“Once stuck, some labels given to us are harder to remove”ODESSA CHITTY for Varsity

Have you ever played the name game? Everyone sits in a circle with a sticky label on their forehead. Your neighbour to the left or right has written a name on your label, and stuck it to your forehead without you reading it. Everyone knows what everyone’s label says, then, apart from their own. The game lies in asking yes or no questions to slowly discover what is written on your label — or ‘who you are’.

Life can sometimes be a bit too much like the name game. We stick labels onto each other without giving the labelled subject a choice. Although what our labels say is not our actual identity, we all too easily fall into the trap of thinking our label is ‘who we are’.

Labels can be useful. You would be sorry to spoon sugar into your coffee, only to discover it was from the salt jar. It would be somewhat tricky to get from A to B without notices telling you the correct train. Labels distinguishing between plants can be matters of life or death: a tomato couldn’t cope with being treated like a kale.

Labels can also be useful for people. School teachers would struggle to record attendance and know their students without registers of names. Athletes would be rightfully angry if someone else was given their glory, without their name to clarify. At birth, a literal name label makes the difference between parents taking their own child home and not somebody else’s.

“Labels are all too often misunderstood as identity

People are given many more labels aside from their name. This can also be useful — ‘mum’, ‘Captain’. It can also be a mark of respect — ‘sir/ma'am’, ‘dear’. But in reality, these labels can also be tools for discrimination, exclusion, and hatred. They do not function just to associate x with y. Some labels also bring in a network of associated histories, emotions, and experiences. Labels can be dirty, tatty, and problematically sticky.

After you finish the name game, you peel off your label with glee (sometimes it hurts, you might lose some hair). You polish off your forehead and wave your label in their face: see? I guessed it. That’s you free of the label. You return to being yourself.

And that’s where life isn’t enough like the name game. Once stuck, some labels given to us are harder to remove.

Last week, I got a concussion (me, her, four boxing gloves, two minutes, one very sore and woozy head). After a few days, I was advised to get it seen to. When Addenbrooke’s in-house GP eventually saw me, she asked all the necessary questions. This included whether I had any other medical conditions. Here, I realised: labels — they are useful! I could tell her quickly, precisely, without any more tears, that yes, I do have several medical conditions and here they are. This wasn’t me telling her my ‘goofoo’, my essential being. I was utilising the tool of labels.

This was to me a moment of revelation. I have been perplexed over the past few years: how to navigate an increasingly boggy landscape of medical diagnoses. It is very easy to write, or to say, that you are not equitable with your health conditions. You are more than any of that, people like to say. Hang on. That means health conditions make us somehow less than we were before. Something is amiss here.

“Labels are sticky, but they won’t stick forever

Our sense of identity can be challenged often in life. For me, recently, this has looked like impacts of anxiety, depression, and long covid. I am Me; but Me used to enjoy swimming/laughing with friends/campaigning about trees… Now Me does not do those things. Am I less Me than I was?

The problem is that labels are all too often misunderstood as identity. This is essentialism: basing someone’s fundamental self, our ‘goofoo’, on the content of a label. We need to be aware when we use labels, for others, or for ourselves. Then we can ask ourselves, am I mistaking a label for an identity?


Mountain View

On hair, labels, and queerness

Our sense of identity, then, can come to be reinvigorated through those very challenges which unsettled it. We see labels as what they are: sticky notes stuck on our foreheads. Sometimes useful. Sometimes not. And we see identity as something different: not the glue that holds the label onto our skin, but the glue that holds all of our being together. That’s not something that can be messed about with.

Today, Dumbledore, Madame Maxine, and Professor Karkaroff gathered together on Zoom to judge several baddies including Fenrir Greyback, Professor Umbridge, and Lucius Malfoy — not to mention a labradoodle-turned-Aragog-descendant... In other words, my family and I had a Zoom Harry Potter dress-up for Halloween. As Dumbledore, I strangely felt the most Me I had in a while. But perhaps this is because that is what family and friends do: they remind us of our identity. This is also what trees, weather, and autumn leaves do for me. It’s important to identify and nurture the things which remind you of yourself.

Labels are sticky, but they won’t stick forever. It’s important to be reminded sometimes that you are something far more precious than a label.