The Malleable Self

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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.

 

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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