How Learning To Stand Out Helped Me Fit In
When I was a kid, I was known as “the weirdo” at school. I wore things like overalls with striped socks, big floppy hats, and sneakers with a nice dress. Sometimes I’d be teased on the playground, but I didn’t want to look like everyone else. Everyone else looked boring, and I didn’t think I was a boring person. Still, it’s hard when you’re a teenager going through all kinds of changes. Fitting in feels like the ultimate goal.
I find it strange that a society that prides itself on individualism as a point of freedom, works so hard to define the way we should look, act, and sometimes speak. Regardless, I learned to conform as I grew up. It worked in most cases, like at work or on special occasions, but I never really felt like “me.”
Eventually, I got used to looking like everyone else. Now, I make it a point to try and blend in especially when I travel because I hate being immediately labeled as a tourist. This usually means a wardrobe of all black, which feels universal in any country. I pair my black outfits with large glasses, chic in style but also help hide my confused eyes while reading a foreign menu, or trying to figure out which stop to get off of on the metro system.
But even with these items in tow on my first trip to Serbia, I still knew I was different. My body type is unquestionably not Serbian; I’m too short and too dumpy compared to the 5’7” willowy Amazonians who breeze past me on a daily basis. My fashion sense is also markedly different, partly because it developed in New York City, but also because most of the brands I wear aren’t found in Serbia at all.
Normally this would make me feel incredibly self-conscious, but then, something interesting and unexpected started to happen.
“I love your shoes!”
“Your hairstyle is so cool!”
“Wow, what a nice dress!”
Locals would compliment my style randomly on the street or at bars. My Serbian friends said they felt like they were with a celebrity, walking around with an American who everyone thought was a fashion model.
A news station in Belgrade even reached out to me one time, asking to interview “the American model who bought an apartment in Serbia.” I laughed, not wanting them to be disappointed because I wasn’t actually a model.
“You have a great look,” the channel representative replied. “Let’s do a photo shoot.”
I didn't think that all it would take was a little validation from people in my new home to make me feel comfortable, but it did. Serbian culture is very much about honesty, and I knew my new friends weren't being fake. As much as we want to think that confidence is grown from within, there is a power in knowing other people accept you for who you are and aren't afraid to verbalize it.
Since then, I’ve felt more comfortable being “me,” both at home and abroad. I don’t shy away from more flamboyant attire that others might judge or make fun of. If I like it, I wear it, and if someone else thinks it’s weird, that’s their problem.
A lavender cowboy hat, a bright blue sweater, one of those oversized scarves Lenny Kravitz made famous in 2012, orange high-heels and leather leggings — I wear it all. People know I’m not Serbian, but it doesn’t matter. It makes my days more interesting and gives people something to talk about when making new introductions.
I do find it ironic that standing out helps me fit in. I’m happy with my newfound confidence and hope it carries through. Adding some color and style to my life in a new place is fun and challenging. If I can’t blend in, I might as well stand out.
This post is part of a month-long April CircleAround series, tied to April Fools' Day. We've all made memorable mistakes and embarrassing gaffes that still make us cringe. But what did we learn from those moments of foolishness? We asked writers — and readers — to share stories and advice on what we gained from some of our cringiest memories, and how those became teachable moments. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to info@circlearound.