In a culture that is increasingly obsessed with labels and fitting individuals neatly into boxes, I have found myself in a constant state of unease. With the rise of Instagram, Tinder, and hell, even LinkedIn bios, we are constantly being asked to define ourselves. Some people love this. You can see it in their profiles, where they neatly condense the entirety of themselves into a handful of words, oftentimes separated by emojis. Though it can be entertaining to poke fun at, I don’t find anything wrong with this. In fact, maybe it’s my own fault for not having a better sense of self. Still, I can’t help but feel an immense amount of anxiety whenever I am asked to define myself.
I feel uncomfortable about defining myself either as a victim or a survivor of sexual assault in the same way that I feel uncomfortable about defining myself as bisexual. Have I been raped and otherwise sexually assaulted? Check. Have I been attracted romantically and sexually to men and women? Check. So then why does it feel so wrong to identify with each of those labels? My assaults have impacted my life tremendously: shaping my personality, causing me trauma, affecting my ability to love and trust. I have found owning the experiences as empowering and even therapeutic. Putting a name to what happened to me feels not only liberating, but especially validating. Speaking the truth of my rape and assaults helped me to process them, as well as find others with similar experiences with whom I could connect. As for the label of victim or survivor, both feel wrong to me because in my mind being raped and assaulted was just a string of instances that happened, rather than something that I need to define myself with.
As for my sexuality, labeling it makes almost no sense to me. I have always operated from Alfred Kinsey’s findings that human sexuality is on a spectrum and that “sexual behavior, thoughts, and feelings towards the same or opposite sex [are] not always consistent across time.” I’ve found this to be undoubtedly true in my own sexual preferences, so why put a concrete name to what I feel when it’s ever-shifting?
In a way, not labeling myself makes me feel like an outcast, like I’m not truly part of the group in which many happily accept their label as a part of their identity. In not claiming an identity for my sexual orientation, it makes me feel like I’m not “queer enough” to consider myself a part of the community. I feel the same when when it comes to religion. I spent a good portion of my childhood in a synagogue attending Sunday school, had a bat mitzvah during which I nervously read from the Torah to a congregation, have been to my fair share of Passover Seders, and have sang the prayers in Hebrew for eight consecutive nights during Hanukkah while waiting for the candles in the menorah to burn out. Though I’ve participated in a number of activities that many Jews have not, I still feel uncertainty in calling myself Jewish when the religion itself feels unreachable and foreign to me. I’m more like Jew-ish.
I’ve gone months at a time without drinking alcohol and don’t take drugs recreationally, but even during periods of sobriety, it feels wrong to call myself sober. I try my best to use cruelty-free products, hardly consume meat, try to avoid dairy, and despite the fact that I make efforts to educate myself on the industries that harm animals and try to make conscientious choices informed by the research, I don’t know that I could ever touch the labels of vegetarian or vegan even if I did rid my diet and lifestyle of animal products completely. Even if I did adhere to the “qualifications,” I would still feel like I didn’t belong under that label.
It’s not that I’m indifferent about any of these matters or that I care any less for the various other communities I feel I am a part of or with whom I align. Contrarily, I’ve found that more often than not, I’m someone who is fueled by passion. So why does it feel so anxiety-provoking to put myself or even allow myself to be put in these boxes? Despite our basic human desire for inclusion and acceptance, is it possible that these same desires causing us to define ourselves to be included in communities are also ostracizing us and pushing us further away from making connections with each other? Since I don’t foresee labels going away any time soon, I’ll instead have to find ease in the discomfort and accept that I might always lie somewhere in-between.