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The Power of Labels, for Good or for Evil. (A rant.)

“Why do we have to go around labeling ourselves? Why can’t we just be, y’know, people?”

“How come you can call yourself [epithet], but when I say it, it’s offensive?”

“I know some people prefer [reclaimed epithet], but I have negative associations with that word, so I don’t use it, and don’t understand why some people do.”

“As long as the [performer] is insulting everyone the same way, they should be able to use [epithet] to get laughs/make an impact.”

Language, it turns out, is a lot like Lenormand cards. A single card has a general, fixed meaning; but as soon as it comes into proximity with another card, both meanings change. Dictionaries feel comforting because it seals a set number of definitions to a word; it is earthy, solid, and changes slowly. But in fact, language is more cardinal; it flows like a breeze or a stream. People comment on my writing style, that it is less structured (and sometimes grammatically incorrect), but it makes up for it in being evocative. So instead of trying to force my thoughts into a foreign or standardized fashion, I concentrate on how the expression of those thoughts communicates the emotions I am trying to share.

Why Labels?

Obviously, I can’t answer this question for every single person who has adopted a label as a form of identity, but I can comment on my experience and the experience of those i have discussed it with.

Taking on a label for the very first time is the end of a long, internal process. People go from “I am obviously different from the people around me” to “I must be the only one who looks/thinks/feels this way, because I don’t know anyone else who does and I don’t see representations of that kind of expression in the media (at least in a positive fashion).” At some point, we find another person, or maybe a group of people, who prove to us that we aren’t the only earthling who is “this way”, and usually our new friend(s) have some sort of term that identifies other people as being “part of the family”. You not only feel supported and understood by this new circle of friends, but find out that your otherness is not wrong, bad, hurtful, or ugly. You learn that you can embrace and accept your otherness and find peace and joy by losing all of your fears related to being “this way”. So now, you use that term not only to have a convenient shorthand to explain to others who you are, but it acts as a beacon for more people to know they, too, aren’t alone.

I’m going to sidestep the obvious choice here, and talk about a label that took me a long time to embrace.

Around age 10, I started to gain weight. There were a number of factors at play, and none of them were lack of willpower or ignorance of the social and health risks of obesity. The change in how my peers treated me changed overnight – people who actively sought my friendship were now shying away from me, and people who had never noticed me before identified me as a target for bullying. I vividly remember a day in fifth grade, where I had gone to school in an outfit I felt proud of and good in, only to have an older girl start mercilessly tearing me down. She also threatened to beat me up after school, all because I had been happy about my outfit. I stomped into school and told my teacher about it, but because of the entrenched fatphobia in our society, the teacher actually told me that maybe if I wore baggier clothes, people wouldn’t notice my weight. My reaction? I told her I was quitting school and I marched home.

It was that bad. It may not sound like a big deal to you, but what you should understand is that I loved school. I hated the kids who bullied me, but I loved learning and I loved being around other kids. But when I got home that day, my (shocked) mother tried to explain to me that I legally had to go to school, and I informed her that I could go to another school, or maybe learn at home. (I didn’t know any homeschoolers, but I had friends who had taken long breaks from school due to illness.) She called my teacher, my principal, and the superintendent, and eventually I went back to school.

That was only the first time I remember being so humiliated by the word “fat”.

I have a million stories like that one, as most fat adults do. And they didn’t stop when I graduated high school, or during college. It hasn’t stopped. I still get harassed on the street, by all kinds of professionals, by waiters, clothing store associates, and even well-meaning friends who feel compelled to have a “come to Jesus” talk with me in regards of my weight.

I also have a long and hilariously sad history of doing all kinds of things, some of them pathological, in the pursuit of weight loss. I have been treated for anorexia, which is another source of humiliation in the hands of medical professionals because they assume only extremely thin people starve themselves for weeks at a time and hate their bodies. If a newspaper, anywhere, has published an article about a weight loss regimen, I have likely tried it – and by that I don’t mean “ate that way for a couple of days and then said fuck it”, I mean, “followed it religiously or semi-religiously for months at a time until I got sick or lost hope that it would work.” I’ve blogged before about a doctor who put me on an all-protein shake diet for eight and a half months, during which my hair fell out in clumps, my skin became sallow, I suffered from major vitamin deficiencies, and eventually developed long-term consequences in my nervous and digestive systems that I still fight today. And you know what? People cheered me on. Friends would see me and tell me how great I looked. I got tons and tons of positive reinforcement. I felt I couldn’t tell people how fucking miserable I was, that I felt socially ignored because I couldn’t attend gatherings that happened in any kind of food or drink establishment (I wasn’t even allowed to have coffee or tea), or that I thought I was getting sick because of it.

