All my life I’ve struggled with my Self-Concept.
At six, a Soviet hospitalization left me thinking I was an orphan—a term, by the early 1990’s, well known among kids of late-USSR. At eight, a rejection into a Hillel revealed that I was Jewish, but not quite enough to attend the school. By the time I was nine years old, I knew that I had moved to a “rich” America from a highly controversial place.
I was a refugee immigrant kid, taught to feel embarrassed about my birthplace, and about my non-Americanness. I’d often ask my mom, “Why are people smiling in public?” to which she’d say, “because in America, people are free, they can act however they want.” Automatically, I took this response as a license to smile my face off which quickly earned me friend-making super powers. Nonetheless, all my kid worries remained. Was I going to get sick again? What is Jewish? What is being “free” mean? Everyday there were as many questions swirling around as there were daily options of what to look at and fascinate on, what to wear and eat, and what to play with and music to listen to. Distractions abounded, and tidal waves of sensory overload came in and out regularly.
During the first few months, arguments between my grandparents and parents about how to behave in public often involved criticisms over how I was being parented. I felt sad about these disagreements, though obviously I didn’t comprehend the purpose and intentions of such conditioning. I just knew one thing: I needed to be as American as possible if I wanted to be a horoshaya devochka— “a good girl.”
From then on, to prevent the shame that came with being “seen,” I campaigned to hide my origins by erasing one reality and reconstructing a totally new one. I leaned into rap and R&B music and immersed myself in fashion and visual culture through magazines at the local library. I made friends quickly and almost as a sport, practiced surrounding myself with non-family influence.
My dad chose my universally common name, Maria, which was and still is commonly expressed as its diminutive form “Masha.” One day, while translating for my parents at a school meeting—despite my limited capacity to articulate institutional formalities or interpersonal nuances—a teacher asked if I preferred to be called by what my parents called me. Like, I didn’t even know how to think about my preferences, but her convincing bit about how “very American” my name was, led me to think she was referring to “Masha.” It became quickly apparent that her pronunciation included an “r” in the name, effectively changing it to “Marsha.” That night, while complaining to my parents about it, I felt their voicelessness and defeat. I sensed that they wanted to make the correction, but were fearful of overstepping boundaries and didn’t know how to approach the issue. As with many other challenging circumstances at that time, the problem was treated with consumption—some candy, or a tiny toy from the quarter slot machine. So, with a few days of ‘treatment,’ I accepted this new name as my own.
In my first year as Marsha, during lunch or recess I often heard hailed into my direction, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha,” followed by uproars of laughter. Unaware of the cultural references that sparked such mockery led to feelings of isolation and a bewildering sense of freakdom, the latter of which later served as a strong foundation of a long term self-resilience. Was it the teachers or the students in whom I could seek solace? The answer grew more and more unclear.
By twelve, a very scrawny and lanky Masha aggressively grew into a very curvy Marsha. Suddenly, I drew unwanted attention, again. Bullied for having full breasts, I bullied right back, but within my own friendships in an effort to regain power, autonomy and control. I grew emotionally distant from my family and addicted to praises from my American teachers and friends. Navigating these dynamics left me turning to the darker corners of the self – self-exploitation and self-destruction.
At sixteen, I legally changed my first name to Marie. My parents’ decision to Americanize their first and last names signaled to me that I, too, had earned this right. After all, I couldn’t stand being called Marsha, because by then the name had earned me a terrible reputation. Hell, I never felt like a Marsha from the get go, so denouncing it was also an act of self-liberation.
For the past 19 years, I’ve introduced myself as Marie, sometimes telling fables about who and what inspired it. The truthful backstory was too painful to get into; only until recently, I lacked the tools or emotional maturity to discuss such matters. Now in my eighth year of self-help and inner-child work, I’ve come to terms with the role of Marie—a survival tactic, an invention, a conceptual sculpture of the Self that quelled the angry Marsha, and healed the wounded Masha inside.
I am now going on to 36 and re-introducing myself to the world as Masha. It feels more authentic to me; and “Marie” as more of a shell of that “good girl” label and identity I so badly craved. I’ll continue to use Marie in professional contexts, but plan to very gradually phase it out.
I’m OK with taking things slowly and won’t force the change onto others who know me as Marsha or Marie. I’ll just keep putting it out there and eventually, they’ll adapt with time.