I See By My Outfit
…Or, Rambling Discursions On The Theme of Identity
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity.
Note that I didn’t say “lately” — there’s no “lately” about it. I’ve been thinking about it for years, for most of my life.
Some of this is a function of having been The Kid Who Doesn’t Fit Anywhere for my entire childhood and adolescence. Some of it is the result of juggling mental-illness diagnoses (like many people with bipolar, I’ve had a metric shedload of those, some more accurate than others) — does this fit me? How about this? Does this describe me accurately?
Some of it is a function of being intersex (which is a medical thing, but which nonetheless informs my experience of the world). Some of it is a function of being queer, especially where “being queer” intersects with “being intersex.” Some of it is a function of being a seeker by nature, someone who isn’t content with what he sees on the surface.
A lot of this used to seem, you know, Critically Important to me, with capital letters: like, if I could just pin it down, just figure out Who I Am, then I could … I don’t know what. Start? It was like I had to figure out which species I was so I could figure out in which ecosystem I could to live, or something.
I’ve lived enough now that I’ve been to see the folly in making sweeping declarations about Who and What I Am.
First, I know that there aren’t many things that I am consistently from minute to minute (the physical reality of my body aside; I think my body influences and is a vehicle for my identity, but I’m not sure it’s particularly part of my identity).
Next, I know that even the Big Things, the things that seem somehow fundamental, are subject to change.
A little more than a year ago, for example, I really wasn’t dealing with bipolar as part of my identity; I wasn’t working in that sphere. Now I am: I have realized that it’s useful to keep bipolar in my peripheral vision that way. Keeps it from sneaking up on me. Explains a lot. Not that long ago, though, it wasn’t a reality I even acknowledged.
So right now I’m sort of fumbling forward.
I’ve always been the kid that tests out an identity by trying on the clothes; I never thought of myself as A Cyclist until I put on some bike kit for the first time. Until then, I was just a guy who rode bikes.
Things work differently on the Looking Like A Dancer front.
First, how Looking Like A Dancer works is vague: I’ve become someone who gets that question rather a lot in non-dance contexts, “Are you a dancer?” — and I think I look like a dancer, even when I’m not wearing dance clothes, but I don’t know how to quantify that: what does look like a dancer even mean? Is it something about the way I move (okay, the habitually-resting-in-fourth-or-fifth-position thing is kind of a dead giveaway)? Is it the way I carry myself? Is it something else entirely, maybe something about my hair? (Maybe it’s my neck.)
But I know I didn’t really look like a dancer just over a year ago, and now I do — and I also think I look more like myself, for whatever that means.
About which — maybe what it means is that for the first time I’m kind of living from the inside out.
The space and the social role I occupy as a dancer, especially as a male ballet dancer, feels like the right ecosystem. Like I’m no longer trying to live in fresh water when I should be living in salt water, or in the mountains when I should be by the sea, or whatever. It’s a good fit.
I think that, for a long time, I was trying to live from the outside in: I would decide that since I clearly wasn’t that, I must be this, and I would proceed to attempt rebuilding myself in the prescribed image. But I guess I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, because I felt like what I was trying to do was identify what I was, and live accordingly.
There’s a certain futility to that approach: I could tell myself all day long that I was a kestrel, and move into kestrel habitat, and learn to do the things that kestrels do — but if I was an osprey on t inside, I was still going to be an osprey.
Now I’m sort of taking the opposite approach: I’m doing things to see if they fit, and unceremoniously kicking them to the curb if they don’t. I don’t have to belong everywhere, or do everything, after all: nobody does. Besides, if we all live like kestrels, it’s going to get mighty crowded in Kestreltown.
For a long time I longed to dance the way an osprey longs to catch fish. Eventually, I did, and it was like coming home: I remembered what I’d been missing for so very long.
Fundamentally, I guess you could call this phenomenon “identity as descriptor,” as opposed to “identity as prescriptor,” which is kind of what I was doing before.
When we describe an osprey, we are talking about what it is and what it does, not what it must be and do. Ospreys gonna osp, even if we tell them they should kest. Osprey don’t care.
Since then, I’ve developed a habit of doing things because they feel like expressions of who I am, though I guess I mostly don’t think about it that explicitly. Instead, I think, “I want to try this.” Sometimes, though, I do explicitly ask myself, “Does this feel like part of me?” Sometimes I’m surprised by what doesn’t; sometimes, by what does.
Curiously, this seems to be working really well. My burning desire to pin down a sense of identity has abated: I’m just here, kind of being. It’s not really necessary to make statements to myself about Who And What I Am now that I’m living a life that fits better. Sometimes it’s useful to make those statements to other people, but I kind of think that other people mostly figure it out.
They can see by my outfit that I’m a dancer. Or, you know, a kinda femme queer boy (one that could still kick your teeth in if you push the wrong buttons, though I’m wrestling with that whole “nonviolence” thing).
Once upon a time, I would have thought that embracing the “femme queer boy” side of my personality would have meant eschewing the part that thrives on speed and danger. That’s prescriptive identification, though (or, really, proscriptive, just to make things even more confusion — “danger” is not my middle name, “confusion” is). I know now that it doesn’t work that way. Thank G-d it doesn’t work that way: I don’t have to be X and not Y; I can be X and Y.
The light reveals the shadow; the shadow reveals the light.
There’s probably a lot more to say about all this. Consider this a beginning.
And, while you’re at it, go read Peter S. Beagle’s excellent book, I See By My Outfit, which you can find used all over the internet. I am almost certain that you won’t regret it.