As a child and teenager, I believed that few things were more important than letting people know what you were into. Hence the ripped jeans, the beer-bottle tops on my school shoes, the plastic dummy on a string around my neck and, later, the Adidas trackie tops and Fred Perry t-shirts. My motto, I suppose, was ‘you are what you like’. And nowhere was this more apparent than at university.
I expect this is the reason why freshers-week poster sales do so well; that vital opportunity to get off on the right foot by arming yourself with Blu-Tack and a dorm room’s worth of advertisements about who you are. I became acquainted with my own undergraduate circle after lending someone my Derby County pen: an icebreaker that cemented my identity as The Derby County Fan, granting me a character name in a group that also included a ‘Taffy’, a ‘Jock’, a ‘Scouse’ and a ‘Shagger’.
Eventually, of course, you shake it off and become known for other things – your studiousness or your drinking prowess, perhaps, or the time you ran naked around the athletics track – but, by the time your graduation gallops into view, you’re already looking at other ways in which to reinvent yourself. Or, at least, I was.
I’ve always been conscious of how I’m defined. Never, perhaps, to the extent that I was as a hypersensitive 18 year old, but for as long as I can remember, it’s something with which I’ve constantly fought. And lately, in this weird transitional phase in which I no longer have cancer but am still being treated for it, and in which I no longer have a job title but am still working at much the same thing, it’s become pretty important to me yet again.
Take getting my new stationery made. At one point I found it so difficult to define what I do that I had six ‘specialisms’ listed on the draft of my business card (so, not ‘specialisms’ at all, then). That’s not me tooting my horn about how many things I’m good at, that’s me trying to find a fancy-schmancy way of saying ‘I do stuff with words’.
I dare say, though, that even without the transitional stuff, I’d be thinking about the definition of who I am. These are times, after all, in which stating who you are has arguably never been more important. And, as it is for so many metaphors, Twitter is the perfect example.
For anyone unacquainted with the social networking site, it’s a service in which users send and read micro-posts of up to 140 characters to which other folk can subscribe by ‘following’ you. The idea, then, is to make yourself ‘followable’, with the means of advertising yourself being a 160-character bio. Here’s mine.
Telling people who you are in 160 characters might seem a simple enough thing to do but, for me at least, this short sentence has kicked my ass. This is, I suspect, my 3,972rd attempt at a bio. And, for this tweeter, it’s the very definition of performance anxiety: a tiny stage on which to be interesting/entertaining/likeable/real enough to warrant a space on someone else’s timeline.
I shouldn’t care, of course. But I do. Telling me to stop worrying what other people think about me would be rather like telling Charlie Sheen to go easy on his namesake. And so, I’ve spent longer than I care to admit devouring other people’s bios, examining their definitions of themselves, their followers’ definitions, and their followers’ again. ‘Global networker, social entrepreneur and philanthropist,’ says one. ‘Husband, Father, Brother, Son, Technocrat, Traveller, Working Man, Music Lover and Christian,’ says another. ‘Just one night full of SIN and SEX.’ ‘I’m me; not sure about you.’ ‘JustinBieber want to meet you in person I also wish you to follow me.’ ‘Not John Cusack.’ ‘Hopefully I can be a wife and good mother to my family.’ It’s fair to say I’ve become more than a little fascinated by these bios. (‘Bio-curious,’ as one brilliant tweeter puts it.)
One that particularly caught my eye, though, was that which read: ‘Just diagnosed with cancer on FEB. 15TH 2011.’ The bio of ‘WorkingGirlCanc’ broke my heart for more reasons than the obvious. ‘What a shame,’ I thought, ‘being in a place where that’s how you’re having to define yourself.’ That’s not a criticism, I hasten to add – just a sighing observation of where that person is right now; a place where you can’t see beyond the diagnosis you’ve just had.
I expect and hope that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, WorkingGirlCanc will want to change both her Twitter name and bio to something that doesn’t involve The Bullshit. But when? After all, ‘breast-cancer survivor’ is part of mine, much as I loathe it being there. But how long will it be there? Begrudgingly, it’s as much a part of me as my marriage or my career. And so, much as I might want to move away from it, it would seem like denying an intrinsic part of who I am if I did.
I admitted as much this week, when I met the marvellous Kristin and Maren Hallenga, founders of CoppaFeel: an awareness-raising charity that educates young women about checking their breasts. (Speaking of which, I emphatically urge you to buy a ticket to this brilliant event.)
‘It’s weird,’ I said, when they asked me about my blog. ‘I’m struggling to know what to post. I’ve been so used to cancer being everything I write about, but I’m wrestling with how much I should move past it.’
‘But, you know, it’s always going to be a part of you,’ said Kristin, rightly.
As I’m sure you’re already aware, Kris was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at 23 and has since, along with her twin Maren, devoted her life to healing, understanding and change. They’re an intimidatingly inspiring team, and I was – and remain – in not-very-well-disguised awe at their dedication to not just skulking round the Bullshit boundary, but actively grabbing it by the tits and grappling it to the ground.
Hence, whining about the Bullshit reference in my Twitter bio is pretty shameful in light of a meeting with a brilliant young lass for whom a secondary status means it’s infinitely more difficult to distance herself from her diagnosis. (And I’ll be kicking myself about it for far longer than just these few paragraphs, believe me.)
See, as the aforementioned child and teenager, I don’t think I ever defined myself in terms of the ‘funny age’ that parents talk about. I never rebelled against my parents or brought home a lad on a motorbike or got caught with a packet of Marlboros and a bottle of Diamond White behind the bike sheds (but by ’eck, if I had my time again, I would). In fact, I always wondered what people meant by ‘that funny age’. Perhaps I’m at it now?
Maybe, then, the label of ‘breast-cancer survivor’ will be another thing that will move back around the sushi-style conveyor-belt that is my definition of myself. Once it was who I am, right now it’s who I wish I wasn’t, and maybe later it’ll be something I that simply don’t want to deny. (See also: being a dummy-wearing Take That fan, to renouncing all fandom, to finding myself with tickets to three different tour dates fifteen years later.)
I secretly like to think, though, that whenever I finally make my peace with it (and, at this rate, I suspect it’ll be a long while yet), I’ll simply store that particular label along with all the others, hanging it up beside the bottle-top shoes, the Adidas tracksuits and the Derby County shirts that make me who I am.