But today, I call myself fat all the time; I openly identify myself as a fat person, and I do work for fat activism. The very word that brought me to tears and made me quit school (for four days) in 5th grade is now the word I proudly wear on tee shirts and buttons. It was a long road that brought me to this place, and part of that journey was meeting other fat people who didn’t obsess about weight loss or diets or exercise. Fat people who wore fashionable clothes, even if they had to sew them themselves (because Gods know the selection out there is terrible!). Instead of saying the word “fat” because they hated me or thought I was ugly/diseased/lazy/slovenly/etc, these people were calling me “fat” because they and I had a shared history when it came to body size and prejudice. They and I became a “we”, and “we” were strong, beautiful, interesting, willful people who happened to have a single statistical point that was higher than the average. By reclaiming that word, not only was I removing the sting that comes when someone uses it pejoratively, I am also showing other fat people that they don’t have to be ashamed of who they are today. So when I call myself “fat”, it is shorthand for a incredible journey of acceptance, of myself and of other people; it allies me with a large number of folks who have collectively decided that no one statistical number can fully define a person’s worth.

I’ve been on this journey several times, in different ways. Each “label” I use to describe myself, represents a radical acceptance of who I am, as well as rejecting the notion that any of these facets of myself are meant to be hidden in a box of shame.

That’s “Why Labels”. I find most of the people who ask that question, have never thought critically about the labels that might apply to them, because they don’t see themselves in the role of “being other”. To boot, many of the people who ask that sort of question tend to be straight, white, cisgender, middle class men (or at least a mixture of some of those categories).

How come people who use an epithet in a reclaimating way are allowed to say it, but if someone outside of that demographic uses it, it’s considered rude (at least) or hate speech (at most)?

In other words, how come gay men seem to have permission to call each other ‘faggot’, but if a straight friend did it, it would be seen as rude? Of course, you can replace “gay men” with any subculture, and “faggot” with any epithet that relates to said subculture, but the answer is usually the same.

I spent a lifetime enduring quite a bit of psychosocial stress, depression, isolation, and hate before I saw the word “fat” as a source of pride. Unless you have shared that experience in some way, the word is being used in a different context, even if the user’s intent was not to harm. And yes, sometimes if you don’t belong to the subculture of that word, but you spend enough time and energy showing that you understand the people and the struggles they face, they may be more permissive about your use of that word. Like, I’ve spent over a decade hanging around gay men in a variety of situations, and there are some gay guys who don’t mind if I use the word “faggot” in a playful manner. However, even though I have friends who are okay with that, I never assume that all gay men are totally okay with it.

I usually advise people, “if you feel the need to ask if it’s okay to use a loaded word with someone, chances are the answer is no.” I understand that makes things a little unfair, because for some people it’s hard to read a social relationship in that sort of way. They’d rather have a direct communication about it. I’ve had people ask me about using some of my labels, and honestly, the answer depends, I don’t mind thin people calling me fat, but I still get angry when a temporarily-abled (my version of “nondisabled”) person calls me a crip or a wheelie.

Although I am technically a part of a subculture that uses a reclaimed epithet, I personally am not okay with it.

That’s cool. No one has to use a label they don’t like. And similarly, if you’re a part of a group of people from the same subculture, you can discuss your feelings about the epithet and whether or not it’s appropriate for the group to use (especially as part of the group’s name or identity, like “The Queer Men’s Chorus” rather than “The Gay and Bisexual Men’s Chorus”). You may also choose to vote with your feet, only joining groups who avoid using the reclaimed word. All I ask is that if you have a friend who has decided to use the label you personally don’t like, state your objection once, and continue to respect your friend’s right to label themselves as they will. I have plenty of friends with a transgender or transsexual history who do not identify as “trans”.** I even know homosexual people who don’t like the words “gay” or “lesbian”. And I know a ton of people who are considered overweight or obese who hate the word “fat”.

Labels are meant to be self-applied, and that means a person can opt out at any time. They can even eschew a label they once embraced, especially if their life has changed. I used to strongly identify as both “butch” and “dyke”, but I’ve changed since then.

