Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Labels, labels, labels.

Thanks to Mama Kat's for the writing prompt!

"What's your stance on 'labeling'? Were you labeled as a child? Have you labeled your own children? How do you feel about this?"

I spent years trying to fit in somewhere, but never quite getting there (in my opinion at the time). I didn't wear the right clothes, because Mom was a rational person and didn't buy her four growing, messy kids expensive name-brand clothes. By high school I was just fine with that, but middle school felt awkward. I always had awful haircuts that I hated, but it wouldn't have mattered because my hair was impossible anyway. Even then I had a quirky, sarcastic sense of humor, and enjoyed being around people who joked and goofed off more than I enjoyed people who mostly talked about livestock and sports and shopping. I didn't participate in the right extracurricular activities (well, any extracurricular activities), and the only makeup I'd occasionally wear would be either blue mascara or some bright eye shadow. I'd paint funky designs on my fingernails, and an early run in with a busted-up water gun thanks to my youngest brother meant that I wore glasses from 3rd grade until I got contact lenses in 8th grade. At the same time, I enjoyed art, which could stretch across the aisles of status, and singing in choir, which for the most part enjoying that was primarily a higher-status activity. I also loved running and playing basketball, which I found out was also a higher-status activity. The only people who made the basketball team were people whose older brothers or sisters had been involved in sports. Seriously. So basketball was out, and then we moved to a school district without a girls' basketball team, making that a moot point. I also loved reading and writing and drawing and rocked at spelling bees, and was a great student who made good grades.

I don't know if I was labeled as a kid, or what my label would have been. I was smart, well-behaved, and was able to get along with everyone since I had a wide range of interests and was quite a chameleon in social situations. I wasn't in any one "group" all the time, if I wanted or needed to talk to someone I would without any problems. Honestly, I just hated being rude, so even if I didn't like someone for whatever reason I'd just try to muddle through any situation without putting my foot in my mouth or otherwise being a dick. I always wondered if there was something wrong with me that made me so sensitive to that kind of thing and made it so difficult for me to find my "place." 

In any case, I wasn't un-popular, but I worked hard to make sure I wasn't going to be made fun of. There was a sweet, scrawny guy who happened to have to squint despite his ridiculously thick glasses, and whose pants were always a little too short, and who was always tripping over his untied shoelaces, and I stopped crushing on his adorable face because I was made fun of. He was also a little dumb, but I had been willing to overlook that, until another friend found out that I liked him and teased me endlessly about it. That friend still, in fact, teases me about it whenever we talk, but at least now I will admit proudly that I adored that mess of a kid when I was a kid. The one I'm really ashamed of though was one of my best friends who lived right down the road from me, who I dropped because it wasn't cool to be hanging out with someone a grade below you. After we moved, I called her and apologized to her for being so shitty towards her there at the end, and  she was gracious enough to forgive me, but still. There were plenty of kids that were labeled negatively. I had no problems interacting with any of them, and my heart would break for them when I'd hear them being talked about by the more popular kids, but I never had the stones to defend them out of fear of the barbs being directed towards me instead. I wish I could change that, now, because I knew even then that most of their battle was the label they'd been stuck with, and a label isn't a whole person.

My first turning point was in about 8th grade. I'd been friends with this one guy forever--our parents worked together--but he'd become more popular and started to get more fun out of teasing and torturing me than being a friend. Standing in the lunch line one day, I was happy because we were actually having a normal conversation, just chit-chatting to kill time, minus the meanness. I actually thought things were maybe changing from me walking on eggshells around him to me being able to be friends with him again, when suddenly he stopped talking, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, "You know, you're so cool. If you just changed up your hair and clothes a little you could be cool like us."  I was floored. People aren't supposed to actually say that out loud, are they? But he did. I'm sure he was just trying to throw me a bone since we had been good friends for a long time. He was trying to *help.* And although I appreciated it, and his honesty, I was suddenly okay with my in-between place. I picked my metaphorical jaw off the floor and very eloquently said, "Nah. I'm good." I'd think that would've pretty much stopped that conversation, but everything after that is kinda fuzzy.

Once we moved and I started high school I went through a few more transformations before landing in my comfortable self. I was all over the place for a while, still trying to fit into what others wanted me to be. So still, no label that stuck. And it definitely helped that my high school was *tiny.* There was not a lot of  grouping off in my class, as in groups that excluded others, but there were a couple of people that were pretty much anti-the-rest-of-the-class. With under 30 people in our graduating class, it was kind of noticeable. I was the wise-cracking smart-ass who usually wore a band tee-shirt (usually black) with jeans, wore converse sneakers, had an eyebrow ring. But still, with no "groups," there weren't really "labels." And I'm happy to say the people I was closest to at graduation are the people I'm still close to today, even though we may not have anything in common but our friendships and our abilities to always have a blast together.

I'm a more complete person now than I was then. I'm comfortable with my love of jeans/band tees and with my love of cute dresses and skirts, with sneakers and flats, with goofy slapstick comedy and snarky political humor, with heavy metal and Katy Perry, with retail or factory work, with blockbuster movies and indie films, with being a homebody and loving to travel looooong distances with friends or family, with hating cleaning and loving to watch shows about it on HGTV, with being extremely compassionate at times and cold and unyielding at other times.

Labels are easy to use for those we think we're never going to interact with, or when you're sitting in a restaurant or otherwise out in public trying to have some fun observing the masses. We all do it, and that's okay. But once you actually spend time around someone, and you definitely should before forming an opinion about them, you should be able to see them as the individual they are rather than the label you originally applied to them. People sometimes live down to their labels, often suppressing those other wonderful aspects of themselves that don't fit within that label. Because everyone has those conflicting things about themselves that they love, and how the hell are you supposed to stick just one label on that?

I don't have children yet, but I sincerely hope that when/if I do I will be able to pass that lesson on. I'm guilty of labeling at times, but I try not to let a preconceived label keep me from getting to know someone better in order to replace that label with their name. As in, "That's So-And-So. She's awesome." Or hell, maybe she's not. But I'll give her quite a few chances to show me.

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