Building identity self-portraits

One of the things I love talking to young people about is their budding identities. There are a couple of Zits comic strips that I like to use to explore the theme. One of them involves Jeremy standing before a mirror, assuming different flavors of masculinity, only to turn into a little boy when his mom catches him in the act. Seeing Jeremy try on different identities is a great way to get a conversation started about identity exploration. We all “try on” different identities or emphasize certain aspects of ourselves at different times, and it can be a bit awkward and embarrassing when someone calls us out on it—especially when we are in our teens.

When I ran a discussion on identity for a writing workshop, we kept the group discussion on a largely abstract level, and then I had the youth write about their personal experiences afterward. With the mentoring group I work with, however, I redesigned the activity as a partner exercise with youth and their mentors. Each young person would write a list of the most important elements in his identity, and then represent that visually in his self-portrait. During presentations, the group would then respond to the portrait, by commenting on what was interesting or surprising about it, or naming other characteristics that they thought were fundamental to the presenter’s identity.

To model the exercise, I very quickly sketched out an impromptu identity self-portrait. Do pardon the scrawl:

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I started with the fact that I most strongly identify as a Wesleyan alum, which I represented with a red mortarboard. I am carrying a metro card because being a New Yorker is also central to my self-concept. I added my glasses, which represent for me both nerdyness and a sense of style. I added lipstick because there is a certain part of me that likes girly things, but I am wearing pants because I prefer to project a certain boyishness, rather than a fulsome femininity. I added a jacket because I love jackets of all lengths. They are a low-maintenance way of communicating a sense of style for people like me, who don’t like to wear makeup or fuss with their hair. Lastly, I colored my face in brown because I am Filipina, but most people probably see me as more generally “Asian,” although I identify more strongly with the category of “Southeast Asian.”

When I presented all this to the group, my husband (a mentor) commented that I should also add something about my love of the outdoors, so I added hiking boots to the drawing. One particular youth kept asking what clothing brands I wore, so I had to explain (though it really befuddled him) that I don’t identify with any particular brands, and couldn’t tell him “who I was wearing” at any given time. Someone else asked about my age, and I reluctantly added “thirty-something” to the portrait, though I mentioned that I am regularly surprised by my biological age, because I often feel younger at heart.

You can see just from my example how we were able to talk about how our self-concept does not coincide with other people’s perceptions of us, and how the first thing that strangers might see of us (e.g., my skin color and all the associations or stereotypes that go along with that) might actually fall very far down on our list of identifying characteristics. We also see that the elements of our identity can be in tension—or even direct contradiction—with each other (e.g., I am at once “nerdy,” “stylish,” “girly,” and “boyish”).

I find that teenagers are very driven to “be true to themselves.” I suspect they get that message from the conversation on bullying. Adults like to tell young people that they shouldn’t be afraid to just “be themselves,” but I think this is often misinterpreted to mean that any evidence of “identity exploration” is a symptom of an “identity crisis. I think that an equally important lesson to convey to our youth is that we are not born fully formed, and our identities can shift and change significantly through our lives, especially during the formative teenage years.

To this end, I mentioned that I refused to add “shyness” to the portrait because it was an identity that I was working very hard to shed, and that I was hesitant to add “entrepreneur” to it, because it was an identity that I was still getting used to. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to wrestle with parts of your identity well into adulthood.

What I loved most about running this identity workshop with this particular mentoring group is that everyone knows each other very well outside of their mentor/youth pairs. So whenever I asked, “Does anyone have anything else to add to this portrait?” the group perked up and called out a number of positive attributes that they thought were missing from their friend’s self-portrait. It’s an extremely feel-good exercise that would build up anyone’s self-esteem!

There was one particular youth who gave a very interesting answer when I asked about identities he may have had in the past that no longer factored into his life. After a bit of thought, he responded that he used to identify as “ratchet” (a term he had to explain to every single one of us: apparently it’s a synonym for “ghetto”), and he said that he realized that he no longer wanted to be associated with that and suddenly felt free enough to drop that identity. It was a fascinating moment of self-clarity that I wish we had more time to discuss.

My last stray thought on this exercise is that young people are surprisingly reluctant to talk about stereotypes. (I found this to be true for the writers’ group as well.) I think that they tend to be dismissive about them and hastily shut down the topic by repeating the injunction to “be true to yourself,” never mind what others think. So I asked them to consider the flip side of stereotyping (i.e., being thoughtlessly lumped in with a larger group), and had them think about a larger community that they each identified with, reminding them that I, for example, thought of myself as a New Yorker. I think the drive to “be an individual” is so present in their minds that they don’t fully appreciate that wanting to belong is a natural human impulse, and that a sense of belongingness is important to our psyches.

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8 thoughts on “Building identity self-portraits

  1. I remember after your workshop on the teen brain where you were struck by the participants’ focus on “being true to themselves” and wondering–wow! how do they know, or think they know, so clearly who that “self” is? I coulnd’t for the life of me say what my “true self” is. And how do you tell the difference between being “untrue” to yourself and being open to change?
    Your post and drawing made me think about ser vs estar–how much of our identities are ser-like: definitions, things that will be part of our identity forever, and how much are estar-like: temporary conditions? I wonder if your students see their identities as principally stable or at least developing along a continuum, or more a series of zigs and sudden changes in response to external stimuli? I question this about myself…wonder what other people think (about themselves, that is, not about me).

  2. Strictly speaking from a developmental perspective, “identity” is something that is achieved after testing. One of the examples I read concerned religion. A teenager might identify with a certain religion just by virtue of being born into it and attending church (eg) with his family. But until that faith is tested (not necessarily by anything dramatic, but just by talking to people of other faiths, learning about different religions, etc.), then that part of his identity is not considered solid.

    I like your ser/estar question for a bilingual group!

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