A few months ago I attended a dance showcase titled “Not a Label” put on and choreographed by my sister Marlaina via her dance company, Mirror Image.
The powerhouse intro exemplified the message expressed in the title – That we are not our labels.
Each dancer approached the front of the stage with a sheet of paper clipped to their chest that had a term, such as slut, selfish or flake, which, as my sister later described, was a term that each dancer had been called at some point in their lives that was incongruent with how they saw themselves. One by one, they dramatically ripped the labels off of themselves and threw them down, in a Beyonce-esk display of empowering anger.
At intermission, my father asked me what labels I would have ripped off of my chest. Honestly, nothing came to mind.
Not because I was completely disillusioned to the negative things people have said about me (noncommittal, weird, obnoxious), but mainly because I was incredibly tired and did not want to get sucked into a 30 minute fringe conversation with any crazy-eyed chatty dance moms that overheard the question.
My father quickly understood my subliminal cue and redirected his engagement to the crowd of clumpy mascara, wispy blonde lady mustaches, and cocaine-eyes. Talk about taking one for the team.
A week later, my other sister, Sha Sha, called me and started to discuss the concept of identity labels as well. She hadn’t seen or heard about the dance showcase so this was an unusual coincidence. She was talking to me, probably while doing some sort of ritualistic palo santo house clearing, about examining and adjusting her relationship with the labels she had previously used to identify herself.
Admittedly, I have struggled with the concept of self identity for the majority of my life. Thus, these two instances became the fuel I needed to finally begin to explore labels and identity from a textbook psychological standpoint.
And by explore, I mean completely delve into my usual maniacal research mode- that is, my “Drake Scorpion Mode.” #DontPushMe
The result? After two albums worth of research on labels and identity, I had decided I did not fux with labels anymore. If I was Drake in Scorpion mode, then Labels were definitely my Pusha-T.
What Are Identity Labels?
Identity labels are descriptive words, usually based on our professions, characteristics, or social statuses, that we use to describe ourselves in a nutshell. They serve as broad, simple, and easily digestible answers to the “who are you” questions.
I’m a mom! I’m a real estate agent! I’m a big booty hoe! I’m flakey! I’m noncommittal! I’m funny!
Labels are a double edged sword. They have become a great way to simplify the concept of self and the process of identifying others. However, they can also inhibit potential, conceal our authentic selves, and cause deep confusion and identity crisis.
The entire concept of labels and identity from a modern societal standpoint is kind of like the dreaded moving process…
You put similar items in a box together and label them accordingly: utensils and plates are in the kitchen box, toilet paper and toiletries are in the bathroom box, all of your unexpressed anger towards your significant other for mixing up the kitchen and bath towels goes in the “misplaced emotions that will spill out in passive aggressive behavior at the worst times” box.
And so on and so forth until you’re left with all of the random stuff.
You have a hammer, a box of pencils, a wooden phallic shaped beer opener your uncle bought in Thailand but the metal beer opener part was lost, so now it’s just a wooden penis…and 12 other groups of annoying things that don’t really fit into any one category.
Writing the name of each of the 30 individual items is impractical. Yes, you could label the box “miscellaneous” but that sucks because it’s not specific enough. You at least need to know which room to put it in! (You know, so it can remain untouched for 3-6 months while you procrastinate unpacking).
Is it the kitchen junk drawer miscellaneous box? The bathroom under-the-sink miscellaneous box? The garage collects-terminate-dust-for-5-Years miscellaneous box?
On top of it all, you don’t even know what some of the items in the box are. You haven’t really gone through and decided which items you want to keep and which you’ve outgrown. But that takes time and effort and you don’t want to deal with it right now. So screw it, you’re just going to label it “garage stuff” and deal with it later…
Still with me?
What I’m saying is, we are a complex assortment of miscellaneous trinkets and wooden phallic things that don’t really fit in any one labeled box.
Yeah some parts of our identity might fit into the garage termite box. But some parts of our identity respectively fit into completely different boxes as well. And If we are the mix of random broken wooden penis Knick knacks, then Society is our controlling partner who keeps trying to force us to fit into one specific and clearly labeled box.. because, even if it’s misrepresentative or misleading, it’s easier to deal with.
Bro, Being Label-less is so XCORE!
After gaining what I deemed as “woke clarity” around the inhibiting nature of labels and identity, I decided to do what I do best…
Take things too far.
I went off of the grid. I started to think I was pioneering some huge ‘before it’s time’ movement of innovative rebellion..
“I mean..Fuck it. Fuck inhibiting labels… and negative labels. Actually wait… Fuck ALL labels!
Why do I even need a label anyways? I am me.
Matter of fact.. I’m label-less, that’s my label!”
I could already feel my hair starting to mohawk up and my jeans beginning to rip themselves into knee-length shorts held up by a metal studded belt, as my room turned into a Rage Against the Machine concert.
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!
I felt so liberated. So edgy. So innovative. So nonconformist. So… xcore!
Well, guess what? That didn’t work out well for very long. It turns out that labels are actually needed to some degree. It turns out that identifying with labels, that is, a variety of labels is a healthy choice. It turns out that “I am nothing and I am everything” is actually a pretentiously obnoxious response to basic questions in social settings.
