“I contain multitudes,” I say to myself, as I sit at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning, painting a landscape while listening to Meek Mill.
Sometimes I want to read a book on data analysis, sometimes I want to binge watch reality TV. Sometimes I want to go for a bike ride, sometimes I want to sit on the couch and read poetry. I should be able to do all of these things and not question what they say about ~who I am~. Why do I feel this need to label and categorize myself?
I dislike social media for many reasons, one of which is that it incentivizes us to label and categorize ourselves in order to curate an identity (or – god forbid – “brand”) we want to project into the world. Are you an athlete? A photographer? A writer? A chef? A fashionista? And who are you if not the sum of these labels, professions, and hobbies? I read a Vox article that summarized the phenomenon well: “’Decreating the self — that’s the opposite of social media,’ … Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are all about identity construction. Users build up an aspirational version of themselves, forever adding more words, images, and videos, thickening the self into a ‘brand.’”
It’s not a phenomenon unique to social media, of course – I struggled with my “identity” long before Instagram. For example, when I graduated from college, what did it mean that I was no longer playing a sport seriously? Who was I if not an athlete, or a math major, or a twin? What would I share with the new people I’d meet at some random party to gave them an idea of who I was (or, at the very least, who I wanted to be)?
But that is exactly the reason we try so hard to distill ourselves and others into a compact identity: it makes everything simple, less complex and nuanced. Black and white, instead of grey. A few words or phrases that exactly capture who we are and what our place is in the world. It sounds almost ridiculous when you phrase it that way, but that’s what I find myself doing on a daily basis. And for what? So I can feel more confident that yes, I do, in fact, have a specific place or function in the world? Or so I can easily curate a five word bio to include on my social media profiles?
A few weeks ago, a coworker asked me if I’d done anything fun over the weekend and I told her I’d done some painting. Her response was, “Wow! Who would’ve thought that Maddy the athlete was painting?!”
I know she meant it kindly, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve spent the past year trying to explore different parts of myself – the parts that I probably neglected before because they didn’t fit into this image of myself that I’d worked so hard to curate. Being a math major, for example, left no room for creative pursuits, much less for acknowledging that maybe I didn’t enjoy quantitive fields as much anymore. Being an athlete meant that I had to keep proving to others that I could be good at sports even after I stopped competing.
And the larger problem, really, is that I feel the need to assign myself these labels at all. When it comes down to it – I’m just Maddy. I’m more than the sum of these labels I try to assign to myself, or that others assign to me. A person can’t be dissected into these smaller, more digestible parts because that’s not how humans work. I’ve been working for a while on moving away from the “black and white” in many aspects of my thinking and leaning in to the grey: the in-between, the non-concrete, the indefinable, the constantly moving and changing. I am trying to give myself more permission and room to change, to explore, to not feel so limited by a false concept of identity, to reject others’ tendencies to want to put me in a box.
I return often to these passages from “The Journals of Sylvia Plath,” which I’m sure I’ve shared before on this blog but bear repeating in this context: