“Labels are for cans, not for people”.
I have no problem with labelling and don’t see it as a negative thing. I see labels simply as words used to describe. So for me these would include woman, mother, friend, daughter, sister, untidy, advocate, forgetful, teacher, writer, autistic, fair skinned, clumsy, gardener, etc. These are factual descriptors, neither “good” nor “bad”.
I decided to look up the word label, to prove my point that there is nothing negative about labels. I was surprised to find this,
Label, noun: a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive
Label, verb: assign to a category, especially inaccurately or restrictively
How did I miss this? How did I not know that I am supposed to see labels as negative?
I asked some friends what they think, and they said they don’t see labels as negative either (unless someone else is applying them to a person who didn’t ask them to, but that’s another conversation). I began to wonder if the word label has always been seen as negative, and I had just not picked up on it.
I got out the old 1995 printed book dictionary and looked it up the old fashioned way. I found this,
Label: a short word or phrase of description for a person, group, movement, etc.
There is absolutely nothing there about it being negative, inaccurate or restrictive…. so something changed in the last 20 years. I suspect what has changed is the public conversation around disability.
The spaces I see conversations around labels being negative are largely groups of parents of disabled children. “I don’t like labels” they say. “My child is not defined by their disability”.
Define: state or describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning of• give the meaning of (a word or phrase), especially in a dictionary. • make up or establish the character or essence of
I just don’t see how having an accurate descriptor of a person- who they are and what they need to get the most out of life- is a bad thing. Isn’t that just helpful information?
There seem to be things that it is acceptable to be defined by or labelled as. “Attractive”, “Happy”, “Clever”, “Healthy”. And some things that are not acceptable to be defined by or labelled as. “Fat”, “Grumpy”, “Disabled”.
We are told we should be ashamed of and try to change the things about ourselves that others deem to be inherently “bad”. “Don’t label yourself”. “I’m sorry you are ____, but,” they say with a hopeful lilt to their voices, “you don’t have to let it define you.”
Why is it bad to be labelled by something that explains who you are? Why is it negative to be defined by something that contributes to making you who you are?
image above text reads “I actually like my labels. I am happy for them to define me.” and shows me, a slightly smiling fair skinned person wearing a black shirt and black rimmed glasses looking straight ahead. There is a background of green and brown trees and grasses.
The fact is, I actually like my labels. I am happy for them to define me. They are factual descriptors that give information. When I share them with you I do it with pride in who I am, what I have experienced and how those things shaped me. And I share with you in the hope it will help us both for you to understand me. Not because I want you to feel sorry for me or reassure me.
It’s an interesting dynamic really, noticing which things are considered acceptable to have define us and which aren’t. Autism defines me. There are other things that define me too- gender, my appearance, marital status, being a parent, my chosen work, how I spend time and who I spend it with…. It’s not bad to be defined by things, whether you chose to have them as part of your life or not.
We are also told that children don’t place as much value in labels as adults do, so we must be careful not to put things on them. This is not true. I have yet to meet a child who would not be upset by a negatively perceived label given them or proud of a positively perceived one. Neurodivergent, disabled, or not. Part of the problem is that we teach our kids that some labels are negative when they are not and should never be treated as they are.
I was an autistic child, even though unidentified. I understood labels. Still do. I’m still living with the impacts of some of the things I was labelled. “Naughty” “Rude” “Lazy”. I much prefer my Autistic label than any of those.
The more I journey through claiming my identity, the more I’d love to see “label” return to being a value neutral word, one used simply to convey the idea that we are passing on information to each other that is helpful in our efforts to understand what we each are and need.
This post is part of my emerging autistic identity series- read them all by clicking here (clicking link will open a new window, posts are in reverse chronological order- first at the bottom)