BY HALEY SHERIF
The difference for me between pitching and writing an article is this: time. It’s a beast of a thing because something that seemed so ingrained, so sure of itself can quickly become untrue in an interval of a few days. I confidently pitched an article on identities to my professor, assuring myself what I was saying today would also hold true in the coming weeks when I sat down to type said article. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’m a daughter. Today I’m a woman. Today I’m a lesbian. Today I’m an alcoholic. Today I’m a writer.
The above are the labels I gravitate toward today. I wasn’t sober when I pitched this article, and last week I identified not as a woman or a man, but simply a human. They are nouns I use to identify myself today. But not necessarily tomorrow.
How we identify on one day and label ourselves, and how we fit into both our communities and our cultures, shouldn’t be set in stone. It wasn’t always like this for me. As a child, even as a teenager, I didn’t understand that the way I chose to identify on one day could shift on the next. I couldn’t fully grasp the notion that who we are isn’t always based on the box ticked for us at birth. I view my sexuality, my gender, my addiction and my vocation as forever ebbing and flowing parts of me. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one.
When attempting to describe the personality of the millennial generation, a Pew Research Center report used the words “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.” I think we especially emphasize and expect openness when it comes to our identities.
Maggie Nelson writes in her recent book, “The Argonauts”: “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly.” Nelson touches on a fundamental understanding we have to have as a society. We are who we say we are, not who you think we are.
Typing in “identity” on Google I was presented with an onslaught of articles, and one from Psychology Today stood out:
“As the speed of all our transactions increases, we need fast ways of transmitting information about ourselves without losing authenticity; we have less and less time to make our mark in other, more leisurely ways of knowing. Style, like a perfectly fitting book jacket, evokes the substance within by way of the surface. It makes an authentic visual impression, is a memorable mark of identity in a world that otherwise strips people of identity. There was a time when style was a luxury. Today it is a necessity.”
Clothing has always been a central part of communicating with the world how I identify. These days, I usually stick to a uniform of jeans and clogs, but a year ago all I wore were flowery dresses. I would also catch myself trying on different identities (and I still do). Prior to coming out I would try to dress like the friends I had who were most comfortable in their sexuality, prompting me to consider my own.
In an article titled “Different Love,” Allison Green writes:
“I don’t underestimate the tremendous gains that have been made over the decades since I first questioned my identity. But I wonder what is lost when the narrative explaining my life’s journey is reduced to the simple song lyric: ‘born this way.’ I like to believe that, at least some of the time, I choose my own destiny, and that I still deserve the dignity of rights and respect.”
When I read this I had to agree. I find that the labels we embrace, for the ease of others or because there isn’t a label that identifies us best, lose their shimmer when we think about how much they leave out or don’t accurately describe us. For example, currently I am struggling defining my gender to others because I don’t feel as if any of the labels I’ve encountered fit how I feel. Maybe it’s a lack of research, but I think it might more appropriately point to a lack of choice, at least for me.
A popular sobriety blog beautifully titled Hip-Sobriety discusses labels in an article titled: “Hi I’m Holly, and I’m NOT An Alcoholic.” Holly Whitaker writes about distancing herself from the label “alcoholic,” because:
“I just firmly believe that we’ve created a separate disease called alcoholism and forced it upon the minority of the population willing to admit they cannot control their drinking. That instead of looking at how insane it is to consume the amounts of alcohol we do in this country on any level, we’ve instead systematically labeled anyone who can’t hang in that insanity as having the problem.”
Whitaker examines a serious issue: what happens when we feel the need to label something in order to understand it. I don’t think what Whitaker says just applies to the word “alcoholic.” There’s a whole slew of labels I’ve felt boxed into because they make people better understand me or I’ve felt might make me left out if I don’t use them. For me, embracing the label alcoholic has allowed me to better adjust to it being a part of how I identify. Each time I raise my hand in a meeting and introduce myself as an alcoholic I feel more and more part of a community who all identify in the same way. But I’ve heard the exact opposite said about labeling one’s self like that, and Whitaker argues about the damage such a label can do.
I asked my therapist about identity in general, and she talked to me about nature vs. nurture: how who we chose to be on a daily basis has a lot to do with both where we have come from and where we are now. That our identity can be influenced by people, places, and things and devised by ourselves, I think, makes human beings so fascinating.
How I identify today may not be how I identify tomorrow — and today I’m just fine with that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Haley Sherif is completing her B.F.A. in creative nonfiction at Emerson College. She is the creative director of Your Magazine. In 2015 she self-published a book titled “All the Pretty Girls.” Follow her @HaleySherif
Photo of box by Early Spring/Shutterstock