on labels and identity.

My first boyfriend was a total dick.

I know. As a good pastor’s wife, I should probably avoid publishing colorful language like that if I can. But, I’m a journalist, so I like to report the facts. (And there is no word in the English language that accurately depicts how evil he was — and probably still is — so “dick” will have to do.)

In the first couple months of our relationship, he sat me down to have a very “serious” conversation with me.

“I don’t know what you are, Lindsay,” he sighed in frustration.
I was confused. “Well. I’m a girl,” I replied.
“No, no, no. I know what you are, but I don’t know what you are.”
I stared at him, blank and bewildered, prompting him to elaborate.
“You see,” he started, “I’m a punk. I like punk music and I do punk things. Your friends are preps. They’re preppy and do preppy things. But I don’t know what you are. You’re not preppy like them, because I would never date a prep, but you’re not punk like me. So I don’t know what you are.”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying,” I lied.
“So, you have to figure that out,” he continued. “If I can’t put a label on you, something’s wrong with you, and I can’t date you.”
“Hmmm. Well, I guess I’m a little bit of everything,” I offered.
“No. That’s not a label! That doesn’t count! What are you?”

This conversation shattered me. I was shocked because he labeled himself a punk and not a dick, but I was also upset because at 15, I was happy being just me. I was perfectly peachy going about my life doing the things I liked to do and wearing the clothes I liked to wear and listening to music I liked to listen to. (FYI, in case you didn’t know, it’s completely cool and not lame at all for someone to rock out to Gloria Estefan’s greatest hits for an hour and then switch over to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a minute before they settle on falling asleep to Black and Blue by the Backstreet Boys.) Before this conversation, I had no idea how important it was for me to have a label — my entire (awful and abusive and destructive) relationship was depending on it. So I panicked and did some research. After Yahoo!ing it (what I did before I learned it was better to Google things) we settled on labeling me “emo,” though I think that’s completely ridiculous looking back on it. How can a girl with Hanson posters plastered all over her wall fall into that category? Whatever. (I guess my appreciation for Dashboard Confessional carried my fate on the “Which Label Are You?!?!?!” quiz I took on AOL in 2001.)

Courtesy: Ashley Poole Photography

If I would have taken that quiz today…

The importance my 15-year-old dickfriend put on labels when we were kids is incredibly astounding to me a decade later. How can you possibly know “what” or “who” you are at that age? More importantly, what the hell does anyone else care?!

I asked my Twitter/Facebook friends if they had any labels for themselves. I heard:

  • Old soul
  • Nerd
  • Feminist
  • Hipster
  • Awesome
  • Short and fat
  • Off
  • Scientist

Now that I’m in my mid-20s I’ve found that the truth is a lot of people care. Even though the labels look a little different, they are still incredibly important. Why’s that? Well, if you’re at all normal, you probably looked at those labels and immediately pictured a type of person to belong to each. People cling to labels for two main reasons:

In a chaotic world comprised of grey areas, labels give us security in a firm sense of identity and allow us to pass judgment on people without even getting to know them.

My dickfriend needed to label me “emo” because he couldn’t be seen dating a prep. If he was seen dating a prep, people would form opinions about me (and us) immediately before talking to either of us. A punk kid dating a prep? What? That doesn’t make sense! Oh wait, she’s emo? Phew! I was worried! Labels have power, evidently, even when they don’t change a single thing about the person actually walking around carrying them.

When a good friend of mine referred to himself as a hipster I laughed. A lot. Then, I orchestrated the biggest, most over-exaggerated eye roll I could muster. Now, I totally love this dude. But hearing him call himself a hipster instantaneously generated a particular picture in my mind (one that I obviously didn’t approve of.) When I hear “hipster” I envision a weird, lanky person who wears deep v-neck shirts and over-sized non-prescription glasses, never showers, thrives on a strict organic and vegan diet, and is a snob about any and all things artistic. Though this friend is very lanky and absolutely a total art snob, he isn’t any of those other things that I would call “hipster.” So I laughed at him. Like a good friend should. Because a “hipster” label doesn’t say anything about his ability to inspire people around him, or make anyone feel important, or his awesome sense of humor, or his great taste in books, or his extensive spirituality. Nope. To me, hipster just screams, “Smells like hemp.”

The reality is that labels just sell us short. Plain and simple. They don’t make you sound fancy or smart or witty or artistic. They associate you with a predetermined, tired mold that the maker has no plans of breaking. I want to be more than that. What about you?

How have you been labeled in the past? Was it by someone else or was it self-imposed? How did it make you feel?

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7 thoughts on “on labels and identity.

  1. I was labelled “Fat and Ugly” by my older brother as a child. And also elsewise ridiculed. OUCH.
    Thankfully my friends never labelled me.
    Later in life I am proud of the label “MOM” – it makes me very happy.
    Love you!

  2. i was labeled fat and a nerd in middle school. then in high school i was labeled a bitch. in college they labeled me a slut and now i’m labeled gay. whatever. what’s funny is i don’t think i’m any of those things– even gay. i have to adhere to that one for society’s comfort (and so as not to confuse anyone else, because, after all, i am in a relationship with another woman), but i just am who i am and i love who i love… and i prefer NOT to think of myself as fat, bitchy or slutty… but nerd, i may be okay with. as we get older, nerd ain’t so bad now is it? haha 🙂

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