If you ask people how they feel about labels, most tend to say that labels are bad. They just seem like a bad thing, right?
Not all labels are bad, of course. Food labels tell us that what we’re about to consume has MSG in it or that that candy bar has been “enhanced with fiber.” The “don’t drink this poison” label on your window cleaner is definitely there for a reason, as is the “Caution: This coffee you just bought is hot, you dumbass” label on your Starbucks drink. (I think the main purpose that label serves is making you hate your fellow litigious Americans). A guy who labels himself as a Republican has a better chance of having sex with me. So yeah, labels matter.
But then again, not all labels are innocuous. We label ourselves in an effort to fit in to a particular group and declare an identity—how often is a label about, say, your food choices really just used as a starting point for explaining your identity to strangers? And we label others to give ourselves permission not to like them, to not be open to them, and to hurt them.
Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I know that I’ve been labeled—both by others and by myself—throughout my life, and I’m not sure it did any major damage. Here are some of the labels I’ve worn and owned.
Catholic. I attended Catholic schools most of my life, and since the majority of my friends had decided Jesus was their homeboy, I did too. As I grew older, I grew frustrated with my teachers’ attitudes on birth control and homosexuality, and then there was the whole “So, uh, maybe there have been some priests who were ummm…sexually abusing kids” thing and I was done with that label for good. I don’t miss it. I know that religious labels have the power to make people feel very emotional and honestly, I have enough things to keep me worked up; adding Original Sin to the mix would just be exhausting. However, I have plenty of friends who still label themselves as Catholic and I don’t see the label as bad when other people identify as such.
Biracial. As I’ve said before, this is a label I’m now quite proud to wear, even if other people would prefer to label me as…well, let’s see: Indian, Hawaiian, Chaldean, Mexican, Puerto Rican, “way too tan,” and some complicated racial fraction inspired by the Three-Fifths Compromise. I happily label myself as biracial and write indignant messages on forms that only allow you to check one box for race. I don’t mind being labeled, but I get really pissed off when I’m labeled wrong.
Bitch. Is there a woman alive who hasn’t been called a bitch at some point in her life? Probably not. People seem to think that when calling a woman a bitch, they should also add some sort of ridiculous psychological analysis in the form of a comment on a woman’s appearance to the insult. So I actually have two subcategories in this label: fat bitch and skinny bitch. I’ve been called both.
What I kind of want to say to people who try to explain my bitchiness (and by bitchiness I mean “honesty, authenticity, a distaste for bullshit, a deep scowl when faced with said bullshit, and a willingness to challenge the crap that needs to be challenged”) by adding an adjective to it is that my bitchiness has nothing to do with my appearance. The reason I was a fat bitch was not because I was jealous of skinny people and the reason I was a skinny bitch was not because I was some snotty, entitled princess…it’s because I was a bitch who gained and then lost a lot of weight. My contempt for stupid things people say and do and my unwillingness to pretend to like things I actually don’t means I’ll be called a bitch no matter what I look like. I really wish I could explain that to people who assign these labels, but if I launched into that explanation, they’d surely just call me “psycho bitch.”
Democrat. I don’t mind political labels, but I feel like so many people my age refuse to label themselves one way or another because of stigmas attached to both parties. It’s like it’s trendy to refuse to pick aside, but I feel like that is a cop-out in a lot of cases. If you’re truly apathetic and don’t identify with either party, fine; some people do feel that way. But come November, don’t think it sounds cool to talk about how you’re not voting at all. If you believe strongly in Democrat or Republican ideals, don’t say “I say we just throw them all out!” when it comes up in conversation. Own your label, admit the flaws in your party, and then talk to your congressperson about how you can get your party to stop doing embarrassing things. But for God’s sake, don’t not vote because you don’t like labels.
Feminist. One day in my Women Authors class in college, the instructor asked how many people were feminists and I was so disappointed by how few hands went up. Then people started to say the thing I always hear young women and men say on this topic: “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but…” and then they go on to list all their feminist ideals. Listen, just because you haven’t burned your bra doesn’t mean you aren’t a feminist. Stereotypes of feminists are never going to change if people who don’t fit the stereotype are afraid to use the label. I get really confused when people look surprised when I call myself a feminist (and my confusion then leads to the deep scowl that gets me labeled a bitch).
Sorostitute. Eh, true. The best I can do is try to explain that this label doesn’t simply mean you act ridiculous; it also means you’re super type A and dedicated to having your act together. If I saw a sorority girl falling down drunk at the bar, I wouldn’t call her a sorostitute. But if I saw her the next morning in class and she was talking about the huge fundraiser she was running later that day and all the scholarships she’d earned this semester, then I’d call her a sorostitute.
Slut. To me, this label says more about the person giving it than the recipient. I don’t find it offensive; to me, it’s so clearly sexist, it’s almost quaint. It’s like calling someone a Negro. Like…what? What year is this??
Hipster. My mom asked me the other day what a hipster is, and once I’d tried to explain, she said, “It sounds like you might be a hipster.” As I said a few weeks ago, I’m aware of this. It does seem that way. But if I’m a hipster, it’s purely by accident; I can’t help my taste in clothes, music, decor, hobbies, and glasses. I mean, I spent a year in New York lamenting that I would never make it in fashion because I wasn’t a hipster. (I suppose the fact this is happening now proves that I’ll always be a bit of a late bloomer…which I think is the antithesis of a “I was into it before anyone else was” hipster.) I’ll accept this label and own it, but I do hope I don’t make people feel bad for not sharing my taste in clothes, music, or decor. I feel like I have more than enough Midwest sorostitute in me to explain my love of plaid (which is always interpreted as some ironic thing I’m doing and it’s so not) but sometimes labels are more about other people’s perceptions than anything else.
I think that when people say they don’t like labels, what they mean is, “I don’t like all the negative stereotypes associated with labels that might apply to me.” But my best friend Julia explained her label so perfectly, in a way that really stuck with me: “I’m Catholic. I’m not the Catholic church.” I think that could probably be said of many labels. But I think that in a lot of cases, stereotypes associated with labels persist because people are afraid to break them down by owning the labels and then re-defining what they mean.
What are the labels you’ve worn? How do you feel about them?