It also turns out that if you don’t identify with anything that people can grasp onto, most people avoid you like the strange creamy mushroom dip that Eric brought. – I don’t care if it’s vegan Eric, I’m not eating something that smells like my grandma’s moldy bath towels. Trust me, there’s one of these dips at every social gathering… And if your name is Anne or Eric, you will bring it.
Detach, Don’t Obliterate
Yes sometimes labels can be shitty and confining. But we still need to use them to some degree, at least in social spheres. Aimlessly kicking and punching labels away from you in a mosh pit of fellow nonconforming label-less label-ies may temporarily feel good, but all it really does is make things more confusing.
We all have an innate need for companionship and certainty. We need to feel like we know “who we are” to the extent we can, most of the time. We need to feel like we belong in some capacity so we can then join forces with other weirdos like ourselves. We need to feel interpersonal connection, support, and understanding.
Labels can help navigate us towards or away from these needs depending on use.
The key is to detach yourself from labels in a healthy way but not to completely obliterate them from your life.
The way we start to practice this is by being conscious of our phrasing.
You Are Not What You Do
A lot of it comes down to phrasing or rather, rephrasing how we label ourselves. This is where the finesse comes in. There has been extensive research on the huge benefits of using a variety of labels to describe things you do, rather than things you are. It keeps a healthy separation of church and state of the mind. This will help insulate your fragile psyche when those things change.
- You are not a teacher. You are a person who teaches children for some purpose (and we know that purpose isn’t financial because we as a society have decided to pay teachers in pennies, pocket lint, and half chewed gum- but not to worry, these are only the people who, for 40+ hours a week, influence the sponge-like bundles of hormones we call our youth.. And our future only rests in the hands of said youth… so no big deal)
- You are not a stay at home mother. You are a woman who takes care of her child at home for the time being.
- You are not a husband. You are a man who is in a committed and legally binding relationship.
- You are not a big booty hoe. You are a person who has a donk and enjoys hoe-tivities.
- You are not an ironman competitor. You are a person who partakes in a self-abusive 112 mile bicycle ride, 2.4 mile swim, and 26 mile run in an extreme display of athletic masochism.
I know this may be a hard pill to swallow.. And this may screw up your basic IG intro description, but trust me when I say, it is helping you in the long run.
Remember, Variety is the Spice of Life
In addition to detaching ourselves through phrasing, we also want to diversify our labels. By using a variety of labels to describe things we do, rather than things we are, we derive our self-worth and value from multiple different sources and cushion ourselves against the potential confusion of change. Thus, when we evolve and one of those labels is no longer apart of the way we describe ourselves, it’s not as big of a deal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still going to very much be a deal… it’s just going to be less of one.
Here’s an example of what happens with people who lack diversified identity labels:
- Jessica refers to herself as a wife. She doesn’t identify with any hobbies outside of being a wife. She links almost all of her value from being a wife. She also gets outside validation and mad props from outsiders for her praise-worthy domesticated wifery. She exclusively hangs out with fellow wives and they all go do wifey things. After 5 years, her marriage unravels and she gets a divorce. Now that she is no longer married, she is no longer a wife. Her former wife crew doesn’t have much in common with her anymore and they dissipate. Now that she can’t identify herself as a wife, who is she? Who are her friends? What does she actually like to do? Does she even have value anymore? She has no idea. Cue identity crisis.
And here’s an example of what happens with people who have diversified identity labels
- Kate is woman who values honesty and female empowerment, advises others on financial strategy, plays beach volleyball, cooks, sculpts her body at the gym daily, and happens to be in a committed and legally binding relationship. After 5 years of marriage, her husband decides he’d actually like to try out being a total D-bag, so they agree to get a divorce. While this is upsetting and comes with all of the natural devastation of relationship loss, Kate is able to manage it because she ultimately knows that her self worth is based on much more than her relationship status. In addition to everything else she is, she can still ball out on the V ball court, crush it at the gym, play real life monopoly with people’s money, and bang out a potato casserole within an hour for her weekly women’s empowerment group meetups.
The Piece De Resistance
One of the reasons that we have such resistance to altering this way of labeling ourselves is because it can be uncomfortable. We don’t want to let go of our labels… they are warm, cozy, fuzzy validation snuggies that help us ignore having to explore self-actualization while helping us sniff out others who use those same labels.
You’re an Atheist? So am I! Let’s go aggressively shout about our beliefs in the free speech zone on campus!
You’re a mother? So am I! Let’s derive all of our self-value from it and use it as an excuse to not achieve anything other than motherhood!
You’re a corrupt God-fearing Republican? So am I! Let’s go financially rape the poor, give tax breaks to the wealthy, blame immigrants for every problem that we’ve single handedly caused ourselves, and encroach on everyone else’s rights (particularly LGBT, women, and African Americans). After all, it’s what God would want!
The point here is: Let’s avoid cult-like or unhealthy labels that prevent us from reaching our full potentials, or worse, make us do crazy things. I promise you will find even warmer and fuzzier feelings of camaraderie, love, and purpose once you discover your true self.
If you want to know more about yourself and this topic, click here to check out some preliminary steps to take to start the “de-labling process.”