Tag Archives: identity

Performing your online identity

The internet, and social media especially, encourages us to perform. We record and perform our lives to a watchful audience that may judge us on a scale that most humans have never had to deal with before. The pressure to look good performing can have a distorting effect on what we do, what we value and what we think is useful. We’re all caught up in this and mostly need to be kinder to ourselves about it. However, here are some things I’ve noticed that I think need mentioning.

Performance activism puts the performer centre stage. Not the issue, or the afflicted people. It’s not about raising awareness or solving problems, it is a performance piece to show how good you are. It’s important to focus on what will help and make a difference, and to put the issues centre stage.

The performance ally works in much the same way – putting themselves centre stage. It’s important not to speak for or speak over the people you are supposedly helping. This is of course tricky when you’re not sure who else is present – so often the way of it online. There can be a lot of diversity in experiences and what helps one person feel supported may offend another.

Performance friendship. The fine art of making big claims, promises and declarations in public spaces. It might look good in the short term, but when you can’t follow through on it, the harm done is considerable.

Success performance. When you only talk about the good things and paint your life as perfect, you can undermine your own wellbeing. It’s hard to ask for help if you keep telling everyone that everything is great. If we get into displaying our success through images of objects, this can fuel consumerism and doesn’t help the planet. The kind of performances we put on around health, weight and diet could often stand some scrutiny too. The idea that weight loss is success needs care and careful thinking.

Warrior performances. It’s easy to be an online warrior, to shout people down, pull them apart, pick holes in their work and criticise them. This achieves nothing. Making real change requires real work and a good deal more effort. A warrior performance may help you feel good about yourself and persuade you that you’re doing something useful, but the odds are that no real good comes of it at all.

Misery performances. If you know plenty of nice people then misery performances will win you care, support, warmth, affection and positive reinforcements. Now, I think it’s really important that we all have space to share our struggles and issues – it’s an important counter to those relentless success performances as well. However, if all you do is act out misery, it isn’t good for everyone else, or for you. It is better all round to try and find some small good to share as well. The odds are if you can get online that you have some resources and your life isn’t just shit, and focusing on the good bits when you can will help you.

None of us are real online. Being here is an act of creativity and construction. We all make deliberate choices about what we share and how we do it. But, because those choices are so deliberate, we all get chance to choose what kind of performances we will share. I believe that our most authentic selves are the ones we most deliberately and consistently choose to be. So, while no one is truly real online and everything we share is partial and performed, at the same time, anyone can consciously choose to be the person they want to be – and thus manifest their most authentic self.


Conforming to group identities

For a group identity to make any sense, there have to be edges that define it. There are many questions we should be asking of those edges in any groups we encounter.

Who gets to define the boundaries? Usually it will be the people with the most power and privilege. Sometimes it will be people outside of the group itself. When this happens, it is often to silence or dismiss people who are inconvenient to a majority, or to a dominant world view. The way in which non-Zionist Jews are excluded when non-Jewish people talk (ominously, I feel) about The Jews at the moment is a case in point, and a deeply unsettling one.

What happens to people who are pushed out? Do any options exist for them? To be unable to stay in a local community space because it’s full of sexist dinosaurs is horrible, but probably liveable with. To be unable to access medical support because your provider won’t deal with trans people, is a disaster.

What happens to people who cannot fit in the boundaries? Are they punished for this? Are they pushed out further if they don’t go along with the group narrative? How much diversity does the group tolerate? How much conformity is demanded? Who gets to decide who should be conforming to what, and how do they wield that power? Who gets to control the narrative of the group identity?

There is power in defining the narrative. It is also an opportunity that is available to the most powerful. People who have least power are most likely to be pushed to the edges by people who have the most power. What happens when someone from outside the group takes on an identity to try and distort the boundaries and norms of the group? This does seem to happen online, and happens for political reasons.

How do we hold our edges? What are we protecting and what are we willing to make room for? What do we do when we’re pushed to the margins, and what do we do if we see someone else being pushed out? When is that justified, and when does it need resisting? These are not questions with simple answers, but ones to keep asking any time we engage in group dynamics.