But what if I’m using the epithet because it’s funny? Am I not allowed to lampoon people, especially if some of those people have reclaimed the epithet?

This is a question I’ve been personally doing a lot of writing about, regarding drag queens and their use of the word “tranny”. Not all drag queens use that word, but there are some pretty prominent ones who do. I can concede that part of it may be their own form of reclaimation, because many drag queens have been confused for transvestites, which is where the epithet originated. However, I have seen drag queens use it as a reference to trans* women, and that’s where I have an issue. Not all trans* women feel a shared identity or camaraderie (or “sisterhood”) with drag queens, especially since many trans* women find themselves explaining to many people how they are not the same thing. It is a similar issue with transvestites; one wears women’s clothing because it gets them hot, the other wears women’s clothing because she is a woman and that’s what women wear. Many trans* women have faced professionals who are convinced that their need to be seen as a woman is a matter of fetish, instead of identity. And yes, there are people who use the epithet “tranny” towards trans* women specifically to conflate them with transvestites in an insulting manner.

I believe strongly in the comedic rule of “Poking Up”. It’s pretty simple: you take stock of who you are and what privileges you have in the world, and then you poke fun at those who have more privilege than you. “Poking down”, or making fun of those who have less privileges than you will, at the very least, make your audience uncomfortable, and unless you’re more interested in the uncomfortable twitters of people who are laughing because they think they’re supposed to, rather than because they’re actually amused, it’s a bad idea. This is why a white male who performs a black female character is a poor choice, while a white male making fun of CEOs or politicians or police officers or anyone else who has more power in the world is hilarious. It would be weird for a temporarily abled stand-up comedian to do an entire set about people in wheelchairs, whereas someone who was actually disabled would kill with the material. It’s why rape jokes are almost never funny, because rape victims (not individually, but as a subset of humanity) have been purposefully, albeit temporarily, stripped of their power altogether – that’s why rapists rape.

So thus ends my rant on labels, which I meant to get out of my system months ago. I’ve just been finding myself in a number of conversations about it lately, and tonight it demanded to be ranted into the rantiverse once and for all. I welcome respectful dialog in the comments, but because of the subject matter, I will be moderating comments more closely. Play nice.

label maker

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

3 responses to “The Power of Labels, for Good or for Evil. (A rant.)

  1. Brilliance! Pure brilliance!

  2. Wendy

    Fat was the hardest label for me to come to terms with, for many of the same reasons , and probably because its the one closest to me, since its been a life long issue. it took years, but I’m finally at a place where fat is pretty much a descriptor – I *AM* fat, no amount of dancing around the word will make my ass any smaller.

    To this day though, I do get riled when people smaller than me use fat to describe me (unless they are ok to use it, you know, if we’re close). I do also dislike and get irritated when folks smaller than me complain about wanting to lose weight. While i understand that people have different body issues, and just because someone looks a way I would like to look doesn’t mean THEY are happy with how they look, it still rankles because it feels like they are not taking others into consideration. Like ‘I”M RIGHT HERE AND I CAN HEAR YOU. Plus even now sometimes hearing some people complain about being fat makes me worried in the ‘if they think THEY’RE fat, than what must they think of me? they must think i’m disgusting!’ and then the inevitable ‘oh no, not you, blah blah’ doesn’t help.

    I use the words to describe myself that make me feel comfortable. I ask other people what would make them feel comfortable.

    The line I find is when people get offended on my behalf. “Why do you call yourself fat, your not that fat!’ takes away my ability to self identify, and had undertones of judgement, either toward me or to the ‘other’ they perceive as fat (ex “You do Aikido and hula hoop and you’re really active and eat well, your not *fat*” starts to sound like “You’re not lazy and gross like those OTHER fat people are. YOU’RE one of the ‘good’ fatties”

    That tone tends to creep in with other reclaimed words for other groups when outsiders question as well, though I have far less experience with those. Fat is biggest, hardest, deepest label to reclaim.

    As well, at least for me, I’m in this liminal land between normal folks and fat folks – I am often a ‘tweener’ in clothing size, for example, and I also had weight loss surgery. Fat positive folks have given me flak about that (“You should love your self more!” is true, but if i’m not happy with my own shape? I should be able to change it) as have ‘normal’ folks, at least, ‘normal’ folks who take an interest in my weight – those folks judge me harder because I had WLS and then didn’t lose ALL THE WEIGHT, so they see me as a ‘failure’.

  3. briarrose44 ⋅

    Wonderful post!

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