How would you describe yourself?
Have you ever been asked this? In an interview? Maybe while trying to write a dating profile?
"I'm an independent, driven woman."
"I'm a hardworking M&A exec at Morgan Stanley, posting the top performance numbers of my cohort for the past two years."
"I'm a gay person of color."
"I'm a mother of three wonderful children."
The most interesting thing about this question is that it's deceptively hard for just about anyone, including me. Do you capture yourself in terms of your career or your hobbies? Do you share the things that make you the most unique (e.g that you unicycle on the weekends) or the thing that most directly impacts the way people treat you (e.g. that you are a woman)?
Would your answer be authentic to who you are?
I'm writing this post because I've recently expanded my answer to the question of "How would you describe yourself?" to include "transgender" and "woman."
Exposing this more authentic description of myself felt impossible for me until relatively recently. To answer that question honestly would be to acknowledge my own rejection of ostensibly positive labels – "cis male" – in favor of something much more uncertain but also more honest - "trans woman."
The challenge of coming out and transitioning is one that gets to the core of how we as humans express and understand ourselves, but it's also one that I don't see as unique to the trans experience.
I am interested in exploring why describing ourselves and living authentically was and still is hard for me as a transgender woman, but also why I think it's genuinely hard for everyone.
Shaping the External Identity
When we're born, we don't really identify as anything in particular. But we are all oriented in certain ways, whether that be with respect to the things we enjoy doing, our internal sense of gender, or otherwise.
People commonly refer to this as "nature," "wiring," or "innate characteristics." Regardless of what you call it, though, it's safe to say that we don't really see ourselves as any thing early in life. We either lack the socially constructed labels or we just don't get why they should matter.
But throughout childhood, we realize that we are treated certain ways and more critically are certain things in the eyes of those around us.
The daily labelling of ourselves and others infiltrates our sense of self. Sometimes, labels appear to be a subjective description of us – "kind," "pretty," "mean." Other times, they are a word describing some objective attribute of our identity, interpreted subjectively through a social filter - for example "Gay", "Black", "White", or "Muslim."
In my case, I learned that I was White, ambitious, and not particularly good at sports. It was good to be manly but bad to be feminine. I could play as much youth soccer as I liked but painting my nails was off limits. So I avoided most negative labels by fitting in, doing well in school, and trying to follow the rules.
The result of all this is what I like to call the "external" identity. Here's an example of my own circa 2013:
This identity is the person we convey to the world, and we often do whatever it takes to keep it consistent. Accordingly, it was around this time that I joined a fraternity (before leaving it the following year) and entirely threw myself into my studies. I had internalized components of who I was supposed to be alongside more authentic labels for myself like ambitious and studious.
If you asked me "How would you describe yourself?" back then, I might have responded with a cliche like "Work hard, play hard" or a comparably meaningless phrase. I explained who I was in terms of labels or phrases I saw to be positive, even if only some of them matched my innate characteristics.
This is what I would call inauthentic. It's expressing yourself in a way that doesn't actually match who you are.
It doesn't happen this way for everyone. Many find that their own sense of self fits well into current social norms. Others just seem to care less about what other people think altogether.
My own sense of self didn't fully align with what society told me I was supposed to be, but I also always cared too much about social expectations to contravene them.
I sometimes think about challenging times in my life – times when I felt depressed but would subsequently go meet friends or decide to take on a new project.
How was I? Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for asking.
Over and over, mental diversions would keep me afloat. They allowed me to put off the real question on my mind: Why am I going to such lengths to keep up a facade?
In truth, I was probably trying to convince myself that the person I presented to the world was actually me. When the potential social ramifications of admitting my feelings felt too great, presenting the socially acceptable label felt like the only option:
People deal with these internal-external dissonances differently. I presented as a man but always felt at odds with that identity. The only way to cover that up was to fill my life with anything that could help me ignore it.
I tried to handle my internal feelings by doubling down on other aspects of my personality. I increased my volume of triathlon training, drove myself to achieve more. I pushed myself harder and faster.