Blood, hormones and identity

Up until a few years ago, I had a very regular monthly cycle. I’d get a couple of days of melancholy, six days of bleeding and acutely aware of anything that wasn’t ok in my life. Then a few days off, and the upswing into ovulation and then a quiet patch and then round again. It was part of me. What I didn’t know was how much that sense of self would change around the menopause.

So here we are, some years into cycle uncertainty and hormone tsunamis. My experience of my own body has changed dramatically. It’s a lot more unpredictable. I’ve no relationship with these hormone bursts so don’t experience them as part of my own identity. They just happen to me. While I get the experiences of bleeding, ovulating and whatnot, the unpredictable timing has changed how I feel about it. What used to feel intrinsically ‘me’ is now simply stuff that happens.

I was worried I would experience this as a loss, but that’s not happened. If anything, it’s opened up space for a more complex experience of myself and my emotions. I am interested to see who and how I am on the far side of this. I will not be less than I was, just different. I may be more ‘me,’ even.


What do you want?

It always bothered me that the bad guys in Babylon 5 always asked ‘what do you want?’ It’s one of the most useful questions to ask – of each other and of ourselves. In digging in to find out what we want, we can learn a lot about who we are, where we are going, what needs to change. Wanting should not automatically be associated with greed and selfishness. It’s a necessary, healthy and frequently good part of our humanity.

What do I want? I’ve been asking that question a lot lately, and digging in with the answers. It’s not an easy question and it’s shown me things that have been tough to square up to. In understanding what I want, I have to own the areas of my life that aren’t giving me what I want and need. I have to face the aches, absences and insufficiencies in order to know what I want to change. I have to face up to the things I do that don’t work, or haven’t gone the way I wanted them to. I’ve learned a lot, doing this. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve released a lot of anger and frustration I didn’t even know I was carrying before I started.

Of course what I want cannot be just about me. I have a son and a husband to consider, so I’ve been asking what they want, and we’ve started exploring those issues and dreams together. I’ve started talking to my closest friends as well. Seeing who has similar wants and issues and what we might co-dream from here.

The biggest issue for me in all of this is the day to day grief of not being able to do enough in face of climate chaos. We’re a low carbon household, but we aren’t restorative. I want to be restorative. I need to plant trees. I don’t even have a garden I could put a small fruit tree in. I’ve got small trees in buckets, it’s the best I can do where I live, but it has never been enough.

I need wildness.

I crave community. This has been a curious one, because where I’ve talked to various friends about this, it turns out the perception is that I’m deeply immersed in my local community. I’m not. I tend to feel peripheral at best. I’d assumed that was about me – that either I don’t know how to belong, or I don’t know how to do the right things to feel a sense of belonging. Now I’ve opened that can of worms, my perception of what’s going on has shifted dramatically. It may not be a failing on my part.

I’m asking what I can change in the short term. What can I do now that would improve things for me? What do I want that I can have? And what happens in the longer term? At this point, I think I know, but there are still some conversations I need to have privately before I start talking about it more publicly.

What do I want? To put down the idea that wanting itself is morally suspect. To make room for what desire, and longing can teach me. To act based on what I learn.


Grief and Identity

This autumn I entered into a grieving process for the many things I had not previously been able to grieve. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg here – whether I can do this because my sense of self has shifted, or whether my sense of self has shifted because I’m doing this. Either way, it’s a feedback loop.

When I couldn’t grieve, it was because I didn’t feel safe to do that. My emotional responses might well bring more misery down upon me, affirming the impression that everything wrong was basically my fault. There were so many things I experienced as my fault, even though I had no control over them. Every shortcoming and imperfection, every innocent mistake, the limitations of my body, and how that body looked. I grew up thinking I was a bad and unloveable child, that I could never be good enough and that unless I was hyper-vigilant about everything, I would do something awful.

