If you've ever had more than one person consistently associate you with a particular characteristic, you've probably been labelled. Maybe people always call you a hard worker, or maybe they refer to you as ambitious. Perhaps you were the person in school who was labelled most likely to rule the country one day. These are great labels. Who wouldn't want to be thought of as hard working and ambitious, with a great future on the horizon?
Sometimes though, the labels may not be so great. Maybe you were the person most likely to fail secondary school. Or the person most likely to get completely trashed on a Saturday night. Or the person most likely to be an easy lay. It doesn't have to be that obviously discouraging – did you ever get called bossy? Did you ever get called loud? What about a follower? Or a nerd?
In light of the recent #banbossy campaign (see http://banbossy.com/), I was thinking about other labels that are subtly disheartening, and not just for girls, for everyone. Bossy was one of the ones I remembered from primary school; follower and nerd started in secondary school. The people who use these words do not usually use them as a way of complementing someone. Even though one of my classmates insisted, “being a nerd for you is a good thing, it just wouldn't work for me”, it was never a complement. Just looking at some of the synonyms for these words indicates how insulting they really are – pushy, overbearing, freak, weirdo, copycat, minion, parasite.
Why do people use these labels? The person that gets called bossy is generally annoying and intrusive. The loud person's voice and opinions are unwanted. The follower and the nerd aren't cool enough. These labels are insults, and they do more damage than people think – repeated use can lead to a sort of self-fulfilling-prophecy mindset. “This is what people think I am, therefor I must be this.” Even worse, they can suggest that being a leader, following trends, and wanting to learn, are bad things. They most definitely are not.
So, if you were, or are, someone who has been labelled, think carefully about those labels. Discard the ones that are not encouraging you to be the person you want to be, the ones that make you feel like an outsider, the ones that make you feel inferior. Instead, create your own labels. You know best the kind of person you are and the labels most appropriate for you.
For the next thirty days, I am going to be tweeting a label I want to work on each day. It may be anything: tidy, ambitious, listener, healthy, reader, proactive, writer, happy. The beauty is, I get to choose. If you have every been labelled and now want to take charge of the things that define you, join me.
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