Society seems to be preoccupied with labels. They’re supposedly an easy way to break down the world around us into nice digestible pieces. They’re present in every application you complete, every survey you fill out, how people see you, and most importantly, how you see yourself. 

But do identity labels tell you everything you need to know about a person? Can a couple of words etch your identity in stone?

The pressure to label

Labels can be comforting. With an identity label comes a community, a whole group of people who identify just like you. It’s human nature to want to fit in. We’re constantly looking for people to relate to, people who have shared our experiences.

Nowadays, there feels a pressure to not just find a group of people similar to you, but to be able to identify exactly why you all get along so well. This is where identity labels come in regarding gender, sexuality, and diagnoses, but also around other aspects of identity. Social media’s proliferation of labels has caused young people to have to try and figure out their identity faster than ever before. 

What side of TikTok are you on? Your answer to that question can tell you everything about who you are (even though it’s all according to an algorithm). Algorithms on social media apps have streamlined users into viewing content only relevant to niche identity groups they belong to. There’s booktok, healthtok, fandomtok, the list goes on. Each side of TikTok is its own little community. Community is a wonderful thing. But people more than ever feel the need to conform to the trends of their communities. They feel a pressure to show, “Hey, I belong here!”. 

As humans we crave a sense of belonging, but at what cost? The pressure to label yourself to enter (and remain welcomed by) a community can be stressful. Introspection and identity curation doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how much we’d like it to. 

What’s in an identity label?

Identity labels help build communities and foster a sense of belongingness, but they also proliferate stereotypes. When you read the words, “woman”, “gay”, and “Latino”, what comes to mind? Most likely stereotypes. It’s human nature to form preconceived notions. It’s what our mind does best. Our brains are constantly running statistical analysis, taking in information that’s being fed to us through media outlets, the books we read, the people we talk to, etc. From that information, we create expectations. It’s these expectations that can be dangerous. You feel as though you can generalize a person solely on what you’ve absorbed.

Labels come with their own set of expectations. It is these expectations that cause people to gravitate to or away from them. Like how a man might not want to identify as gay because he doesn’t want to be perceived as feminine. Stereotypes can make labels feel scary or claustrophobic. For this reason,  labels should not be regarded as the end-all-be-all. 

LGBTQ+  identity labels

The LGBTQ+ community houses a wide array of Identity labels, each with its separate community. With each label comes a certain set of expectations, pressures, and limitations.

I had a discussion with my friend about their personal experience with gender and sexuality labels. She currently uses she/they pronouns and identifies as queer. Those labels were not easy to get to. 

Throughout her adolescence, she had gone back and forth between the labels of bisexual and lesbian. For starters, they’re currently seeing someone who identifies as a man, so the lesbian label is out the door. But bisexual didn’t feel right either. 

The term bisexual comes with the connotation that your attraction is split 50/50 between men and women. Although this isn’t necessarily true, this is a common assumption. The same goes for gender expression. They had never felt on the same gender wavelength as more traditional women, but there were still bits of femininity that remained very important to them. 

 Identity labels can be tricky, requiring a whole lot of lived experience to solidify. But according to her “labels are never going to cut it.” The lived experiences of those in the LGBTQ+ community are so diverse, even amongst those who share the same identity labels. Gender and sexuality are a wide-ranging –and often fluid– spectrum. Sometimes these labels, although nice and concise, just don’t provide the whole picture only a minor detail. 

Mental health diagnoses

The stigmatization of mental health runs rampant. Being diagnosed with a mental illness and adding that new label to your identity can affect not only how others see you, but how you see yourself. Think of the terms “lunatic”, “maniac”, and “mental case”; all villainize mental illness. So it’s understandable that those suffering tend to have lower self-esteem, in part because of the cultural norm that the mentally ill are less-than or outcasts. This is outlined by the modified labeling theory. That theory posits that when a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, they tend to adopt the cultural beliefs surrounding that diagnosis as being true to them. Of which are most of the time, overwhelmingly negative. It has been shown that modified labeling theory can exacerbate mental illness. 

Diagnostic labels can feel like a life sentence. They can begin to feel like the only real way to define yourself. Your sense of identity can become so entangled with your diagnosis that separation of yourself and your illness can feel impossible. When your identity is so reliant on these diagnostic labels, seeking treatment or healing can feel like you losing part of your identity. You don’t feel like you know who you are without your diagnostic label.

But what if these labels didn’t exist? Labeling can worsen existing mental illness, but it also gives way to treatment. These labels are important for treatment and accommodation purposes. But they in no way define you, just because society says they should. You are not your mental illness, it is simply a small slice of who you are. 

Racial  identity labels

Racial identity labels, like any other label, carry stereotypes, stigmas, and prejudices. But in most cases, they also tie you to your family and your roots. They house an important part of your culture and most likely have impacted you your whole life. 

I recently sat down with my friend who is half-black and half-Chinese to discuss her views on racial identity labels and her own identity as mixed. The first thing she said to me was that when people ask, she tells them she’s black. She reasons that because that’s what people see, that’s how the world will perceive her. Her black identity makes her more self-aware of everything she does because of the way black people are perceived in the United States. 

But by telling people that she’s black, she feels as though she’s leaving out half of her identity just to be “more palatable”. Telling people that she’s mixed or Asian brings upon a slew of questions and unwarranted comments, “What kind of mixed are you?”, “You don’t really look Asian”, “oh that’s why your last name sounds Chinese”. Growing up she participated in fencing, and she recalls that when they would call her last name, Chan, the officials would look around expecting a Chinese girl, and when she would approach them, they would question her.

But to her, labels are your own. You control your labels, not the other way around. If people question your labels or your identity, you don’t have to listen to them, “Nobody knows your experience like you do”. 

Does a label tell the whole story?

Labels are personal. Are they a part of your identity? Yes. Do they define your identity? No. Every person goes through a unique journey to get to the set of labels they feel comfortable with. It can take years for people to figure out their labels. And even then they might change. Nobody should feel pressured to label themselves because ultimately one word can never encompass the entirety of a person’s experiences. 

Life without labels

How do we separate ourselves from these labels healthily and productively? Introspection is key! Rather than trying to match yourself to identity labels, try describing yourself without them and see what happens. For example, instead of saying “I’m a femme lesbian”, say “I find myself attracted to women and I enjoy things that can be seen as feminine and girly”. When you describe yourself this way, you’re losing all of the connotations and stereotypes that come from saying the labels. 

Another great way to do some introspection is journaling. Write about what things bring you joy, your values, what you like about yourself, etc. Try describing yourself in stories rather than labels. Think about what has shaped you as a person. This allows you to get to the core of who YOU are not who identity labels assign you to be. 

And if you feel comfortable, you can have this discussion with friends! Discourse with others can sometimes help reveal more things about yourself that you might not be aware of. This is also a good way to limit any negative self-talk. Surrounding yourself with people who love and care for helps highlight all of the good you bring to this world. Careful introspection can help bridge the gap between identity labels and true identity. 

In the end…

Do identity labels bring about a sense of community? Yes. But with those labels come societal pressures and stereotypes, and sometimes the process of labeling alone can be stressful. Identity labels are meant to bring people together. But at times they do more harm than good.

Labels aren’t everything. A person’s self-worth and character shouldn’t be judged based on their labels alone. Labels are just a piece of the puzzle. Your identity is unique to you.  Identity labels are simply a tool, and they by no means define you.