'Pansexual', 'panromantic': Labels may sometimes help, but more often restrict us

How many of these words are you familiar with: sapiosexual, fleek, agender, hangry, screenager?

Do you know the difference between a panromantic and a pansexual?

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have answers to all the questions. These words were only recently added to the dictionary.

Today, we are living in a world that believes in labels. We have labels for our clothes, our perfumes, also our toothpastes. A trip to the grocery-story will enlighten even the unaware on the massive explosion of labels all around us — we now have oil that is ‘light’ and ‘extra-light’ (honestly, what is the difference?), cookies that are ‘fat-free’ and ‘sugar-free’ (though the ones that are fat-free will still contain sugar; and the one that is sugar-free may still be high on calories!), and juices ‘made with real fruit’ (so what if the percentage of the actual fruit is less than two?).

Labels sometimes help, but more often restrict us. Photo from freeimages, for representation only

Labels sometimes help, but more often restrict us. Photo from freeimages, for representation only

We don’t even spare ourselves, and are constantly adding more labels in our quest to better-define our identity. Gone are the days when labels only referred to stickers we put on our books to help us identify them.

Labels, indeed, help in making the world a simpler place. We are all living in an environment where we’re always bombarded with lots of complex stimuli, and in such a space, labels have utilitarian purposes — they help us to recognise, compartmentalise and sort things — but this does not mean that they don’t come with their fair share of risks.

While labels help us to define things in a better manner, they also lead to differentiation. Different people have different needs — and labels make it easier for us to cater to the demands of the different populations. Once upon a time, we only knew people to be either heterosexual or homosexual — then, the acronym ‘LGBT’ gained prominence with people not falling in the heterosexual category choosing to define themselves more specifically as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Today, the acronym is almost like an alphabet soup (LGBTQIAAP) and includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, pansexuasl. In a country where homosexuality is still considered deviant behaviour, is there really a need to create labels fine-tuning one’s identity — does it not lead to divisions and hinder one’s process of staying united and fighting for equal rights?

Labels can be confining. We are always negotiating between our several identities across situations. One person may be an entrepreneur, but he may also be a brother, painter, book-lover, and a fitness freak. Which label should he choose to dictate his identity? Is it really necessary to select a label?

Another problem with labels, according to me, is the fact that they create differences. The moment I identify with a particular label, everyone else who cannot be prescribed that label is viewed by me as an outsider. That person is now different from me and my group — that person now becomes the ‘other’. The moment we start distinguishing between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, we are alienating ourselves from those who are not similar to us. Thus, the practice of using labels actually leads to the creation of boundaries and division.

The problem with labels amplifies when we start assigning ranks to labels. For instance, when a person starts to believe that she is better than her colleague just because she is ‘vegan’ while her colleague eats non-vegetarian food, the whole affair starts to become tricky.

Labels make it easier for us to assume things. If there are two children in the family, and one is introduced to us as ‘the brainy one’ and the other as an ‘athlete’, would you safely assume that the first child is not interested in sports, and the latter is not so good in academics? It is, therefore, safe to say that labels lead to stereotypes and generalisations. A person labelled as a ‘feminist’ is always viewed as a man-hater, and then, there is a common generalisation that “all feminists are lesbians”. Could we get any more ridiculous in our ways of perceiving people?

In the field of clinical psychology, ‘abnormal behaviour’ is classified into different groups according to symptoms and labels are given to people diagnosed with a particular pattern of ‘abnormal’ behaviour. Labelling helps a person diagnosed with clinical depression receive treatment different from that of schizophrenia. However, an overdose of diagnostic labels in the field of mental health is especially dangerous because there still exists a lot of stigma in this area. The DSM-V has been severely criticised for its downpour of changes that, according to experts, will only lead to misdiagnosis, several over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication. If the DSM-V starts being followed like a bible, thousands of people suffering from normal grief, temper tantrums, or indulging in gluttony will be mislabelled as ‘abnormal’ and subjected to inappropriate treatment.

Labels can also be oppressive in nature. Children with special needs frequently get bullied in schools. Often, children diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) get wrongly punished by the teacher for some mischief which they may not have done, because it is more convenient to assume that the child who has a ‘problem’ will be responsible for everything that goes wrong in the classroom than actually investigate into the matter.

While labels have their advantages, they can also become restrictive. Being a nerd does not mean that you can’t play sports. Similarly, being termed a ‘jock’ does not mean you don’t have the potential to excel in academics. If we want to avail every opportunity to blossom into the person that we are meant to become, it is important that we stop labelling and recognise the scope for growth, change and redefinition. The process of growing up involves a lot of experimentation, with all of us moving back and forth. At any juncture, getting stuck with a label can disrupt progress and hinder the process of self-exploration.

Possibilities are endless and beyond the sky is the limit. Let us not allow labels to cage our flight.

The writer is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Mumbai. She is the founder of The Silver Lining, an organisation that addresses issues related to mental health.

Updated Date: May 01, 2016 12:06 PM

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