Something that people always seem to love debating, especially in a time when self-expression and figuring out how you identify is a bigger part of growing up than it used to be, is the use of labels. Now, I don’t mean labels as in the little white strips of tape with black, capital letters that you can find on shelves. The labels I’m talking about are the metaphorical ones that we place on ourselves – our sexuality, religion, political affiliation, personality, gender… I could go on.
The major question is not what label we should use; rather, it’s whether we should use them at all. And if we are using them, then are we being too specific when we use them? The answer to these questions can change drastically depending on who you ask, so instead of trying to answer them directly, let’s look at the pros and cons of using labels.
1. You feel less like an outsider.
Before finding a label that you identify with, it can be hard to feel like you belong—especially when everybody around you has found their own label and is flaunting it. But when you finally find something that you relate to entirely, it’s like striking gold. Seeing a celebrity or popular fictional character with the same label can also be fulfilling; people bigger than you are coming out and identifying the same way, making your label feel more real. You feel less alone.
2. Labels help you find yourself.
Finding out who you are is a huge part of growing up, and experimenting with labels can help you define yourself and therefore figure out where you fit in. Sometimes all it takes is to read the definition and it clicks; there’s no more searching. Other times, you need to “try on” a label before you feel like you’ve found the right one. And that’s okay! Even if you find yourself with a negative label, assigned by yourself or somebody else, it can help you identify a misconception about yourself and decide what you want to do about it.
3. When other words fail, labels speak.
More often than not, personal labels can make introductions easier. It can be difficult to explain exactly how you feel about hot button topics, but saying that you’re a Democrat or a Republican can help others understand your general opinion. Explaining your sexuality to another person may be difficult, but using common labels can help people understand the type of people you’re interested in. While you may not fit into every aspect of the label you choose, it’s much easier to explain what parts you don’t relate to than it is to name off all the things you do.
1. You feel pressured to use them.
While using a label isn’t something that you have to do, not everybody comes to that conclusion. Many people feel that unless they use a label, they can’t fit into any community. If you don’t have at least one way to label yourself, then you can’t relate to other people. So, you force yourself into a label that you know you don’t relate to, and you feel more uncomfortable than you did before.
2. You can fall victim to stereotyping.
When you meet a new person and you tell them how you label yourself, you lock yourself into the stereotypes of that label before you have a chance to prove otherwise. For example, when somebody mentions that they are an atheist, a highly religious person may assume that they are a jerk – somebody who will dismiss any religious discussion before it even begins. A bisexual can be seen as greedy, as somebody who’s more likely to cheat than a straight or homosexual partner simply because they have more options.
3. Labels create unspoken barriers.
This goes hand in hand with the last point; labels can prevent yourself from realizing your true potential. Many people who are partial to their labels are afraid to do something that goes beyond the boundaries set by their label. Proud introverts refuse to go to a party, even when they think they’d have a blast, simply because it’s not supposed to be in their nature. The high school party animal feels like he has to “go hard or go home” at every second because that’s how people know him.
While labels can be an excellent way to help find yourself, there’s never a need to force yourself to identify with one. It’s good to feel comfortable in your own skin, but if you feel uncomfortable or limited with the label you’re using, then it may be time to change or drop the label altogether. Labels are only as good as they make you feel.