We’ve all heard the expression:
She’s finding herself.
He’s taking some time to find himself.
It’s synonymous with someone leaving for an exotic place, eating weird food, and probably writing a memoir. Or someone quitting her job and locking herself in a basement with a guitar. Both scenarios are usually explained with an eye roll. But what does it really mean, to find yourself? For me, it has everything to do with looking in the mirror.
We all have things about ourselves we’d like to change. A word for it is dysphoria, which literally means “a state of unease or dissatisfaction.” Dysphoria* comes in many shapes and sizes. Some of us are only “mildly dissatisfied” with things about ourselves. Others struggle with crippling dysphoria. For some, it’s a temporary struggle. For others, it’s a lifelong battle. What I’m going to talk about is somewhere in the middle.
One of the most fascinating things for me, as a parent, is watching my children go through the process of self-discovery. As little children, my kids’ wardrobe choices were fleeting and constantly evolving. They have gone through liking and hating certain fabrics or preferring more masculine or feminine styles. They have wanted to dress as Batman or Elsa or Pikachu. My kids, like most, have made clothing choices based on things that are external to them—what they watch, play with, or are simply surrounded by. But at some point, children begin to express the desire to control how they look from what is internal. This usually happens during the teen years.** I’m currently watching my daughter go through this period of self-discovery, and it’s beautiful. Within safe boundaries, adolescents who “find themselves” grow into adults who are all wonderfully different.
But what makes us want to express ourselves in so many different ways? Why are we not all content to wear some universal, human uniform? Why do we care?
That’s a complicated question that, as best I can tell, can only be answered by God. However, the simple answer, for me, seems to be that we are all unique, eternal beings. We are not just flesh. We are spirit. And our spirits come in colors and kinds that go beyond what we can comprehend while on this earth. Every one of us wants to express the complicated person he or she is on the inside. We want our outsides to match our insides as best as it can. And that is my definition of “finding yourself.”
Back to dysphoria.** I have struggled since adolescence with never liking what I saw in the mirror. But I like myself—my body image is pretty good. So what is it that bothers me so much? What doesn’t match? Over the past three years, I have finally figured it out: I didn’t like what I was wearing, how I was presenting myself. I grew up in an environment that, for many reasons, demanded I look a certain way. It was not OK to be different, and that was emphasized so strongly that I believed there was only one “right” way to look. That type of teaching is hard to break free from, even when you leave home and get married. Over the years, I have had people give me clothes and try to give me a “style,” and they were well-meaning. I have had babies and blamed my tendency to just wear sweatpants on maternity. I’ve tried to fit a mold I thought was required of me. Finally, a little more than a year ago, I took almost everything in my wardrobe and donated it. I literally cleaned out the closet.
I have never felt more free.
“Catching my breath, letting it go,
Turning my cheek for the sake of this show,
Now that you know, this is my life,
I won’t be told what’s supposed to be right.”
—Catch My Breath, Kelly Clarkson
Slowly, I started to allow myself to change what I saw in the mirror.
I am a creative person. I love bright and bold and striking. I finally put streaks of color in my hair. Rainbows of color. Recently I changed it again—blonde and bright red. I like black clothes. I think black looks good on me. I’m a little goth. I love boots—the crazier the better. I love cats. Ears. Fur. Put them on everything I own. That shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve been dressing as a cat since I was old enough to pin a tail to my pants. It’s how I earned my name. I also love fishnet and spiderweb tights. Because it’s layers. It’s texture. Good grief, I’m an artist. It makes sense. And I have always loved these things. This is the person who has always been beneath the surface. This is the person on the inside who has been painting on a mask and trying to fit the model of “mom” and “employee” and “Christian.” I am still all three of these. Even “Christian.”
Now you’re asking, “If your clothes reflect your spirit, is your spirit all black and evil?”
Short answer? “No.”
I’m a sinner saved by grace. If you see evil, you are projecting that from your own prejudices. I can be a good mom, a great employee, and a Christian in whatever I’m wearing.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”—1 Samuel 16:7
You might be thinking, “You just used a Bible verse up there, and doesn’t the Bible talk about not adorning yourself?” Yes, it does say several things along those lines. And all of those verses show a strong cultural bias of the time, which is reflected in the fact that most of them are aimed solely at women. We also don’t adhere to at least half of them anymore. Addressing what the Bible says about clothing is another post entirely, but the deeper meaning in what Paul, and others, wrote in the Bible is the real truth: We shouldn’t try to impress people with our clothes. Therein lies the trouble. Vanity. Pride. Or simply wearing a mask. I believe with all my heart that God intends for us to be authentic.
“I come broken to be mended. I come wounded to be healed,
I come desperate to be rescued. I come empty to be filled,
I come guilty to be pardoned,
By the blood of Christ the Lamb,
And I’m welcomed with open arms, praise God,
Just as I am.”
—Just As I Am, Hymn by Charlotte Elliott
Why do I like black clothes? I don’t know. I just do. But I know something for certain—we, the humans, have assigned spiritual or moral connotations to colors and clothes. We decide, culturally, what is “normal” or what meets “standards of decency.” We decided along the way that suits are “good” and tattoos are “bad.” We create “grooming standards” where hair can only be certain colors and worn in certain ways. And then we change it all about every 100 years. But why? Is someone with tattoos and piercings somehow automatically less qualified to give me a bank loan or sell me a sweater? If they are trained and good at their job, why does it matter? Why did WE decide that it matters? And why do we keep changing it all? There was a time when pink was strictly for boys. There was a time when men wore makeup. Most “professional grooming standards” are still based only on Caucasian norms, and we still equate white with “good” and black with “bad.”
Truth bomb—those are just colors.
Yes, black and white are colors. Chemically, physically, they are colors.
When my Bible talks about good and evil, it doesn’t talk about colors. It talks about light and darkness. Darkness is the absence of light. And light is made up of every color in the spectrum. Light is all-encompassing and made of every fractal of possible color. And God is Light. Not white.
When it comes to light, “white” is the reflection of every color. And black is the absorption of every color. Neither white nor black is the absence of light. Neither is darkness.
Let’s repeat. God is Light. Not white. And I like black. Not darkness.
So, after many, many years of trying to fit a lot of molds, I finally see something in the mirror that feels like me. I am not having a crisis. There is nothing wrong with me, and my faith has not changed. I see God more clearly than ever before, because I finally understand what it means to be “fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this body I was given, I am expressing the person inside, knowing the flesh is ephemeral. And someday, when this flesh is dust, I will finally see just how many wonderful colors God has woven into my unique and irreplicable soul.
I am made in the image of God. I know to whom I belong. I am light when there is darkness. I found myself, and I think I’m pretty cool.
I also still really like sweatpants.
Love God, love people—Blindly, Boldly, and Without Bounds.
NOTE: The picture above is my tattoo, which features a quote from my book.
*This is not meant to be a clinical definition or diagnosis.
**This is not meant to be definitive and the author understands that individual experiences vary.