I’ve felt for a long time that the name I was assigned at birth (let’s say it was… Jenny) doesn’t fit me. Jenny wasn’t a word that described me; it was just a label tacked on so people would know what to call me. It was a name that carried with it all the associations of my childhood, all the expectations of parents and relatives long before I came into this world.
Jenny is the name attached to the person my parents want me to be.
Almost exactly a month ago, I posted this brilliant post by Cliff Pervocracy to my Facebook feed along with a comment that simply said “Hey, internet, I think I wanna be called Penny* now. Is that cool?” The three folks who responded (none related to me by blood) all said that yes, that was in fact cool. Since then, my husband and the friends I see in person have been doing their best to call me by my chosen name. I’ve been doing my best to introduce myself under my chosen name. (Not making the change legal, however, makes for some awkwardness around the employment area. Still working on that.)
A couple days ago, in accordance with the New Year and fresh beginnings and all that, I changed my Facebook name. (It also forced me to put in my full last name, instead of just the initial I had in there when I started the damn account.) By the time I got up the next morning, I already had a message from my mother asking “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”
I replied that I was still here, thank you, just making some changes. The response to that was, “Don’t change too much, we like you the way you are.”
Maybe I’m snatching an insult out of the jaws of a compliment, here. I’m willing to admit that’s possible. But if I don’t like me the way I am, shouldn’t I be allowed to change as much as I deem appropriate? I don’t even want to ask how much is too much, because that implies that I care if I change “too much” for my parents’ tastes. Truth is, I don’t. They’re going to love me or not love me however much and in whatever way they decide. It’s taken me decades to realize that I don’t have control over whether or not they love and understand me. It’s not my responsibility.
I have a problem with “we like you the way you are.” The way I am is not the way I am – it’s the way they think I am. And that is a lie; that is a trap. The way they think I am is a prison cell, and I have been confined my whole life. It wasn’t until I moved away that I first breathed free air.
It’s for reasons like this that I sometimes resent our technological age. A hundred years ago, I could have conceivably cut all ties when I moved away. I could have run off to join the circus, literally or figuratively. I could make all the changes I want and never worry about whether or not certain people find out. But in this day and age, everyone leaves a trail. Everything leaves a string attached. There are no more ways to simply disappear – not without severely disadvantaging yourself. There will always be the expectations of others, hovering like a cloud around my head.
If I am choosing a life free of the expectations of others, then I must enable myself to choose a name that is free of those expectations, too. And simply the act of choosing is an act of power, an act of agency.
As Cliff puts it:
I like the idea of a chosen name. In my despotic utopian fantasies, everyone would have to change their name (or consciously and explicitly choose to keep their birth name) upon reaching adulthood. (Or better yet, every ten years. This would result in a lot of middle-schoolers named Rocketship Dinosaur McExplosion and that’s awesome.) It’s such a big and important part of your identity, it seems odd to just go with whatever you were handed.
I have a theory that everyone deserves more choices. Imagine being that middle schooler, being given the opportunity to choose your own name for the first time ever. For some kids, it may be the first choice they’re ever given concerning their identity. This is actually brilliant, because in this despotic utopian fantasy, a person’s right to choose is recognized and celebrated. In this dreamworld, every ten-year-old child has their personhood and right to self-identify affirmed and uplifted. What a powerful feeling that would be – to make a choice about your identity and have it respected. How many more of us would have chased how many more dreams, if only we’d known our choice to follow those dreams would have been respected?
This touches on another point, also eloquently stated by Cliff:
Honoring our own desires is not something we’re taught to do. It’s assumed that kids are balls of cheerfully self-indulgent id already, that all you have to be taught is how not to eat everything and hump everything and name yourself Rocketship. The lesson on “actually, indulging yourself in safe and considerate ways is not just okay but necessary” never really comes.
I’m changing because I want to change. Part of that desired change is my name. Part of it is how I honor my sexuality. Part of it is how I treat my body. Part of it is how I adorn my body. Part of it is the type of work I do, part of it is how much or how little I share of myself, part of it is the boundaries I set and the ways I deal with the things that have happened in the past.
All of it is about being allowed to want. All of it is about letting go of the shame I feel at wanting things. All of it is about gaining the confidence to be really, truly, 100% myself.
And that starts with a new name.
*Penny is not actually my new chosen name. It is, however, my Superwoman-esqe alter ago. And I will answer to it just as happily, because I chose it, too.