Making the leap from high school to college brings with it many opportunities: the excuse to pursue unique areas of study, the ability to work with world-renowned faculty and the chance to meet new people from all over the world. But what can be seen as one of the biggest opportunities the transition to college presents is not entrenched in its facilities or faculty—it is the opportunity to “reinvent” oneself. At an elite private school like Duke, most people don’t come in with a horde of their high school friends and classmates who know who they are and how they act, and neither are they limited by parental constraints like curfews or expectations to behave a certain way. Going to college presents an opportunity to be who you are, free from the pressure of your previous social identity.
Popular culture, certainly, has championed this idea of reinventing oneself. Countless teen movies revolve around the plot line of a transformation—“The Princess Diaries,” “Grease,” “She’s All That” and “Clueless,” to name a few—which, even if the transformed character ends up realizing they’ve forsaken their morals in pursuit of popularity/fame/a man, still suggest that changing your appearance or other aspects about yourself can help you reach your goal. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Anne Hathaway’s character Andy’s transformation coincides with her fitting in with her coworkers and doing better in her job. Even though she eventually decries the fashion industry, she still keeps the sleek new haircut and stylish dress at the new job she received, in no small part due to her old boss.
Transformations aren’t just for the movies, though, and for some reason, celebrities seem to be trying to reinvent themselves at staggering rates. Miley Cyrus, perhaps the poster child of this concept, changed her look, her attitude and her sound this summer with the release of “Malibu.” Katy Perry, before becoming the most hated person on the internet, chopped off her iconic black hair and then proceeded to reveal everything about her life in a bizarre 24-hour live stream. Taylor Swift literally said “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now / Why? / ‘Cause she’s dead”— not exactly subtle.
As common as it is, this type of transformation has become a cliché in today’s culture. But does it actually work? Does the fact that Taylor is now pseudo-rapping over a bass-heavy beat make me believe she’s a badass (or respect her any more as an artist)? Does the fact that Miley Cyrus is no longer obviously appropriating black culture make it okay that she did so for several years? If I go to college, change my hair and the way I dress, am I automatically a different person than I was in high school? Or have we just been brainwashed into believing it’s possible by the movies we watch and the celebrities we follow?
The fundamental problem I have with the concept of “reinventing yourself” is that it usually becomes change from the outside in. You change your appearance; you’re now suddenly extroverted and optimistic. It just doesn’t happen that way. Just because you’re forcing an identity on yourself doesn’t mean that identity will stick. It may keep you from experiencing the personal growth that naturally comes with going to college and being exposed to new and different world views. Changing your appearance remains an important form of self-expression, but it is too often associated with a change in personality, a trait not generally affected by what you look like. College is enough of a defining experience without forcing definitions on yourself.