Grieving is not only allowing me to process those experiences, it’s allowing me to rethink my own story. As I grieve for my child self, I’ve been able to think differently. I wasn’t entirely awful – I was largely trying to be good. Having now parented someone myself, I have a different perspective on what can reasonably be expected of a child. As someone who teaches, I’ve learned the importance of holding space in which it is safe to make mistakes. Deliberate malice and cruelty are the only things worth getting angry about, and most children don’t do more than dabble in it as they try to figure out what’s acceptable.

I’m in a process of re-writing my story about the kind of child I was. I wasn’t a bad child. I’m not convinced any young child can be ‘bad’. They’re just learning and making mistakes.  I wasn’t a lazy child, and I don’t think it’s necessary or good for children to be super-motivated to work and achieve. It’s ok to want to be a child, to want to play and mess about and be silly. There’s a lot to be learned from mucking about. I wasn’t a fat child. I’ve got some old photos of me and I’m the same size as other kids. I was continually fat shamed. That’s not ok. It still wouldn’t have been ok if I’d been fat.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to justify my existence. Trying to make up for being inherently inadequate and unloveable. Trying to atone for being a bad person.  I’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to be good enough, trying to prove something about my worth so as to turn off the flood of self-hatred that has always been within me. All I ever needed was to be able to consider myself adequate and tolerable – it’s a pretty low set bar.

So I grieve for the little girl who had trouble learning to skip, and who just wanted to draw trees the way other kids drew them, and who wanted to be able to mess about during the holidays. I grieve for the child who was constantly afraid of being punished, and who just wanted approval and for someone to say ‘you are fine as you are’. I grieve for the unwinnable setup of having to get the best marks but being told off for getting too big for my boots if I made anything of it. I grieve for my wedge shaped Minnie Mouse feet, my arms like  a baboon, my rats teeth,  my singing like a cat, my funny-looking face, my fat, unloveable body. I grieve those stories, and what they did to me, and who I’ve been as I’ve lived with them as an adult.

I had a beautiful moment last week when it dawned on me that I grew up listening to, and adoring Steeleye Span. Child me did not sing like a cat. Child me sang like Maddy Prior.


Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.


Clothes, poverty and identity

Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.

Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’.  I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.

I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.

To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.


Limits to second hand sourcing

In a recent blog post about clothing I mentioned buying second hand, and inevitably didn’t say a great many things about the limits of second hand shopping. In the effort to reduce the appalling impact of the fashion industry on the planet, many people are committing to only buying second hand clothes. It’s good if you can – but not everyone can, and that needs talking about.

If you have an average sort of body shape and proportions, then second hand clothing is a lot more realistic. If you are unusual in any way, the chances of walking into a second hand clothes shop and finding an item that will fit you, is not high. If you need a specialist shop to source things that will fit you, second hand shopping is a limited option – you might be able to do a little bit online now and then.

If you have a minimal wardrobe either to save money or as a green choice, then if a key piece of kit becomes un-wearable, you will need to replace it quickly. You might not be able to afford to wait until something turns up. Equally, if you walk or cycle for transport or work outside, there will be key pieces of kit that you can’t manage without and you won’t reliably be able to source second hand. Greener living choices will inform what kind of clothes you need.

Second hand shopping takes time. Not everyone is time rich. Other greener ways of living are also more time intensive – walking for transport, handwashing your clothes, shopping on foot, growing your own veg, cooking everything from scratch… these things all take time. Finding suitable clothes in charity shops takes time. You might not be able to do all of it. Not being able to find the time for some greener activities because of the time it takes to do other green activities is not something to feel awkward about.

Not all new clothing is created equally. If you are supporting artisan creators, fair trade sellers, handmade creativity, local independent shops, locally sourced materials and the like, this is very different from buying cheap, throwaway fashion.

I potter into charity shops often enough to have a good idea what to expect. It’s rare that I see anything I like and that would fit me – I’m fussy about clothes and only buy things I’m confident I will want to wear for years to come. Inevitably, a large percentage of what’s in the shops is that bland, supermarket stuff that does nothing for me. Clothing is an important form of self expression, and for many of us is how we create and express identity. Wearing stuff that doesn’t feel like you, is miserable, and thus not sustainable. It would be good if more people who can afford to bought more of the good quality, handmade, original stuff and then sent that on to the charity shops!


