Izod shirts – it was Patagonia fleece jackets. In one honest conversation, an instructor laughed at me when I told her I’d purchased a watercolor painting right before the trip. “Why didn’t you buy a kayak?” she howled. Because I love art. And because I didn’t want a kayak.

At the end of the semester, dirty and bug-bitten, I headed back to UVa. To civilization. And to my sorority.

The first week back was rush and I was told to blackball a person I had barely met at a party. This time I spoke up. “How can we judge someone we don’t know? How can we decide in a heartbeat that this girl isn’t right for this sorority?” “She’s from the north,” I was told. That was it. I quit.

I set up a meeting with the sorority president to deliver the news. I didn’t know this woman any better than she knew me after being “sisters” for two years. When I tried to explain my reasons for quitting, she looked stunned and said I couldn’t quit –  that no one had ever quit. I tried to be kind and said, “Fine, you don’t have to accept my resignation. Just know that I won’t be attending sorority events anymore. And I won’t be paying dues.” That was the last conversation I had with her. I assume she figured out how to process the paperwork and that I’m no longer a Pi Phi.

I felt so relieved and at the same time, I knew I had sealed my fate to never fit in at UVa. But that was okay too. When you don’t fit in somewhere it helps you define who you are. And who you’re not. And to decide if the price of fitting in is worth the price of losing a piece of how you define yourself. It’s awkward to not fit in. And it’s more awkward to fit in and not love it.

If you had to make a poster of yourself, what would the little callouts be?

  • Where do you live?
  • What do you do for work?
  • How do you dress?
  • What type of car do you drive?
  • What do you eat?
  • How do you vote?
  • What type of pets do you have?
  • What type of groups do you hang out with?
  • What do you read?
  • How do you spend your free time?

And how’s that poster look to you? Is it something you want to hang on the wall? Or is it time for a re-adjustment?

By the way, if I rushed Pi Phi today, I’d be blackballed right away. Too artsy. Loves weird clothes. Messy hair. Into theater. Doesn’t drink much. And she lives in the north.

And my friends from UVa? All smart women from my first-year dorm where we had honest, wonderful conversations – and still do. 🙂

Here’s a bit of spring from a back street in Boston. In the north.

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