"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are."
Living a genuine, honest life is and always has been something I have to make a sincere effort to accomplish. Part of this is my personality: I find myself simultaneously driven to please and insecure about the idea that the Genuine Anna is something good to be. I've worn a lot of masks and costumes over the years, disguising bits of myself and showing others, trying to decide which ones were important enough to me to let show even if people didn't like them. Ultimately, that left me feeling a little bit blank, a little bit empty, and a little bit like I didn't know myself anymore. That frame of mind isn't something that's really sustainable in the long-term, both because it becomes increasingly important to differentiate between approval and love, and because living without an internalized identity is impossible.
By this I don't necessarily mean labels, although they can be helpful and are certainly as viable a place to start as any. I have many labels for myself, some of them positive and others negative and still others that fluctuate between good and bad, important and irrelevant. I've had labels thrust upon me, and some I've chosen to keep and others to discard.
The thing is, though, that I've heard similar stories about identity from a lot of people. Women in particular, because although I make no assertions that feeling uncertain about who you are is a province of girls and women, it is more culturally condoned and enforced for us than it is for more culturally dominant groups. The further down the pecking order you find yourself, the less likely you are to feel as if you've the right to create yourself instead of having others create you. There's a recent piece at The American Reader entitled "The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters," and among other salient points the author suggests that perhaps the reason so many of her peers on the road are discarded and forgotten is because there is no alternative story for them in the eyes of the people they encounter. These young women are seen as inhabiting a single potential story, are seen as all one girl (one girl whose future involves rape and murder), and because that's the only thing girls on the road can be, people force those stories on them, and it's what they become. The narrative of "hitchhiking girl gets raped and murdered" is an extreme example, but it illustrates quite clearly why it's so important for people to both be able to create their own stories--their own identities--and for others to see them as possessing as many potential futures as possible.
In the literary world, this conversation becomes about representation, about how it's important to have diverse casts in our stories, casts made up of people who look both like us and different, and who are both like us and different. Tokenism is a problem because it increases presence but reinforces the limitations on people's options for their stories. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is just about books or movies or TV, but the truth of the matter goes far deeper. Most people on North America can read a story about a white teenage boy and find something to relate to or at least to recognize, because we've been trained to do so. We know these boys have a vast array of possible futures, as many bright as dark. But the minute you make that character a girl, the boys are no longer willing to relate to her. Make her a girl of color and you lost still more. This isn't just because readers don't identify with those characters, but because we've so often reinforced both in media and culture the idea that these characters can only have one kind of story, and for those of us who get to see ourselves as having more options, it's not necessarily the outcome we can't imagine, but the limitation. And if we can't relate to the idea that a kind of person might, even in fiction, have as many possible outcomes as we can, we certainly can't be expected to internalize the idea that it can happen in real life, at least not without some intentional effort.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Lots and lots of people and organizations and writers and filmmakers and artists of all kinds are pushing back against these limitations, against the idea that certain kinds of people are only allowed to live certain kinds of stories, both in fiction and in reality. The internet and blogging have allowed millions more people to tell their stories, to express how different their personal narratives are from the condensed and watered down versions strangers insist on imagining for them. Introducing ourselves to these kinds of stories often takes as little as finding a single blog, with links to other blogs or a commenting section that allows for people to tell their stories and link to the places they're telling them. It can take a few months of reading and following links to build up a collection of writers representing a good range of perspectives, but they're there.
That's all well and good, of course, in that it allows other people to become themselves, but to bring it back around, it doesn't do a whole lot about allowing ourselves to become. It's one thing to think it's vitally important for other people to be allowed to be themselves and tell their stories, and another thing entirely to trust ourselves to be something we respect, something we love enough to show to the world and defend if necessary. The process of planting those seeds of self and tending them until they're hardy enough to survive confrontation is often long and challenging, and some bits of us may never fully break the surface, however deep the roots may go. Some parts of us are redwoods, and some parts of us are potatoes. I've got a few saplings, but at this point, I'm mostly pale tendrils of root systems and a few tiny seedlings just peeking through the surface. Although I know none of them will grow if they're never exposed to light, the fear of the other things that are out there often leave them wilted and pale.
I try, as often as I can work up the courage, to open the doors and let the light in, but it often takes a great deal of courage, and my courage itself is something I've had to rebuild from dust recently. Some days, I barely have the courage to trust myself to be kind to the sprouting identity bits inside me. Other days, I manage to muster up the courage to shout them from mountain tops. My hope for the future is that I manage to find a way to bring about more of the latter kind of day than the former.