The Unknowing Actress
art by Isha Ray
Have you ever been in the middle of interacting with someone and realize how unbelievably fake you’re being? Have you ever naturally raised your voice an octave to match those of the people you're talking to? Have you even completely reformulated an opinion so that they are more inclined to agree with it?
My boyfriend once pointed out how high pitched my voice gets and how energetic I become when I was talking to a peer that I didn’t have a close relationship with but worked closely together in the student union. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was in the late hours of the night while I tossed and turned trying to sleep that I realized how absolutely fake I am.
I had always thought that if nothing else I was a genuine person; that I wore my heart on my sleeve and that I always spoke my mind. But I evaluated what I thought was an undeniable truth: I had a hard time being truthful.
In middle school, I had prided myself on “not being like other girls.” I rejected fashion and as much as I was insecure, I barely worked on my general appearance at all. While every other girl wore fashionable skirts and well-kept ballet flats, I’d condescendingly smirk as I wore ill-fitting straight pants, a polo, with a sweater on top. I refused to engage in any level of conversation that I deemed “girly” whether that be about makeup, fashion, or boys. Rather I buried my head in studying and tried to engage myself in more manly pastimes. I spent hours learning about superheroes and playing soccer, even though both were mind-numbing. When no one was looking I’d look wistfully at girls with their hair styled down or in an intricate up-do. I’d eavesdrop on the gossip I had asserted was beneath me to get involved in. But every time my mom praised me for not being distracted by boys or my appearance, my resolve was strengthened. Every time a guy told me that I’m chill and “one of the bros,” I was ecstatic.
My hyper fixation on being “not like other girls” was just a thin guise for misogyny that had been drilled into me every time someone made a snide comment to another girl who loved the color pink or adored One Direction. I had learned that everything stereotypically feminine done by a girl indicated that she is self-absorbed and ditzy. Gradually, I came to this realization and eventually shed the mock ‘tomboy’ persona. But it struck me that while my commitment to this role had led me to occasionally be an unsavory person, I was consistent. I didn’t flip-flop on the person I showed to everyone so much so that I’m sure most thought this was my authentic personality.
This would change in high school where I would learn to manage multiple personas. In class, I was this outspoken intellectual with a passion for social justice. I was usually one of the only people in any given class to consistently participate. Nothing made me smile wider than when a kid whom I had beaten in the class debate over a contentious issue snidely called me bossy in the hallway after class.
With friends, I was equally loud but sure to put up the front that I was hilarious and almost stupid. As a freshman, I had impulsively climbed a tree in the park behind my school just to evoke a laugh from them even though the mere view from the top of the tree was enough to make my legs shake and my face pale. I was carefree and certain not to talk about neither the grades that I spent painstaking trying to obtain nor my actual interests and passions because those were far too serious and boring.
At home, I was quiet and reserved, usually more on my phone or in my room. My mom would constantly say that she felt like she needed to put quarters in my mouth for me to speak like I was a gumball machine. I wasn’t one to complain at home and I did most of my chores without attitude no matter how annoyed I was or how ridiculous I found the task. I avoided conflict in every way possible that I was almost a hermit to my own family.
With people I didn’t know too well I’d talk a lot about my culture as I believed it an interesting conversation starter. But, there’d always be a nagging voice in the back of my head screaming that I wasn’t Albanian nor was I Muslim enough to be discussing the culture with them. It made me remember all the times I was laughed at for my American accent when I spoke Albanian or when other Muslim classmates would laugh in my face saying I was ‘barely Muslim,’ so much so that I would actively try to compensate for this supposed lack of culture. If someone asked for me to speak Albanian, I would put a great deal of effort into making sure I wasn’t speaking with an accent, even though they had no way of knowing. If someone had a question about the Islamic faith I’d do my best to answer even though I knew little on the topic.
Realizing how often I code-switched, I felt evil. I was pulling a wall in front of everyone’s eyes and manipulating those around me to gain their favor. It also dawned upon me that all of the behavior adjustments, from the way I spoke to what I’d actually say, I made were subconscious. Which rather than calming me raised an even more terrifying question: am I ever myself? Which made me realize that frighteningly I wasn’t really sure who I am. I had defaulted to what I believed each person wanted from me so that interactions could be easier so often that I believed that I forgot who I really was. It had become my grand journey to rediscover that person and to bring her back alive.
But it wasn’t so exhilarating an expedition. Rather than finding myself through inner reflection, a high-stress competition, or simply experiencing something new, I found myself in the soft moments in between. I remember laying on my bed as I jot down notes in my copy of The Goldfinch and gently pet my dog, Pluto. I openly had tears in my eyes, unashamed at how it made me appear sensitive or girly because the book was magnificent to me. I didn’t feel any inclination to act a certain way I just was doing what I wanted. This and numerous other little instances from running through Central Park chasing my friends to baking a chocolate cake for my brother’s birthday helped me better understand myself. I concluded that I am not a conniving two-faced trickster nor am I a person irreversibly damaged and molded by the expectations of the people around me. Rather I was a person who desperately wished to fit in and was willing to twist and turn to do so. Gradually I learned that I already do belong and I don't need to conform to have a place. That those who matter will love me even if I am not loud and exciting or quiet and obedient. I slowly halted my performances which meant speaking my mind more and expressing opinions even if I knew someone might get annoyed at them. I remember explosive arguments with my mom because I finally expressed my own thoughts and feelings on things, but eventually, theft morphed into mature conversations in which we could both air out our issues. I’m happier now, I don’t feel so consistently restrained by a million different ideas and opinions on who I should be. The person that hid behind all these elaborate acts and expectations is actually a pretty cool person in reality.