Looking around the restaurant table, I see us all as sixteen. My high school friends have a few wrinkles now, a few extra or fewer pounds, but they remain so essentially the same people I adored all those years ago that I am smiling when the waiter reaches me. He must think I am extra excited to order that pesto ravioli. Really, though, I find the constancy reassuring.
Even the predictable awfulness of somebody we loathe can be a comfort. We need one another to be consistent. A few wild hares are fine, a flirtation with a shaman or a new penchant for inky squid sandwiches, but veer too far off course and people will ask worriedly, “You okay? Because you don’t seem like yourself . . . ”
A while ago, one of those high school friends returned to our alma mater with me. It was fun to feel grown-up in those halls, layered with experiences we never would have dreamed possible. Until, that is, we met some of the current students—and their poise knocked us sideways. They introduced themselves with assurance, moved smoothly onstage, and spoke audibly and with grace, not once stammering or flushing or glancing about wildly to find an escape.
We were embarrassed, remembering how shy and awkward we had been at their age—and sometimes even now. These kids grew up interacting with so much media, so many videos and images, that they had an actor’s ease. Were they as secure as they seemed, I wondered, or did they just know how to present themselves?
I watch kids test different personas. How does it feel to craft one so early, then switch it out, like slipcovers for the season? That is the wrong analogy: The process is far more fluid than slipcovers, shifting like quicksilver. A new name or new spelling, new avatar, new sexual orientation, new status, filtered photo—the self is a work in process. The most we did was try on crazy outfits, sweating in tiny dressing rooms and tossing stuff over the walls to each other. These kids try on whole identities.
A frequent search question on Google is “What are the 72 genders?” One in six Gen Z adults now identifies as LGBTQ+, a definite rise from my generation. But we did not have Streetwear Ken, with green hair and a necklace, or Mattel’s gender-neutral dolls, or a string of possibilities that ended with a plus sign, leaving things open. To my relief, the experiments often seem lighthearted, even when dealing with something as supercharged as gender or sexual orientation. And why not? Freud said we were all born bisexual, and much of our later orientation was learned.
Freud also made a lot of mistakes, though. Mistakes are fine—they are an indispensable part of being young. But you want to avoid the ones that are unnecessarily painful. Sixty Minutes did a segment a few weeks ago on kids who were barely questioned when they decided they were trans—then realized, after surgery, that they had been reaching for a different kind of hope.
My friends and I envisioned typical lives, not radical transformations. Does that mean we left too many possibilities unexplored or we were lucky to be content early on? Listening to them now, I hear one’s wry humor, another’s instant sympathy, a third’s outrage over injustice—all the familiar traits that anchored their personalities decades ago. At sixteen, we were already pretty much who we still are.
Yet this is an old-fashioned way of thinking: the notion that there is a core self that does not change, and other traits and interests dance around its edges. As our scientific theories and technologies change, so does our definition of self, and the new version is far more fluid than what I experienced.
In The Network Self, Kathleen Wallace talks about all our intersecting social identities, and how impossible it is to reduce any individual to a fixed set of traits. What we call the self is a network of clustered social, physical, genetic, psychological, emotional and biological traits that change over time. They are relational, not static. Identity is a process. As another philosopher, Charlie Huenemann, puts it, “I am the particular self I am because of my ongoing, changing relationships to people around me, as well as to the culture, economics, and politics of my time and place.”
I can grasp the idea of underlying flux: Our thoughts stream past, constantly changing, and even at rest, our bodies are in quiet motion, shedding and renewing. Social roles and relationships shape what traits we express; I was more aggressive as a reporter than I was as a daughter, and in a crisis I can become precise and dogged in a way that is normally alien to me. But these changes are hardly noticeable.
As a kid, you need to be noticed.
What worries me is not that teenagers perform an array of identities—why not have a theater of the self? What worries me is that they are too young to have the indifference to others’ opinions that comes after life bats you around for a while. They are performing for an audience and listening desperately for the response, measuring the applause, deciding what works based on what wins the most approval from a group of kids as uncertain as they are.
I can imagine showing up at our small, informal high school reunion and announcing that I have converted to Buddhism and I am emigrating to Bhutan, where I will do human rights work. The scenario feels mildly interesting, like a novel I might want to read. Deviations from the norm do not alarm me—either because I have realized the norm is an illusion or because my sense of self is so cemented, it can travel anywhere.
Not quite anywhere, though. I started with a more radical scenario, and it made me nervous even to type it. Which makes me wonder how much of this comes down to temperament. I sought out girls who were easy company, and none of us were into drama. Also—and this is relevant—we had a static world view: Catholicism was impressed upon us as the one true faith. The philosopher Raymond Geuss points out that the very idea of a fixed identity is premised on the myth of a single, absolute truth, a worldview that can resolve every tension. When you move past the notion that any worldview has all the answers—as many of us have, these days—your identity is no longer strapped to unchanging absolutes. It floats free.
So here we are, sliding about at will. You know those icebreakers where you come up with a few phrases to describe yourself? How tempting, to say: “At this moment I am a shy, awkward group participant longing to be home with a good book. Tonight I will be carefree and vibrant, at ease at a cocktail party where I know and adore lots of the guests. Tomorrow morning I will be a temporary workaholic, serious and earnest, impatient with frivolity. . . . ” We contain multitudes, yet we remain recognizably ourselves. If kids are solid at the core, the costumes they try on, the digital makeovers and avatars and status changes, will be fun ways to explore possibilities but also notice what does not change; what is bedrock in their personality.
But if they are trying to shore up an unstable structure, performing a series of identities could hinge their sense of self to their audience’s response. That kind of fluidity is anxious, not freeing. And if your audience is equally unstable, the last thing you want to do is design your identity to match what they applaud.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.