The Identities I Wear

Every day I perform. I hate identifying myself—I think everybody does. Every day I perform a slightly new identity: a response to yesterday’s self, a version of a previous thought, another interpretation. I intentionally dress up to erase the label I owned yesterday. Today, I’m a circus ringmaster; yesterday, a disco girl; the day before, an air-force-pilot-meets-janitor. My walk morphs from a short-stepped bounce to a long, slouched lope; one day, my posture carries my spine high like a swan’s neck, but collapses like a wilted stem the next. I suppose it’s a kind of method acting, though only relevant until nighttime, when the persona dissolves in sleep.

I wake up in character. This feeling is the backdrop to my day. I take the same shower, eat the same breakfast, drink the same coffee, but somehow I reach for a new costume in my closet and my identity changes, along with my posture, my confidence, and my outlook. Part of my morning routine consists of breaking it. I’ve understood the power of this moment for a long time, and I’ve managed to take control of it: my day, my mood, my identity. It all seems superficial—defining myself through archetypal costumes and calling myself “unclassifiable”—but it runs much deeper than that.

Matching my costume to my mentality is a balance that I must control to maintain a sense of self, and many times I’ve found myself in desperate need to change outfits because of a slight disconnect in character. On days like these, there is usually an immediate repulsion to the day, like a bad reaction between my skin and the air outside, but sometimes the disgust boils slower: the clothes spoiling like milk with every hour until I snap out of character. Suddenly, I see myself as a stranger, and I despise my own image. Or maybe it’s one identity seeing the other, and the more judgmental one scoffs, mocking the one I mistakenly put on this morning because it’s the wrong “me” today.” Like that one time I found myself in the airport wearing my bejeweled cowboy hat, putting on bronzer in front of my handheld mirror; I laughed at the delusion.

I inherited my costume-collecting tendency from my mother. In our house, she has five closets—six if you count the broken bathtub full of storage boxes. She never throws anything out, but mostly because she sees clothes as artifacts—souvenirs of her past selves, archived on shelves. She taught me to buy nice things that last a while—and because of this, we are over-protective of them. My mom treats each item as an art object, wrapped in plastic and neatly stuffed in her closets under dim lights. One closet door opens onto a wall of shoe boxes, half of which she’s never worn: forever brand-new. The collection is diverse: black leather combat boots, glitter-coated sneakers, and woven loafers sleep side by side in individually wrapped tissue-paper nests, among others tucked in compartments like bees in honeycomb. Upstairs in the attic, there’s an entire room of eras hung up on clothing racks, locked with a key that only my mom has. One day I’ll let myself go through it with her—she’s asked me to for a long time, promising me new identities if I do, but I think she just wants to rummage through her old selves, showing and narrating their stories to me like flipping through a dusty photo album.

For Halloween one year, I must have been five or six, my mom made me a candy princess costume. She spray painted a princess dress gold, and super-glued M&Ms, gum drops, gummy bears, and nonpareils over the ruffled skirt and collar, while Twizzlers swoop in garlands around the hem. Today, it is preserved in a glass case over a non functional fireplace in my room, untouched since the night I wore it, decaying underneath the glass. It’s a relic of my childhood: a reminder of an age, of my mother’s vision, of a costume immortalized. From my bed, the dress hangs directly across the room, and though I can’t remember it changing, I’ve watched it rot for the past fifteen years—though I love it all the same. I think my mom and I would showcase all of our costumes like this if we could: a museum of past characters we’ve shed: a physical timeline of our growth. We’d watch as their styles and colors fade, but pray for little change—years from now, they’ll be proof of the bodies we had, the smells we wore, the people we were. Maybe one day we’ll pull them out again, brush off the dust, and cover our wrinkling skin with their surface, tighter now.

The only ring I wear, the only one that I haven’t lost, is a rose-gold ring on my right hand with a chameleon engraved into its flat face. It’s my high school’s ring—Concord Academy—and has been its design since the time the school was established in 1922. My initials are engraved on the inside, next to “2012,” the year of my graduation. My mom had one when she graduated. The chameleon was the school logo before they changed it to an image of a window in the chapel, and then again to an outline of Haines House, one of the oldest buildings on campus.