Even as I did more and more, these questions – Who am I? Why do I feel like this? – just grew and grew. I was achieving more than ever but enjoying it less.
For anyone, such an inauthentic state of mind feels outright bad. The dissociation between internal feeling and external presentation congeals to an all-consuming anxiety, one that infects all other aspects of one's identity.
By the time I decided to transition, I felt more inauthentic than ever before. Internally, my identity as a woman had become all-consuming, leaving no room for anything else. Externally, I had taken on so many commitments that my life left no room for being trans – this was by design.
But I was miserable. Keeping myself afloat had worn me down.
So why not just say "I'm a woman" sooner?
It really comes down to shame.
Shame is sort of like authenticity's ugly cousin. It is the thing that keeps us from showing the world who we are – it's the voice in our head that holds us back from accepting parts of ourselves that don't quite fit in the norms of society.
Shame is particularly potent because it builds up over years and years of experience in society. It's informed by every single thing we've heard and by the way we've seen those at the margins of society treated.
I didn't want to be "trans," to take on the baggage that comes with that – everything from what bathroom I can use to whether my gender is valid. I was ashamed of who I am, and I was scared.
Is it always as simple as feeling one way and presenting another? Not really. Identity is a lot messier than a bunch of labels.
Most of the time, I didn't know how I really felt or who I really was. In part, this was because my internal conception of my identity was so informed by the labels society had applied to me.
If anything, this fact made the decision harder. Given the potential cost, my thinking went, I had best not openly adopt a socially taboo label if I'm not fully prepared to embrace it forever. So instead, I rejected my true feelings along the yellow-brick-road of social acceptability, internalizing growing cognitive dissonance as the cost of living in the world at large.
Until I realized that I had to do something about it. To take a series of steps to align the way I felt with the person I showed to the world. This is what shapes the path to authenticity.
This part is where I make some statement about authenticity being the key to happiness, right? But at least for me, it didn't work like that.
When I came out and began transition in 2018, it felt like a loss. I lamented transition being "my only option." It was my last resort at the time, in part because it involved blowing up my life, growing farther from or outright losing people for whom I cared deeply, and having quite a few difficult conversations.
It was stressful. Transition is still stressful. All my problems weren't fixed by transitioning, nor did I suddenly become authentic in an instant.
I still long for the simplicity of my old identity. A part of me still wishes that there were a sustainable path for me to live as a man, to take society's labels as my own and feel at ease.
When you're trans, people often tell you how "brave" you are. A lot of trans people are brave, but it always felt misdirected for me. Personally, living more authentically didn't take bravery – it took the realization that virtually any authentic path forward will create a better foundation for fulfillment in life than an inauthentic one.
Even though transitioning is hard in almost every sense, I can say honestly that the stress of the process is absolutely nothing compared to the stress of living each moment inauthentically.
Authenticity isn't analogous to happiness; it is analogous to freedom. It offers me freedom from the labels I held onto so tightly for years and freedom from my own ill-fated efforts to align with those labels. Freedom from the shame of hiding who I am.
To be authentic is in some ways selfish. It is to privilege your own sense of self above the perspectives of others, sometimes at great cost. But if we can't be ourselves, who are we really?
So how would you describe yourself?
My name is Natalie Meurer. I'm a dorky software engineer with a penchant for obsessive binges on emerging technologies and privacy - I love running, learning from those around me, and I'm a trans woman.
I think that describing oneself is hard in part because we force ourselves into these well-defined boxes laid before us: "runner," "trans," "software engineer." But authenticity is about being who you are, not just taking the labels that make sense.
I have unequivocally decided to adopt "trans" as a part of who I am, but as with all other labels, I get to shape the balance of "trans" amongst "software engineer," "technologist," "dorky," and a changing array of countless other features, many of which can't be captured with a simple adjective.
Yes, I am "trans," but I'm also so much more than that. All of us are more than the sum of the labels used to describe us.
Identity is complicated, so how could any of us expect someone to authentically capture the entirety of who they are in an answer to a simple question like "How would you describe yourself?"