I.D. : Ditching the labels
‘Three steps to creating your personal brand… Define it, earn it and promote it.’ A recent article in the UK Guardian reminded us that to get ahead, we must be able to label ourselves. Once we’ve identified our unique selling point, it’s time to sum it up in a bite-sized biography and earn it by honing our skill-set, ready to share our branded identities at any social gathering, online or offline.
But, despite this pressure to brand ourselves professionally, we are often resistant to labels in our personal lives. I’ve lost count of the amount of times (myself included) people in relationships have expressed a reluctance to define their commitment with the line: ‘I don’t want to put a label on it.’ Or, of the number of women who certainly believe that they deserve equal rights to men, but who introduce their ideas with the caveat: ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’
And anyone who has ever had to fill out an Equal Opportunities Form knows how confusing labels can be. I once discussed the existential crisis provoked by such questionnaires with a friend whose mother was English and father was Syrian. When filling out a form for the police, he hesitated as he scanned through the different options listed beneath the words: ‘Do you identify as…? He dared to pose the question, ‘But what if I identified myself as a black African woman?’ Jokes aside, what if he did?
Many of us struggle with the labels we have been forced to wear since childhood. Sometimes, these are labels we feel compelled to live up to: ‘the clever sibling,’ who is paranoid about failing an exam; ‘the one that has it all together,’ who cannot cope after a bad break-up; or the woman who is constantly forced to hide her depression because she has always been known as ‘the fun one.’
A label is supposed to represent the person or thing it is attached to. Problems arise when we feel a label is not an accurate reflection of who we are, or of who we want to be – when we don’t feel we’ve ‘earned it,’ or when we don’t want to ‘promote it.’
That is why one of my favourite verses in the bible is Galatians 3:28. ‘ In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.’ [The Message]
For me, this verse totally deconstructs the categories we use to define people based on their race, gender, social group, or even their past. Although it took me a long time to decide I could call myself a Christian, this verse seemed to sum up my desire to enter into a relationship where I was recognised as a true individual.
So I was very interested when, in a recent interview, Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons refused to define himself as a ‘Christian’, although he did not deny his belief in God. On one level, this decision reflects a desire to distance his reputation from the negative associations surrounding Christianity, but I think his motives went deeper than this. In an honest reflection on his own individual struggles, he felt he could only define his faith as ‘a work in progress.’
To me, these four words sum up the futility of labels. A label suggests a finished product. Once labelled, our identities become artificially fixed. They don’t leave room for our changing personalities, for the moments where we fall short or surpass expectations. They deny the reality that we’re all on a journey.
We’re complex creatures. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, ‘Once you label me, you negate me.’ Although our consciousness means we crave a sense of identity, labels undermine this. So rather than forcing ourselves into narrow boxes, perhaps it’s time to accept that each of our lives will always be works in progress.
Words by Yosola Olorunshola
Photograph “You Said I Was Beautiful” sewing sketch by Tracey Emin 2009