My high school was so isolated it would get painfully two dimensional—but just enough to fuel our characters and push our identities. Perhaps this is where it began. High school was a very frustrated time—sometimes it felt like we were all atoms violently bouncing around in a space that was too compressed—and as a result we’d do anything to stand out, to temporarily stretch the bubble further, to breathe. To keep myself engaged, I’d dress up—for my self-esteem, for my entertainment, for my crushes, for the sake of making a game out of my image. I was always jealous of the sports teams that dressed up in theme before games—goth, cowgirl, preppy—but finally my friends and I just did it anyway. “Tomorrow we’re hillbillies,” Abby said. I loved high school. Our senses of self were built on boredom.

The logo was a chameleon because of the animal’s ability to adapt to various environments, a skill I suppose the school wished for its students to adopt, but a choice which I always found strange since I always thought chameleons just blended in. Either way, its interpretation seemed irrelevant since, at the time, we all were so sheltered as prep school kids. There was no need to constantly adapt on our private campus in the suburbs. Now that I’ve left, I finally understand. Almost accidentally, the chameleon on my finger has consumed me—yes, I’m adaptable, but to the point where I don’t know who I am when I’m not changing.

I’ve always liked places that give you an identity by making you feel a certain way: I absorb that instantly. I actually love categorizing myself, at least for the moment. The categories aren’t clearly cut or two-dimensional, like what subculture style has become or what Halloween costumes always are, and most of the time the styles I wear are overlaps of aesthetics or a hybrid of feelings. I’ve always found it difficult to introduce myself accurately to people, and my clothes have always been the easiest way for me to control my (an) identity(s). There’s a flip side, however, and I find myself using my clothes to cover a deeper self: to distract or contradict past identities. My clothes are a strategy, a game, a presentation. In the end, this dressing up probably gives more away about me than originally planned, though perhaps subconsciously intended.

People have told me I look French, Italian, Hispanic, Russian…I have light skin that becomes quite pale in winter and quite brown in summer, brown hair, and brown eyes. I’ve been told I have a plain face. I’ve never been offended by these labels; in fact, I realize in many ways it is a blessing. Perhaps in this case, being undistinguished—enough to even have the choice of hiding, adapting, morphing or shifting an identity—is a privilege. I can shed one look, take up a new one, and for the most part, people seem convinced. I’m convinced. I’m made up of people that come from vastly different places in the world, and a lot of the time I feel free to claim and interpret those preset identities.

But there is a lot of responsibility with choice, and a collection of labels can dissolve itself. My habit of acquiring so many egos reflects my refusal to pick a defined path. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who appreciates anything; I easily find beauty in all faces, clothes, and cultures. I’ve always thought of myself as being extremely open until I realized it was just being severely indecisive. I cannot compare anything. I can see the logic to any side, the reasoning behind any path, and if I wanted, I could convince myself of any answer. I lose control of my imagination as it breaks into the hypothetical fates of each option, and as a result, any decision-making causes extreme tension for me.

This over-analysis boils over into all decision-making, on any scale. In many cases, I’d always choose the path that would ultimately present the most options, in an attempt to push back the final decision deeper into the future. I’ve always been scared of options because a choice says the most about someone, and I don’t want to be revealed in that way. So, I keep dancing around the self I refuse to look in the eyes, avoiding it until I have to; hoping now is not the moment I’ll back into the walls surrounding me.

Eventually I got scared it all amounted to nothing. Everything: my identity of ever-changing characters that never stuck—they were all partial selves, only daily commitments—added up to be no one at all. My collection of clothes, potential identities filed neatly on a rod, could only be a delusion of newness, just the flat shadow of a deeper insecurity, or a lost self. I was the kind of chameleon that just blended into the type I chose to be. The beauty that I squeeze out of anything became a complete lack of opinion, laziness in the face of contradiction or argument. Once I thought I really was an empty silhouette, a slab of clay molded by the negative space between labels.