Labels I’ve Worn and Owned

by Rachel on January 3, 2012

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?

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jessica @ Stylish Stealthy and Healthy January 3, 2012 at 10:53 am

I have always had issues with labels since I was such an off-beat type of kid. I was called a “skater” a “punk”, “emo”, “theater nerd”, all of the above and I think it wasn’t until I got to college and realized that labels didn’t have to limit you, that I stopped caring. I think that was the first time I saw other people who weren’t afraid to have interests outside of what’s “mainstream” and I embraced the “so what” mentality and never looked back. Now people can call me what they want and it’s less abrasive because I could give a shit :)

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2 Dori January 3, 2012 at 11:38 am

This is a great post. I love labeling myself, my favorites being “Jew” and “liberal” and “smart.” I like having an identity and giving people an idea of what I align myself with because I’m proud of those things.

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3 Meghan January 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

Rachel,
You should check out the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” it for a over the hot coffee McDonalds case. The lady that spilled the coffee was sitting in a parked car actually received 4th degree burns and required skin graphs because the coffee was so hot. The coffee was so hot it would have been undrinkable. She only sued after McDonalds refused to help pay her medical bills. The documentary is very interesting and reveals facts about the often misquoted case.

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4 Rachel January 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

Oooh, interesting! I had no idea that that documentary existed; I’ll see if it’s on Netflix!

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5 Caitie January 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

This is such a great post! One thing I will add about the bitch label (while owning my Feminist label): it really pisses me off how insults against women are always tied to appearance or reputation. Dudes are called “assholes” or “stupid” or “dumbasses”, but women get called “ugly bitch”, “fat bitch” or just good old “slut”, like how they look or who they sleep with has any relevance ever. The double standard is annoying. Also, I’d love to hear any theories on why being opinionated + being female is automatically equated with “being a bitch”, but that’s probably a whole different post!

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6 Hannah January 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Great post! I’ve been labeled most of those things as well. One other label I really struggled with attaching to myself was “vegetarian” almost a year ago. When I decided to stop eating meat last March, it was for the animals & for my health. I never liked much meat growing up, and would often choose a veggie burger over the real thing or cheese pizza over pepperoni. This hardly made anyone bat an eye. But I really struggled with deciding to go “all out” vegetarian, not because it would be difficult for me – it wouldn’t – but because I hated the negative stereotypes associated with it: hippy, crazy, holier than thou, judgmental, (fill in the blank).

It seemed that being in the minority (not liking meat) is one thing, but purposefully putting myself in that minority was a whole different story. And, for the most part, it has been. My mom always supported & understood my dislike of meat, but now she can’t understand why I can’t just pick off the pepperoni from the pizza anymore. It’s been tough but not as difficult as I would have thought; living in a very liberal city & being at college has helped quite a bit. Plus, vegetarianism has been a great conversation starter for me. When I reach for meatless options, someone will undoubtedly ask, “Are you vegetarian?” and I always reply with enthusiasm! It’s one label I’m proud of.

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7 Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie January 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I love this post, it really makes you think. Especially about the incongruity between how the same label is interpreted on a man and on a woman. Player vs slut and all that fabulousness.

My current labels are: Grown up Sorostitute minus the sorority (um… successful? type A?), bitch, liberal and healthy. Not too shabby…

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8 Maggie January 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Your discussion of feminist and political labels made me so happy. I find that most college students refuse to align themselves with anything political, even though their opinions are obvious. For some reason politics has become uncool, which personally I find ridiculous. For other people my age, I think that a lot of avoiding labels that take a stand on something comes from a belief that doing so will make you unaccepted by peers. Either way, I’m proud of my beliefs, no matter what other labels get associated with me because of them.

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9 Kavi @ Lab to Fab! January 3, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Looks like you’re already fulfilling your new year’s resolution with this thought-provoking post! As a minority, there have been several times when people have given me a label based on appearances alone. That doesn’t bother me so much as the incorrect assumptions that sometimes come with the label.

