Lipka: Of stereotypes and skinny jeans

I am not a hipster. No, actually. I don’t only listen to unknown and independent music, wear thrift-store clothes or reference deliberately obscure literature. But ask anyone who doesn’t know me well and sees me around, and they will inevitably claim that I’m a card-carrying hipster. It’s the big headphones, Doc Martens and predominantly black wardrobe that will fool them. At first I was upset that people labeled me without actually bothering to get to know me. But should I really expect anything else?

We all make first impressions, and these impressions are usually superficial: What someone is wearing, what they say and where you meet them are the first metrics of judgment. Meeting me for the first time, some were surprised that I was a freshman; “there aren’t very many freshmen hipsters” here at Yale, they said. Did they say that because we were at Modern Love — and if that were the case, were the 20 other freshmen in attendance also hipsters? Or was it because I was wearing a completely black, partially lace outfit with red lipstick and combat boots that they decided to label me?

These kinds of assumptions are not limited to the perennially ambiguous hipster label. A number of people have asked me if I’m from New York, or some other big city, and are surprised when they find out I’m from a small town. The other day, my friend defended people who labeled me by suggesting that I was intentionally wearing two different socks as some kind of fashion statement: Actually, I just don’t care. And besides, my wardrobe should not indicate the kind of person that I am — especially in a community as ostensibly open-minded as Yale.

Like most students, I do not dress for the job I want. Even at home, when I expressed interest in majoring in ethics, politics and economics, people suggested that I look into film studies or photography — hobbies, not career paths or even fully fledged passions. Perhaps it’s my fault for not dressing more conservatively so that people will take me “seriously.” But if people think that they can peg someone by the way they dress, they are sadly mistaken.

Unfortunately, Yale’s social atmosphere facilitates an environment where individuals freely pass judgments about intelligence, ambition and interests based on the way someone appears. Our competitive Yale bubble catalyzes judgment and decreases personal choices — from fashion preferences to taste in music, we water down our tastes in order to conform.

Social groups, especially in the freshman class, are homogenizing. Not in a Foucaultian, panoptic way, but in how they coalesce individuals with similar interests, in similar extracurricular activities, with similar tastes. Even worse, some freshmen forge friendships with exclusively students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds or types of schools simply because it’s what they are used to. It is easy to claim that we are branching out, since a university naturally has more variety than a high school. When the student body is as diverse as Yale’s, it’s impossible to have a group of friends as isolated as in high school. But we’re just as cliquey, only less willing to admit it.

Ultimately, we need to resist the urge to label. Of course, a group of people who do not subscribe to a stereotypical set of ideologies will be more complex, and sometimes, problematic; but that is the challenge that faces any diverse community. We should embrace it as an opportunity. Yet, we often make the oldest, most clichéd mistake in the book — judging a book by its cover.

Carolyn Lipka is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.

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