I Am Not Labeled, I am Named

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Once you label me you negate me.  —Soren Kierkegaard

I.

I wasn’t a fat kid. On the contrary, I was hollowed ribs and lanky limbs for much of my childhood.  I was gangly elbows and knee caps too big for my legs. I was a jawline cut straight and tight like a razor’s edge and the wasting that comes from sickness and hospitals and appetites lost.

I don’t remember this thinness. I’ve only ever seen it in pictures looking back. I couldn’t see it then.

Here is my truth. When my brother and I walked to school in the mornings, I made sure to lag behind him and his friends because I feared the size of my shadow. I thought I was fat. I thought I was dirty. I thought I was wretched. I was five.

I wish I could gather up that little girl in my arms, birdlike and fragile lying on her stomach, feet in the air and chin propped in her tiny hand as she fingered the pages of her favorite book always dreaming of others’ stories so she wouldn’t have to live through her own.  I wish I could tell her she’s known and loved and called. I wish I could tell her she isn’t what they say. 

I wish her name was full on her tiny lips, the bold vowels and consonants ricocheting off her mirrored self, telling the truth of who she is.

II.

I wrote poetry in the dark under the blunt edged light of my Marlboro red. My cigarette butts stacked themselves like crooked bones, a graveyard of the hours spent curled around my journal scribbling furiously, carving out scraps of my story. Every word hurt.

My pages were smoke and cinder, fire and dust. Other people’s words scalded my tongue and I choked on mouthfuls of ashen syllables.

Exotic. Slut. Dirty. 

He slings his arm lazily around my shoulders and drips his fingers down my collarbone like he’s strumming chords on the neck of his guitar. I am hollowed out, percussive and echoing whatever beat they play. I am a girl with dirty secrets of closed doors and greedy hands and promises not to tell. And when I grow from childhood, I am prey for hungry eyes, a girl who’s been plucked down to bone for the curve of my breasts and the bow of my lips. The kind of girl who always feels hunted. I’m the girl you don’t bring home to mom, the kind of girl you don’t have to get to know to know. I learn I am nothing more than fantasy, than fodder for locker room jokes, than rumors and wagging tongues.

“She’s exotic,” they say. “Once you go Asian, you never go Caucasian,” they laugh and never see past the slant of my eyes to the vacancy their words leave. Their labels slither serpentine down my hips, all venom and fangs and poison so strong it takes me years to believe myself anything but dirty.

I succumb to the burden of brutal words. Sometimes it’s easier to be what they expect.

I morph into a thousand roles depending on who I am around. I try them all out like Goldilocks, co-opting identities trying to find the “just right” fit. And when that doesn’t work, I pull on the labels others dress me in. I grasp at the threads trying to weave an identity thick enough to cover my nakedness. 

I walk around in borrowed skins.

I was the girl so uncomfortable in her own, she grew more and more until it swallowed her whole.

III.

And the years pass. The skins shelter me from carnivorous eyes. My hips swell, my belly shakes full of lies and I’m magic. Invisible. I am a new stereotype.

Fat. Lazy. Slow. 

My shadow followed me from girlhood and swelled like a prophecy, the lies have come full-grown inside me.

I stuff myself into bodiless sweatshirts and go barefaced against the world. I drain the color from my eyes and make jokes about myself before anyone else can. I carefully turn off every single light and let the darkness cover me when my husband reaches for me at night. My hair is unwashed, scraped hastily into a ponytail. There is no use in bothering with anything. I don’t want to be seen. I hate having my picture taken and all the memories I have are blurry photographs, my hand blocking my face like I’m ashamed of being remembered at all.

I relent to the sadness. I surrender to the ache of being unknown. I am a lost girl even after all these years.

I forget that before any of those labels, I was named. 

IV.

Maybe all of life is just a journey back to the heart of God. Back to the place where we remember who we are by knowing who He is.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name, you are mine.” 

I am not dirty. I am not what they say. I am not what was done to me. I am what Jesus did for me. Redeemed.

 “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.”

I can spit out mouthfuls of ash and scalded tongues are quenched with new words. These lies have no claim on me.  

 “For I am the Lord your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

No longer a lost girl, no longer a label or a stereotype. Named. Beloved. Ransomed.

V.

My shadow still spreads across the light, but these days it dances to its own songs. These days my shadow stands on its tippy-toes to kiss my husband. Its hands stretch into the summer sun to lift children on those hips and my family calls my body home; it brings me no shame.

These days I’m not hiding, I’m shedding skins and writing my way back to the truth. To the identity I had long forgotten and the place where I remember I am not labeled, I am named.

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Alia Joy
I’m the daughter of both a book lover and a storyteller and in that I was destined to be a writer. I collect words at http://aliajoy.com, dance to the good songs, and believe even the most broken stories have a redeemer. I live in Central Oregon with my husband, my tiny Asian mother, my three kids, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens. Sushi is my love language and I balance my cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses.
Alia Joy
Alia Joy

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