Each year on the first day of school, there were kids who came back as entirely new people. They’d correct the teacher during role call.
“Erin?” the teacher would ask, scanning the room.
“I’m Nikki now,” Erin would say, presumptively going by her middle name.
One girl changed her name so many times that by sixth grade, the only thing left to alter was the pronunciation of her name.
“I’m not Tabitha anymore, I am Tab-eye-tha now.”
There was something admirable about how brave these kids were to just proclaim themselves someone new. I didn’t think I would have the courage to do that. Like most kids, I didn’t love my name but I didn’t loathe it either. I just brooded about how unfair it was to have no control over it.
But the thing about being a girl, I knew, was that one day my last name would change. So I waited for that. I used to write my crushes’ last names in notebooks, dotting the “i”’s with hearts. I was trying the boys’ names out, I imagined. You had to be careful about boys’ last names — not let yourself fall in love with any Butts’ or Bahls’.
By high school, I gave up hope of changing my name over summer vacation. No one was really becoming someone new anymore. But I found the opportunity for self-reinvention I had been craving on the Internet. I took on new screen names on forums and LiveJournal. By the MySpace era, I proclaimed myself “Rachel Revolution” before becoming “Rachel Rabbit.”
At college, it was easy to become whoever I wanted. People started calling me simply, “Rabbit.” I became the person I was online in real life, and people accepted me. But when I met my now husband, he made it a point to call me Rachel. He liked saying my full birth name. Rachel Elizabeth ________ (I’ll never tell!). He liked knowing my history, my origin.
When we got engaged, I had to think about my birth name. I identified as a feminist but I didn’t care about keeping my last name. I didn’t feel a connection with the idea of family legacy. And besides, wasn’t keeping a paternalistic name just as sexist? I could take Edmund’s last name, which was lackluster. I could hyphenate, which sounded bulky and masculine in my mouth.
“What if we just made up a new last name?” I suggested. “Our last name.”
“Like took an entirely new name, together?” he asked.
He agreed to the idea and we made a list of potential surnames: Love, Heyes, Haze … until we finally settled on White. It was the name I had been using online and it sounded good to us. White. Like cotton. White. Like clouds. It sounded pure, like a new start. I wanted to open my arms and fall into it.
And yet, people don’t seem to like it when you change your name. There is this idea that you’re “faking it.” Or that the person they used to know and love has changed. I used to think that about those kids in grade school. But now I understand that they were really just becoming more themselves.
In order for my husband and I to change our last name legally, we had to appear in court and pay a few hundred dollars. I prepared a speech for the judge.
“The thing I like about our new names,” I said before the court, “Is that we are creating a name together, something to bind us.”
I think the judge winked at me.
Now, when I am at a cocktail party, I say my full name: Rachel Rabbit White. It brings the same sort of reaction I imagine Tab-eye-tha got in sixth grade.
“You must have a very cool family,” people often say, after making sure they heard me correctly. “I do,” I reply.
Rachel Rabbit White is a Journalist and blogger who lives in New York City and writes about sex and gender. She hates the brag-y part of bios, but feels equally unsure about the quirky part where she tells you she loves lip-syncing alone in her apartment and avocado and sea salt on toast. Also, Twitter.