In the seventh grade, I decided to change my name. It was one of many half-thought-out adolescent gestures of independence, like dying my hair or piercing my upper ear with a sewing needle. The kind of ambitious but superficial statements of rebellion you saw on Skins and in MTV music videos, boiling down to some combination of my own insatiable desire for “self-expression” and a disregard for my parents’ reputation.
Up until that point, I had been Catherine, a name my mother lauded for its respectability. It was regal, she said, elegant and timeless, with none of the “cheap trendiness” of the Katharines and Kathryns who populated my suburban elementary school. Too young to comprehend the intricacies of WASP culture, of new money and old money, heritage and inheritance, I didn’t understand, as a child, why my parents had given me such a conventional name. There had been a girl in my elementary school named Star, who had bleached-blonde hair and wore Disney princess dresses to class. I envied her—it sounded like the name of a super hero or rock star, and I felt her life must be exceptionally exciting. Later, after attending a birthday party at her house, I remember overhearing my parents gossiping about how difficult it must have been for her to grow up in the only low-income housing district in our town. At age eight, I was puzzled. I didn’t understand how someone with such an impressive collection of tiaras could be anything but rich.
By middle school, I wasn’t just bored with Catherine—I was frustrated with it. What had seemed, to elementary school me, bland and meaningless, now suggested a propriety I was eager to reject. Catherine was the name of a saint; it signified purity and devotion. As an angst-ridden, rebellion-obsessed thirteen year old, I wanted to set myself far apart from what I saw as outdated and “conformist” ideals, and I thrilled at the idea of rejecting what had been passed down to me to claim a name of my own. Catherine was the girl my parents had wanted me to be. Kat could be me.
As it turned out, switching names was a relatively easy process. After all, plenty of middle school girls had nicknames: there were Alis and Allys, Lizes and Lizzies, even a Marge. If your name was more than two syllables, some form of abbreviation was expected. So when, on the first day of seventh grade, I introduced myself as “Kat,” no one questioned the change. Besides, these were the first years of adolescence, and we were all in some process of self-reinvention. Skinny, milky-faced boys who had spent recess trading Yu-Gi-Oh cards now started playing football and lacrosse, growing tall and muscled as the cartoon warriors they used to idolize. Every month, another girl cut her hair off, only to grow it out again when the compliments ran dry.
Nowhere was the thrill of reinvention so tangible as at the mall. A fifteen minute drive from our house, it was a glistening panoply of teenage subcultures. There were skaters at Zumies, preps at Abercrombie and Hollister, freaks at Spencer’s, goths at Hot Topic. The beauty was that it was all for sale. You didn’t need the right friends, or the right lingo, or to sit at the right lunch table or have been to the right parties. You didn’t even need to know who you were—in fact, all the better if you didn’t, because that was precisely what was being sold to you. All you had to do was hand over your money—or your parents’ money—and you could walk out with a new self. It was two-dimensional, ephemeral, and thoroughly noncommittal: a capsule version of identity.
Lacking both self-esteem and direction, I approached middle school as if it were an endless game of dress-up. I was a skater one week, a goth the next, moving from style to style in a schizophrenic frenzy. My parents, of course, wanted no part in this. Though happy to fund my sixth grade Abercrombie craze, when I returned home with fishnet tights and black eyeshadow, my mother panicked. I distinctly remember purchasing a pair of orange and black striped armwarmers only to have them disappear a week later. Several months afterwards, I found them in a sewing box in my mother’s bedroom.
Yet while my parents could censor my wardrobe, they were powerless to change my name. At home, of course, I was Catherine. But at school, I could negotiate on my own terms. At first, I felt a rush of satisfaction each time a teacher called on “Kat,” as if affirming my reinvented identity. Over time, however, the thrill subsided. By high school, being called Catherine, even by my parents, felt strange. I had settled into my new self, and it was no longer new. It was just me.
It wasn’t until college that I began to second-guess my choice of nickname. My parents, I knew, had chosen “Catherine” for its aristocratic authority; it raised no questions about background or status. “Kat,” on the other hand, screamed Hollywood trendiness, and I knew my parents objected to it for precisely the same reason they objected to my dyed-black hair and caked-on eyeshadow.
In middle, even high school, these class connotations were of little consequence. I prided myself on favoring “expression” over the preppy conservatism that governed social life, blissfully unaware of the superficiality of my own claims to be “different.” But when anxieties about popularity turned into anxieties about a professional future, I began to wonder if shedding “Catherine” had been a mistake. After all, a name didn’t just have social consequences. People in the professional world were penalized all the time for having names that didn’t sound sophisticated enough, white enough, native enough.
Last summer, I had an internship advisor who insisted on addressing me, in email, as “Cat.” At first, I subtly corrected her by responding with the spelling I’d used for almost a decade. Yet after a few tries, I resolved to simply play along. It was strange, after all, to spell my nickname with a different first letter than my first name, and this wasn’t the first time my thirteen-year-old decision had sparked confusion. For years, I’d explained the spelling by honestly, if comically, confessing that I had “thought I was cool in the seventh grade.” But while this excuse worked with friends, it was hardly something I could use with an employer. So I decided that, for the duration of the summer, I would be Cat.
As I signed emails with my new nickname, often backspacing the K I intuitively typed, I wondered what this acquiescence meant, or if it meant anything. Was I being dishonest, somehow, by accepting a name I had never gone by, and likely never would again? Or had the dishonesty lain in becoming Kat in the first place, tossing out my given name in a fit of immature rebellion? And why, in the end, did it matter? I was, after all, the same person, regardless of what I called myself. Widespread as it might be, the whole concept of judging someone based on his or her name seemed somewhat unfair and arbitrary. How much could a single word—or, in this case, a discrepancy between two words—really communicate about a human being?
Yet arbitrary as it might be, I know I have been, and will continue to be, judged based on my name, or names. While our identities might be flexible at age thirteen, they become increasingly less so as time goes on. In and of itself, a name might mean little. But over the years things collect around it, attach to it: friendships, relationships, not to mention social media profiles, publications, everything that makes “Googling” a person worthwhile. Kat, Cat, and Catherine all exist somewhere in cyberspace, as in the memories of friends, family members, teachers and mentors. Part of me wants to bring them together, get rid of the confusion that has somehow split me in three, without splitting me at all. But even then, I’m not sure which I would choose.