I am more than a label. I am more than my gender, race, age, mobility, location and employment status. I have an identity. One’s search for identity is rather like taking snap shots in a hall of mirrors. For what one “is”, the labels one adopts to define oneself, come from the outside and can change throughout one’s lifetime. Even those rooted in biology — one’s gender, race, whether one is tall or short, attractive or not –are defined by feedback we get from the outside. What is it to be tall? It means that one tends to be taller than others. And what is race? It is also defined from the outside, as is gender. To be a boy or a girl is of course biological, but whether or not you are treated as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ compared to others of similar gender in some way defines your identity more than the sexual identity you are born with.
For me, identity labels have less to do with race and gender (since I’m a white female maybe) although there has been confusing pressure in terms of other lables through the years. I’ve struggled with the label “attractive”, and “intelligent” The feedback I’ve received over the years has been that I am attractive. But, I never felt that attractive, and now that I’ve aged, I no longer get those signals, or less so. Though the feedback I’ve received is that I’m “intelligent”, I compare myself to others who are far more so. I tend to say that I am ‘intelligent’(I accept the feedback) without really believing it. I was part of the counter-culture revolution of the 60s. Though I rejected the label of ‘hippy’ at the time, I am more likely to adopt it in retrospect. I remember the process of changing my label from ‘young woman’ to ‘mother’ quite clearly. One moment, I was the former, and then, suddenly at the birth of my first daughter, I was a “mother” forevermore. This process was meaningful, especially since I had lost my own mother as a young child. I was also a ‘college drop out,’(a label I resisted out of ‘rebellion’ and probably a bit of shame), and received my degree in middle age, going on to graduate school and becoming a ‘social worker’. This is a label that was reflected back by my job title. It represented a more intrinsic self-identity as well. I am a ‘grandmother’ now. Though I was happy to become a grandmother, as a self-label ‘grandmother’ was a bit more difficult to adopt, because it spoke to the aging process. Nevertheless, I adopted it, giving in to the feedback loop. And, now I am, quite happily, a ‘grandmother’.
The ‘self’ is a mirage built on shifting sands, which is why the process of self-labeling becomes so central to forging an identity. What am I? Who am I? I continue to take those snap shots in the hall of mirrors in order to become myself, as I know myself to be, throughout the span of a lifetime.