Written by Lauren Parsons
Illustrated by Jesmyne Wallace
Given the slightly excessive free time we have all been issued with in 2020, I’ve caught myself in sustained periods of self-reflection. I imagine my mind as a long room with a series of filing cabinets bursting with half-ideas, aspirations and feelings. I need to reorganise.
Most of us, to some degree, partake in the entirely unsustainable business of buffering our opinions and appearance through a set of standards and values that aren’t our own – yes, I know this isn’t new information.
However, this leads to the construction of our social identity; something we then cling to as our main vehicle for experiencing the world rather than treating it as a mere indicator of one part of us. It limits our interpretations of the things around us, constraining our creativity and understanding. We can’t enjoy the rest of the landscape over the walls of the box our perceived social identity has put us in.
The hefty notion of self-creation can perhaps help us catch a glimpse of that landscape. This can be in the consistent evolution of our creative minds and abilities, the aesthetical staging of ourselves or through personal growth in relationships and incremental changes in our social and reactive self.
The pursuit of creating oneself professionally is, for many, a lifetime project. We are not born Ikea-Flatpack-Furniture ready for a career, we work towards it and craft our proficiencies along the way. In the same breath, we are not delivered into the world fully formed humans and there has been no consensus drawn on a deadline for the presentation of ourselves as a finished product.
The lack of a formal deadline does not inhibit our old friend Toxic Productivity from creeping into our peripheral vision. We can soon fall into a pressured cycle of constantly striving to evolve ourselves, both professionally and personally.
This will eventually lead us to burn out and cease activity altogether, probably resulting in binging all the baking shows on Netflix and not showering for a week. What I mean to say is there is, as with everything, a balance to strike. Finding what drives you and pursuing that, not allowing yourself to passively survive on cruise control but without going so fast that you drive yourself off the road entirely.
In an interview with Jia Tolentino, she explains the notion of “capitalist self-hood” – the idea of “optimising” oneself and how “everything good is inefficient.” In a world under a fast fashion dictatorship, where FOMO (fear of missing out) is an entirely real, paralysing fear, Tolentino’s words are particularly resonant. My online ordering history displays archival footage of my submission to both capitalist self-hood and my own attempts to self-optimise.
I am not directing any particular malice towards such a phenomenon; I am an entirely complicit cog. I am just (like many) profoundly aware of its caustic effect on self-image, the advent of Instagram stories, influencers, celebrities, and the infatuation with making money and looking like m o n e y.
Which brings me momentarily to clothes. For me, clothing is something of a point of contention. What we wear can make us feel great, instilling in us a newfound confidence and allowing us to inhabit spaces comfortably. Whilst it can also commodify our worth, make us feel excruciatingly aware of our perceived flaws and entirely wrong in our own bodies. Inhabiting a world where you feel you are constantly being screamed at to adhere to specific, ever-changing beauty standards is exhausting.
The side effects of this exhaustion mean that when we are accosted with the phrase “you’ve changed”, it feels like a fatal blow. So much of life isn’t physical; subjective feelings can sometimes rule our actions and that cannot always be bad. It can be extremely rewarding to take the time to recalculate how you project yourself to others and in different environments.
Maybe if we viewed ourselves more as abstract players within the world it would allow us to feel more comfortable in how we take up space within it. The Buddhist ideal of ‘self as an illusion’ implies that having no sense of self would make us more generous and less afraid of the death of the biological organism that constitutes us. No matter what you think of this, aspects of it could be helpful.
I feel as if my twenties have been entirely dictated by my excruciating awareness of myself and I have felt most at peace in moments where I am acting merely as a person working through their day rather than intently pondering given situations and encounters. Maybe in practicing a certain detachment we are more ourselves; simply being without having to acknowledge said being.
Whoever says “you’ve changed” is stating an opinion, because who should be able to decide who you were to begin with? All of our interactions show different sides of our personality but we are more complicated than that conversation we had with that certain person on a rainy Wednesday evening. I’ve spent twenty-three years in my body and I still haven’t the faintest idea who I am. That cannot be a bad thing as it means I can be anything, within reason (I know I’m no Princess Nokia, sadly).
I will conclude with an honourable mention to the ambiguity of being yourself. Being yourself is a lazy phrase; it surmises the complexity of being human into a multipurpose, inspirational quote you can print on a t-shirt or mug and sell as confidence.
Perhaps we are the sum of our actions, the versions of us people meet or maybe we are contained in the melange of thoughts, ideas and feelings shooting around our minds. Probably a mix of them all. Every day I feel as though I learn something new about myself, like I’m picking up crumbs that will eventually lead me to some palace of self-realisation.
To be entirely contradictory, to create yourself successfully you need to have sturdy foundations in your truth, but your truth may fluctuate. Being yourself is not having a definitive explanation of who you are forever, it is acting according to your best interests and valuing your abilities. It might sometimes seem drastic, selfish or thoroughly nonsensical but we are literally living on a giant magnetic rock, the only one in our solar system (that we know of) to sustain life, floating through a universe we know nothing about. It is an anomaly we are here in the first place, give yourself some credit.
Lauren is in her third year of studying History of Art and Anthropology at Oxford Brookes while also working part-time as a Barista. She is also part of the team @ Cuntry Living, an intersectional Feminist zine based in Oxford.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous