Identity: noun. 1. The condition of being oneself and not another.
Identity gives us connection, purpose, sense of belonging, strength, truth, courage, friendship, love, opportunities, home. It is through our identity that we celebrate, embrace, laugh, rejoice, rest and find peace.
“I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses.”
Jerry Herman, Composer & Lyricist
flourish in your identity.
This series of posts is inspired by OutlineNZ’s Flourish campaign.
That’s a very interesting definition of identity there, the last part. “The condition of being oneself, and not another.”
We often spend a great deal of our lives being other people—the people we’re expected to be, the people we think others want us to be, the people that we think will best help us advance in life, make others like or love us.
There’s a song on the new Lady Gaga album called “Hair” where she sings from the perspective of a teenager about the importance of her hair being her identity, and how damaging that was to her identity when her mother used to make her cut it.
What a silly idea for a song I thought, as I was singing along (like most of her records, she’s got a damn good ear for a tune).
Then I realised I’d done precisely the same thing when I was searching for identity through my twenties—I did it with hair.
This is how I looked for most of my childhood. I had default hair. Nothing adventurous. Nothing was needed—all the adventures were going on inside my head. I had a pretty active imagination.
I didn’t have a sense of who I was. I had plenty of ideas about who others thought I was: the ‘brainy’ kid, if they were nice; the ‘geeky/nerdy’ kid if they were not so nice; and the ‘poncy’ kid if they had insecurities about their own masculinity.
Like most children, I started to explore a sense of my possible identity through idolising others. One of my earliest heroes was Phillip Sherry, a newsreader. Oh the irony when I found out as an adult that he was a senior member of the homophobic Christian Heritage Party, led by the now convicted child molester Graham Capill, but life has a way of turning out in ways you don’t expect.
I identified with weird, outsider characters, and as many young gay kids are, I was drawn to science-fiction: Star Trek, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf.
Then I hit my final year of school, and hair happened.
Very unsuccessfully, as you can see, although this was for a school production. This was an attempt to do something different, to forge some sense of difference. I was frustrated with the labels that had been put upon me by my peers, sick of the sense of expectations about what I was going to do with my life post-school (none of which ever came from my parents, I hasten to add), and I guess there was a neediness there to try and be seen as cool.
Arseholes that used to tease me, be effortlessly athletic and snog girls in the corner at the school social seemed to have no problems with their identity. They walked with confidence, they had trendy hair, and some of them even drove their own cars to school (something which made me laugh—as a working family, we couldn’t afford such things, and I never asked for or wanted them; yet I was often teased for being a spoilt only child).
But I escaped from school, and it was such a liberating feeling that the day I left I went straight up to the barbers and shaved all my hair off. It felt amazing. For the first time, I felt like – this is me, probably because it was 100% my decision. And, I thought it didn’t look too bad. Buzz cuts always look good on a man.
That’s me on my 21st birthday with Dean.
I’d return to the buzzed hair thing on and off as I got older, but rather than doing it as an act of liberation I’d usually be doing it to get rid of a hideous hair experiment I’d engaged in as part of trying to forge an identity for myself.
Like this one, for instance.
I’d met Zara, who was to become the main vocalist in our pop group Deep Obsession, and there was about a year when we used to work in the studio on songs with my co-conspirator Michael. We’d potter away and write, she’d come in and record demos, and then go off and sing in a succession of covers bands.
She must have wondered what she’d let herself in for at times, because I could see the look on her face as she got into the elevator at the radio station we were working at. Every time she turned up, I’d be wearing something weird or had my hair in a mess.
The look above was designed to emulate Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys in his 1980s heyday. It never worked out. At one stage, the perm went disastrously wrong and I ended up looking like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons.
The clothes? Well, I had no interest in dressing in drag, but there was a time when it was pretty hard to find interesting-looking men’s shirts, so I’d go to Shanton—a women’s store—and buy tops from there. And then go to a second-hand clothing store and buy a ball coat with tails, and wear that combo to the studio.
Dean would often be the one laughing and saying, “what the fuck are you wearing?” But I ignored it. By this stage, I’d started to regain some of the shattered confidence from my school years, because I had Michael encouraging me.
As a Bowie fan, he celebrated all sorts of weirdness, and as a teenager he’d gone through his own phases of ‘dressing up’, so he just let me work through what I was doing without any sense of judgment. He reserved that for the music we were working on.
Eventually, we became successful, and my identity became fully forged. I still had people that I aspired to be like, but I no longer felt that I was “being someone else”.
I was fully out of the closet, I’d been with a partner for nearly five years—in fact, we’d decided to marry, in the closest legal way we were able to at the time.
And yet, throughout the next ten years, something still ate away at me in terms of my identity. I wasn’t happy with who I was, and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.
The stick-thin, pasty guy that used to give music video directors fantastic ideas like—“Girls, we’ll make you look like sex kittens—you? You can be the androgynous one”—did nothing to help my insecurities.
I like being a man. I’ve always liked being a man. For a long time, I never felt that anyone respected me as a man, though. Sometimes “we love you for you” just doesn’t cut it—ask any transgender person what this is like.
Our gender is an incredibly important part of our identity, and if we don’t see or have our gender respected, it’s very damaging to our sense of self, and if you’re a man who isn’t respected as such, that means a whole lot negative things: chiefly weakness.
I did the gym thing for a while, I forced myself to eat (I’ve never had a big appetite) and even did the vomitous protein shakes. I went from 68kg to about 85 over the course of three to four months, and I started to feel better about myself.
I never wanted to be a gym bunny, in fact I wanted a bit of pudge. I just wanted to look like an average guy. In terms of my identity, I had the internal confidence about who I was and where I wanted to be in life. I just wanted the outside to match.
One day, probably during a bout of depression, I got lazy and decided not to shave. It became a beard.
By this time, I’d discovered the bear community, and other guys started to compliment me on it. I liked it as well. I felt like I was the mature adult that I’d been wanting to be since I was twelve.
After all that time, bad fashion and bad hair, I’d stumbled across a physical identity that I felt comfortable in completely by accident.
Dean didn’t like it so much, he says it’s like kissing a brush, but now he has one too so we’re both lumbered with smooches being like a car wash.
What’s the point of this big rambly story?
It can take a long time to find who you are. And that will change throughout your life. What feels right at a certain time in your life will feel completely wrong at others.
It’s the voyage of discovery and experimentation that will make you flourish, but make sure it’s on your own terms, and not on anyone else’s.
Because identity is about being yourself—not somebody else.
Images courtesy of the author