When we were little, life was relatively simple. Any situation could be stratified into its elemental components:
Black or white; good or bad; teacher’s pet or teacher’s pest; right or wrong.
However, as we grew older we began to notice the varied shades of gray between the stark black or white. Good or bad soon morphed into ethical versus unethical. Studious or the troublemaker transformed into logically inclined and left brained versus artistically inclined and right brained.
We certainly grew with age but have we evolved? Our appetite for labels is almost insatiable and perhaps for a logical reason: given the overwhelming amount of external stimuli the human brain is subject to at any given moment, it is only natural for it to adapt to the sheer volume by categorizing behaviors into digestible chunks to make a speedy judgement. We astutely tune into social cues, physical characteristics and other superficial mechanisms to make a preliminary judgement. What we often fail to recognize is that this judgement is exactly that: preliminary. Yet we seldom revisit our initial assessment of an individual or a circumstance to correct for inaccuracy and foolishly seek cues to bolster our preconceived notions.
The labels we adopt and the labels we give: As a woman working in a career field that is predominantly male, people often assume that I’m the prototypical alpha female; perhaps because that’s the impression my appearance tends to give. Crisp collared shirts, pencil skirts, a – line dresses, blazers and heels comprise 50 percent of my wardrobe. Time is always of the essence, efficiency is key and multitasking is basically a given on the job.
Yes, my job challenges me.
Yes, I have a life.
Yes, you can probably argue that I don’t have a life.
I often see raised eyebrows when I tell colleagues that I train with professional dancers for a few hours every weekend, spin daily to pop music in dark studios to de-stress after work and listen to my “raita music playlist” (read: fun Bollywood music) while number crunching at work. But nobody has to know about the latter. Contrary to popular belief, the “typical woman” in the workforce probably doesn’t exist. Typical is an illusion and even someone who possibly fits all the stereotypes of a working woman in its truest form has a lot more mettle and grit than any label can ever give her. The same applies for our male counterparts in the workforce. While the sisterhood at work is strong, some of my greatest supporters and mentors have been my male managers and colleagues, who uplift and challenge me on a daily basis.
I have come to realize that the labels themselves don’t mean much; it’s how they evolve over time and how we internalize them that define our reality. A tangible manifestation of this can be best illustrated through young adults who struggle with body image and become susceptible to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, etc. The child in example probably internalized the label “fat”, “pudgy” “stout”, etc. To my astonishment, I once overheard the phrase “she’s on the healthier side..” to indicate that the woman in speculation was considered overweight. Isn’t it ridiculous how a perfectly sound label such as “healthy” was distorted with a negative connotation? We certainly don’t call toddlers “fat”, regardless of what they weigh. Why is it then that we fail to treat our grown selves with the same respect?
Possibly the worst rendition of labels that I have witnessed are those used among young adults who perhaps don’t know any better when they use medical terminology loosely to elicit or express a dramatic reaction. How many of us can attest to witnessing one or all of the following phrases:
“Are you retarded?”
“He/she is so bipolar…”
“He/she is OCD when it comes to…”
“I can’t seem to study for my midterms/finals, I feel like I have ADHD”
Take a moment to consider the magnitude of the insensitivity with which these terms are used. The liberal use of terms such as “mentally retarded” or “bipolar” paints a disturbing picture regarding the ability of labels to be extrapolated into something that is skewed so drastically out of context. Progressively addressing mental health issues is an important agenda in the grand scheme of things and to witness the use of these terms so loosely in colloquial speech is unsettling.
Truth be told, labels will exist as long as verbal communication exists. While we cannot control the adoption of more labels, we can control how we fall prey to or allow them to define our reality. It’s important to recognize that the most valuable relationship that you will ever have in your life is the one that you share with yourself. Treat yourself as you would a baby. For my yoga enthusiasts out there, doesn’t it now make sense why the yoga instructor tells you to take “child’s pose” after a strenuous workout to break the rigidity that your body has been subject to. People who attend laughter clubs are often told to “laugh like a baby”, mainly because their actions stem from a place that is devoid of judgement and abundant with happiness. Bundles of joy, truly! Notice how your body curls into fetal position when experiencing physical or emotional distress. Your mind instinctively recognizes that the child within needs attention and care; thereby returning to a place of protection and peace.
Hold onto the voice of reason but release your preconceived notions. Labeling people only facilitates disparities and in doing so, we deny ourselves the ability to evolve and grow through new experiences. We all originate from a place of love and belonging; let’s circle back to the child within. Diversify your thoughts, broaden your horizons and allow yourself to be surprised when you live life with open arms!