The Malleable Self


I have a tattoo on my arm that I’m often asked about, probably because it’s the only one visible when I’m in work attire. I’m a teacher, and usually the inquiry is coming from a curious student. I will then proceed to lie to the student by making something up on the spot, or recycling an old lie if I’m not feeling clever enough. If a fellow grown-up is asking, I’m more likely to admit the origin of this tattoo: it is a nautical star with 3 X’s in the middle, signifying “straight edge.” (If you don’t know what that is, consult Google. If you do know, feel free to chuckle at me.) 18 year old me got a tattoo proclaiming an identity that, at the time, was accurate. Let’s just say that things have since changed. I am not that person anymore, and that identity no longer fits me.

At first, I felt a little silly and even slightly embarrassed to have this tattoo that didn’t mean anything to me anymore and had ceased to be a true representation of who I was. I thought about covering it up or having it removed. I even went through one session of laser removal several years back, only to decide that it wasn’t worth spending money on as a poor college student. So, I kept the tattoo. And rather unexpectedly, I have come to find a new significance in it. To me, this tattoo represents a particular lesson that I never seem to stop learning: sometimes, I am a mystery, even to myself. I am, without a doubt, constantly discovering and re-learning myself. There are many things that I “was”: a Christian, straight-edge, a lesbian, female… I’ve left all these identities behind me at some point, as my perception of myself -- and the world around me -- changed.

For awhile this was very difficult for me. I found it unsettling and scary that my beliefs and very selfhood could shift so drastically. How could I have been [insert identity or belief here] and then suddenly… not? Did I even know who I was??

But, when I began to look at myself as something to be discovered, something malleable and ever-shifting, I was able to find peace where there had once been uncertainty. I don’t need to have all the answers about who I am or will be in the future. While I can’t predict what changes I will go through, or how I will adapt to life’s curveballs, what I can do is be open to different possibilities for change and growth. Openness to exploring what identities fit me in the present, and not feeling ashamed for anything  I used to be but no longer am, is the key I’ve found to happy self-acceptance.

I am a queer, non-binary trans person. When I first came out as genderqueer, everyone asked me if I wanted to go on testosterone. My response at the time was, “No way, never.” If I had to answer that question right now, I would likely say, “Probably not, but I’m not sure.” I’m leaving everything at least partially open for consideration, because I realize that I cannot foresee the needs of Future Me. What I think to be true today, may not be so down the road.

I still carry the scars (and ink…) of Past Me, but I have the power to take ownership of those things, and the strength it takes to look back at that person with both fondness and criticism. I can move forward knowing that I have many experiences to uncover, and many Mysteries of the Self yet to solve. Aaaaaand maybe I’ll even end up getting some more regrettable tattoos.



Spencer Clifton

Spencer Clifton, Director of Education for TransChance Health, graduated from the U of M with a BA in Gender, Women's, & Sexuality studies and a masters in Social Studies education.  When they aren't teaching young humans, they can be found in the kitchen making something delicious, reading a book, or narrating the life of their wiener dog.
Spencer Clifton