Names, Labels, and Identity
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is an new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
I have a new plant. I took a picture of it and sent it to my grandson, asking if the name “Spencer” was suitable. I know asking an almost-three-year-old to help you name a plant seems a bit ridiculous. But there is a history of us naming plants. Before Joel could talk, we cautioned him to be careful around Phoebe, a big floor plant next to my white shaggy ottoman. He then would go towards Phoebe and pet her. I bought a new plant a month ago, and Joel was on FaceTime when I showed it to him. We threw out a few names, and he had definite opinions of what he liked and didn’t like. So, we settled on “Camilla.” And now my newest plant is waiting to be christened.
Names are important. They are our identity, both legally and relationally. They are what we respond to when called, and often we have strong associations with names. I have a friend who worked as a prison guard in a county jail. In anticipation of becoming a father, he had a difficult time picking a name because he didn’t want the names of his children to be associated with anyone he had dealt with in the context of his job.
It’s interesting to me how names come and go. In my generation, Jennifer, Michelle, and Lisa were popular. Now, I see girls named Olivia, Emma, and Ava. Popular books, singers, and TV shows can also influence or “make” a name. Right after Prince William married Kate, there was a surge in popularity of the names Kate and Catherine. Even the pandemic had an influence on names, with people choosing names that had to do with the outdoors, like Forrest and Willow. In large part, however, the names are decided based on what the parents like. I know that, for us, having an Irish link in the names for our children was important.
My mother-in-law was named Eva Jane Easley, after both of her grandmothers. She never loved her first name, partially because it was the name of the grandmother that she didn’t like as much. Additionally, her temper elicited teasing by her siblings with yells of “Evil Eva!” So, she went by Jane most of her life. She enjoyed the commonality of the name and associated it with the kind grandmother she loved. But at the time of her death, due to all the medical procedures, she ended up going by Eva, because that was her legal name. The name on her birth certificate stuck until her death, and her obituary was entitled “Eva Jane Edmonds.” Despite her dislike of it, my son and daughter-in-law love the name, and their first daughter is named Eva after her great-grandmother.
Although the name Sherry was on my birth certificate, who I am as a person can evolve and grow. And this growth is contingent not only on how much effort I put towards it, but also how much I submit to God in humility. And sometimes this growth is painful and challenging.
In the past few months, I realized how much of my identity was tied up in not fitting the fat person stereotype: lazy, dirty, and dumb. Not to appear lazy, I kept an exhausting schedule, filling my day with lots of activities. I kept my house clean so that I would not appear dirty. I was also self-conscious when meeting people who had professional titles, making sure I engaged in conversations that highlighted my intellectual interests, not wanting to appear uneducated. I was all about portraying the image of a smart, tidy, industrious woman!
But then I lost weight, and who was this new Sherry? For a while, I was the exercise-obsessed person who lived and breathed my jaunts to the gym, Pilates routines, and daily walking adventures. I was also very conscious of what I put into my mouth and often not-so-subtly shared this information with family and friends. This new Sherry wanted desperately to be accepted as what I deemed normal.
Now, I have put some weight back on and who am I now? And the bigger question is why did I let these stereotypes loom so large in my life? I would never let others label people based on their race, age, or gender. But for some reason, I have bought into the belief of what a fat person is and have worked hard to dispel the stereotype. Why haven’t I spoken up for those whom society calls fat? Many of us are productive members of society. We care about our communities. We have interests that are not food related. Many of us may be genetically predisposed to a higher number on the scale even though we are moving. And many are disciplined people whose weight may have nothing to do with a lack of discipline.
I am plugging along with my memoir, currently writing the part on restoring the kitchen, which centers on my obesity. I did a deep dive into my childhood and some suppressed memories have come to the surface. Based on pictures, my rapid weight gain was in direct proportion to my trauma. I remembered stuffing cupcakes and brownies into my mouth to deal with shame, anger, and despair. As I moved from a healthy weight to obesity, I hoped that my rolls and cellulite would cushion the pain from the weekly assaults. Food protected, numbed, and became my closest companion during those hard years.
Today, I realize that my ultimate protection lies in my faith in a good God. And my closest companion was never those sugar-addicting snacks, but Jesus who was there all along. And the hard emotions that I continued to cover up as an adult, I can take them to Jesus. There have been some repercussions from these hard emotions. It has taken a considerable amount of time to process when and why I feel certain feelings. And then, I need to be honest with others about those feelings and occasionally set some healthy boundaries. I wish I could say I have always done this well, but honestly, it has been messy. However, I keep moving toward being a healthier person, owning my mistakes, and repairing relationships as needed.
Recently, I shared with someone that I was considering graduate school for counseling. Immediately, she cautioned me that I might have a hard time finding a job due to my age. I finished the conversation feeling deflated, less than, and disappointed. I sat down for a few minutes, analyzed why I was feeling this way, and called her back. I shared my feelings, and immediately she recognized that, although it wasn’t her intention, her response came off as discouraging. We talked about some other hard things that I had been feeling, and I believe it helped us both understand each other better and move towards healing. Moments like this have me convinced that all those years of stuffing have never left me satisfied or fulfilled. They have left me feeling hurt, misunderstood, and have added to the difficulties I have felt in relationships.
I no longer feel a need to dispel any stereotypes. And I no longer define myself by the numbers on a scale. I am no longer “fat Sherry” or “thin Sherry”. I am not even “in-between Sherry”. I am the Sherry who is learning to define herself by the principles laid out in the Bible, not by the past messages I have received and internalized. This Sherry is so much more than my past trauma, my roles, and status. She is an ever-evolving person committed to Jesus!
Sherry Ann Walter was the name on my birth certificate. Someday, my obituary will read Sherry Ann Collins. But neither name really matters, it is who I am in between that makes all the difference. And I want to see who this Sherry becomes!