Food and identity

What we eat is part of our sense of self. For anyone who has made a significant food choice either to protect their health, for religious reasons or for environmental ones tends to feel very invested in that food identity. Food choices can play a big part in your cultural identity and may inform who you spend time with.

Food impacts on our bodies in all kinds of ways. What energy we have has a lot to do with what we eat. Our diets shape our bodies and other people’s assumptions about who we are as a consequence of our bodies. To be in poverty, malnourished and consequently overweight is an experience that will get you blamed for your size all too often. The assumption that being larger goes with being lazy can have huge impacts on a person’s life, most critically around how the medical profession responds to larger bodies.

What we put into ourselves impacts on our mood, and our perceptions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed food, raw food, empty calories, wholefoods, things that suit us and things that don’t all shape our experiences of living in a body. How that works also depends on where we are in life and what demands are being made of us.

We make our body chemistry from the food we take in. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at the foods that encourage progesterone and estrogen production. Information online suggests that western diets may cause or aggravate many of the menopause symptoms, so I’ve been poking around in this. I’ve radically increased my fruit intake, amongst other things. I feel better in my body in ways I had not expected.

I’ve struggled with my body ever since hitting puberty. I don’t feel properly female – the only time I did was when I was pregnant. I feel out of kilter with my body but not so out of kilter to think I’d be any better off as a chap. My flesh has never felt easy on my bones. I’ve experienced it as a disconnection and a wrongness I have inadequate language to describe. However, in the last six months or so with a diet that supports female hormone production, I’ve felt better in myself on this score.

I spent my teens through to my thirties with a diet that was either inadequate, unsuitable, or both. I knew this at the time. In recent years I’ve been able to afford to eat whatever I want to eat, and there’s been no pressure to do otherwise. The more I go after the food that works for me, the more easy I feel in my own skin. I’ve still got all my androgynous psychology, my thinking hasn’t changed at all, but my experience of my own body has shifted, may well still be shifting.

Identity can be such a changeable thing. Who I am if I eat a lot of fruit. Who I am with, or without coffee. Who I am if I’m not mostly living on cheap sources of carbohydrate. Who I am if I am allowed to choose what I put into my body. Everything about us exists in relation to what of the world we are exposed to and what options we have, and how our experiences shape us.


Labels, power and identity

Labels are certainly useful when it comes to finding people you have stuff in common with. The Druid, Pagan and Steampunk labels have served me very well in that way. When we give ourselves those labels and seek other people who identify with them most of what happens is good.

Naming things is essential if you want to talk about them. Finding descriptions we can agree about isn’t always an easy process, and the more personal and emotive the things that need naming, the harder it gets. When people are on an even footing trying to find language to communicate, the inevitable bumps in this process are, I think, largely worth it.

However, labels can also be stuck to people as an act of power-over. To have the power to label someone is to have the power to over-rule their self identification and replace it with your own terms. This may be backed up by notions of being ‘academic’ or more informed or having authority based on your job, or other forms of seniority. However, when you take away a person’s right to name themselves and put a label on them, you reduce their power and assert your own. When that happens, the basis of the authority needs questioning.

Labels can also be refused and taken away. There’s always someone keen to say who isn’t a real Steampunk, Pagan, Druid, Briton, Jew, to tell disabled people they aren’t really disabled… to tell people they don’t look poor so they can’t be working class, that their gender identity doesn’t exist… It’s nasty stuff. As many of those examples flag up, it’s not just a name you lose when this happens – it may be state aid, the right to self expression, safety, and other essential things. Miss-labeling is so often where we start when we intend to strip people of other things as well.

If we aren’t on an equal footing when labels are being ascribed, then labels are something that are done to us. Politicians calling refugees migrants is a case in point. That’s a re-labeling with massive consequences. Think about the kind of language used to label the LGBTQ community, or the habit of less inclusive Christians to insist that all Pagans are Satanists. Miss-labeling tends to disappear something of who you are and replace it with who you are assumed to be. It can be anything from annoying through to life threatening, depending on the context. It’s definitely not something to take lightly.