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10 Nicole @ Giraffelegs January 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Completely agree with this post 100%.
Also I hate the “slut” label..like what the fuck is a slut? Also shut your mouth.

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11 [SMASH] January 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

My mom seems to have adopted a label for me: quirky. I’m unsure where it came from but I’m always referred to as that when she talks about me. Sure, I’ve always kind of done my own thing and maybe I like funny things [fake mustaches] but I live a pretty normal life, work hard, and am in a normal relationship. While I know being “quirky” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just wonder why she thinks I’m so different than the other kiddos in the family.

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12 Rachel January 3, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Maybe your mom, like mine, doesn’t know what a hipster is? Heh.

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13 [SMASH] January 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm

1. She definitely does NOT know what a hipster is.

2. But I’m not trendy/cool enough to be one myself, really.

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14 Dallas January 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Ahhh. Things I have been labeled:

– Liberal
– Extremely liberal
– Feminist
– Fat
– Weird
– Nerd
– Intense
– Did I mention… liberal?

The irony is, I’m not that liberal. I get frustrated, like you said, about being mislabeled. Yes, I’m a progressive, but you don’t see me chaining my fat ass to any trees, do you? No? Pass the Kate Spade catalog, because I don’t hate money, either. I AM NOT THAT LIBERAL. (rant over.)

This is a great post — if this is the start of your intention to push yourself in the new year, you’ve hit the ground running, friend.

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15 Christie F January 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Ah, the bitch label. First off, don’t call me a bitch unless you’re willing to open up that can of worms. I may be brash and honest, but that doesn’t make me a bitch. It means I’m willing to say the shit you can’t say to yourself. Sorry I’m not sorry.

Mother- wow, not one I was totally expecting to wear, like, ever… but I find it’s one I am most excited about wearing. Once you become a mother, it’s like glitter- that shit never comes off!

Slut- Yep, been there, done that (literally?) I’m not sure what makes me a slut though. The fact I can openly talk about sex and how many men I’ve slept with? The fact that I have always gone to the gyno and gotten my yearly? The fact I’ve always practiced safe sex and never once had a pregnancy scare? The fact that I married a virgin and now we have the most amazing, mind blowing sex? (Uh, yeah, take all the good stuff you’ve ever had a guy do to you and teach a virgin- who has no preconceptions on how to pleasure you- and suddenly, its the best sex ever!)

Fat, ugly, stupid- Hmm….

Manipulative, conniving, etc.- I’m an only child. Of course I appear manipulative. I am used to getting my way all the time! Doesn’t mean I go out of my way to change the way things are… it just means I’m used to getting my way.

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16 Anna January 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I’ve been “WASP,” “blonde,” “smart,” “quiet,” “loud,” “intimidating bitch,” and “pushover.” I found the last two particularly interesting, seeing as they are virtually incompatible.

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17 Mel January 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm

When I first read the title of this post, for some reason (maybe because of the Lulu article), I thought this post was going to be about BRAND labels you’ve “worn and owned”. HAHA.

Anyway, I like the profound version you spun instead.

This takes me back to the Juicy Campus days again. I had several threads written about me and to this day, what doesn’t make me upset is what was said or that it was false but that I have no idea who was labeling me and why. You’re right, labels aren’t always bad – they’re a great way to categorize and map ourselves in relation to the world – but who creates our labels I think says a lot.

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18 cindylu January 3, 2012 at 7:31 pm

This is the 2nd time I’ve seen anyone write Chaldean outside of my Chaldean ex and an article on immigrant small business niches.

As for labels, I’m down with them and most identify with Chicana as it encompasses my gender, a progressive political identity, my indigenous racial identity, and roots in Mexico. I take on Latina when I want to get more pan-ethnic and eschew Hispanic for reasons I won’t go into.

Other labels: Angeleña (LA roots), Californian, liberal, blogger, PhD student.

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19 Heidi Nicole January 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm

I’ve had a lot of labels in my life – as we all have – and I’ve learned that it is much easier and rather empowering to own the labels that really count, even if they might not be loved by everyone else. Being a farm girl isn’t always the cool thing, but its who I am and it taught me a lot so I own it.

