I am a label reader. And a rather
obsessed avid one at that. I study ingredient labels like my life depends on it.
(Because, actually, there’s a pretty strong correlation.)
If I can’t buy the ingredients listed on the packaging, I’m not going to buy it. I even have my husband well trained in this label reading activity. He has been known to take packages off the shelf, read the ingredients and yell, “Hey Honey! What aisle is the high fructose corn syrup in?”
(And for the record, it’s not just HFCS I am opposed to. I’m not a fan of artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, or any ingredient I can’t spell or pronounce.)
So as far as my health is concerned, labels serve me well. Quite well.
But, a few months ago, I began thinking…
What about the labels we put on people?
We spend a lot of time labeling people. A lot of time.
We label by character trait: creative, athletic, intellectual.
We label by interest: writer, runner, yogi.
We label by appearance: healthy, skinny, obese.
We label by diet: vegan, vegetarian, paleo.
We label by sexual identity: gay, lesbian, straight.
We label by religion (or lack thereof): Christian, Muslim, atheist.
And in the educational world, we even label by test results: gifted and talented, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed.
Unfortunately, all labels were not created equal. Some labels we eagerly embrace. Others? Not so much.
Labels can be misleading. For instance, if we label someone as being creative, are we talking about them being ‘artsy’ or ‘insightful’? And if we label someone as being athletic, are we thinking ‘jock’ or ‘well coordinated’?
And how about the ‘healthy’ label? Just because we meet society’s rather warped view of what healthy ‘looks’ like, are we really healthy? What if we meticulously count every single calorie or calculate the percentage of each macro in our diet in order to look ‘healthy’? Or what if we exercise excessively every single day without exception, even when our bodies are telling us a day of rest would be better? Does that make us healthy? Outward appearance is not always a reliable indicator of health.
And for some, labels become identities. And that, in itself, is quite problematic. What happens if you are labeled as a runner, and then for some reason you are no longer able to run? What then? Your identity is lost; you are lost.
Labels can create feelings of entitlement…a sense of superiority…an uncompromising attitude. And conversely, labels can create feelings of inferiority…feelings of not being adequate or enough.
Unfortunately, I see this in the vegan community. I have seen vegan bloggers back away from the vegan label after being attacked or criticized for not being ‘vegan enough’. (Whatever that means.) I have witnessed that in our schools. If a student is not labeled as ‘gifted and talented’, what does that mean for them?
Labels can create divides. They generate an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, hindering our ability to compromise and work for the greater good. They get in the way of being able to empathizing with others. We need to find ways to work together, so that no matter what our label, we are focused on creating a better world.
Labels can create expectations that can’t always be met. Some feel paralyzed by the weight of lofty expectations. Academic failure can be traumatizing. And unfortunately, for some, anything less than perfection is perceived as failure.
What about the expectation that just because of a label, everything is immediately or easily understood? How would it feel to think you are expected to know everything? And then discover you don’t.
Labels emphasize a fixed mindset. They encourage the belief that talent alone creates success. They diminish the process and emphasize the product.
I am not necessarily suggesting we should avoid labeling. At times, it’s a necessary evil. It’s just that we need to stop assuming that labels tell us everything we need to know about a person. Or that labels tell us who a person is. We can’t assume we understand a person because of an imposed label.
Labels should not define people.
Because when we are talking about people, labels don’t address what’s on the inside.