There have also been labels that don’t exactly make sense. In HS I was given the nickname “Amish {last name}” because of my families conservative religious believes. We weren’t even close to being Amish and the nickname was meant to be an insult. Rather than let it bother me went with it and to this day I’ll still respond to “Amish” if an HS friend says it! I think this kind of a label is about more than just a misguided label…it is about little freshman me facing down the junior guys who thought I’d be an easy target. Over time we became close friends and it was these friendships that hooked me up with The Husband. Yup…it’s a label I’ll take – inaccurate on the surface but it says a lot about me.

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20 Chelsea January 3, 2012 at 8:46 pm

How about “stuck up bitch” or a nice PG rated “snob”?

The truth is, I’m really shy and I’m awful at making conversation with people I’ve just recently met so instead of going on and on annoying every one I just sit quietly and listen. Apparently this means I’ve got my nose up my butt. Sometimes I think I should just carry a game day poster bedazzled in glitter that says, “I’m not stuck up! I have social anxiety, jackass!”

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21 Rachel January 3, 2012 at 9:55 pm

HA…I actually laughed out loud at that last line.

But seriously, I have heard so many shy people say this, and that’s so unfortunate. And I think it’s another label that often gets an adjective assigned to it, especially if the shy person is a woman, which sucks even more. If a girl or woman is pretty, she’s apparently not allowed to be shy or introverted. Ridiculous.

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22 Danielle January 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm

I wouldn’t say labels are bad, but I would say that they’re too often restricting and intimidating all at the same time. And yes, I despise the stereotypes that come strapped onto them… free of charge! So, I try not to use labels when I can. With that said, I have held women, student, intelligent, sister, liberal, friend, Hispanic, and first generation rather proudly. As for sorority girl and snobby, I hope I didn’t ever really fit those molds.

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23 Beth January 4, 2012 at 9:35 pm

I disagree a bit with the political label point – I work for a (Democratic) Senator and am still a registered independent in DC. I think it’s incredibly important to have your own opinions of candidates (which requires your own research) and to vote for the person you think is best suited for the job, whether they are a Democrat or Republican (or Libertarian, Green Party, you get my point). Voting for members of a party because of the label instead of voting for the best-qualified candidate makes me super nervous.

Otherwise, love your blog!

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24 Rachel January 4, 2012 at 10:14 pm

I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t feel like all people avoid labels for that reason (unfortunately, as it’s a good one). I think a lot of people do it out of fear. A registered independent is so different from someone who claims they are apathetic when really, it’s pretty clear that their ideals are pretty much that of just one party.

On the other hand, I tend to vote along party lines because I feel like that’s the best chance we have for getting things accomplished. Congress is so deeply partisan and so stubborn, and on both sides it feels like they all just do what their parties tell them to do rather than what is smart or sensible or right. So I feel like even though I might really like a Republican, that’s not going to help in the long run. For example, I’d vote for a Democrat who cheated on his or her spouse. To me, “best person for the job” means “best person who will vote in my best interest on important legislation” and I don’t have to like them.

Thoughts on this? You might have some good insight for me since you’re a lot more in it than I am!

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25 Beth January 9, 2012 at 11:35 am

Whoops – sorry for the delay in responding!

I’m not going to be super articulate in my response (not nearly enough coffee this morning), but what concerns me the most about politics these days is not apathy and people who don’t pick a label, but people who are rabidly partisan without really being informed. That’s, in my opinion, what leads to the election of a lot of members who have no interest in reaching across the aisle to get anything done. I’d rather vote for a person who’s interested in compromise and actually working on real issues than someone who plans on toeing the party line and spewing partisan venom on everything just to rally their base (see Eric Cantor, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz).

That being said, I definitely think you should vote for the person who you think will represent your interests – just be careful to vote for people who are also interested in actually doing some real work.

Hope that makes some (any) sense!

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