Labels: Who Needs Them?
By Ebele Mogo
I had not been to the gym in months and watching my Yoga instructor saunter across the room so gracefully while I tried hard to remember poses I had not tried in months, I played around with three thoughts:
1. I smiled at myself in my mind, this Nigerian girl in a room full of fit, Lululemon-loving North Americans. It’s the same smile I smiled at myself when I went hiking in the UK and my friend was asking me why a mountain was minding its business and both of us decided to go and climb it – something that may be considered strange and funny by some fellow Africans.
2. I found myself astonished by how poetic a yoga instructor can make the awkward contortions of your body sound while being very exact. I am not sure I have those many words for my body’s movements.
3. I realized that there were many things that I could guess about the instructor from his disposition and the day I talked to him outside of classes I found myself right about them. In the same way people close to me can make guesses about me that are right. My mum may say, “I saw this girl and she reminded me of you,” or my friend will say, “Eby, you should visit this place, you will like it.” And they can be right about these things.
People can pick up a certain archetypal sense of who we are.
The other day, my friend told me that as long as we are human, we really aren’t that different. That is so true. If you and I intersect along certain lines and labels we are probably likely to be more able to see what the other is trying to articulate and thus support one another.
It is also true that labels cannot even begin to do justice to our complexity.
I would like to think so, having had to hold complexities in myself — complexities like reservedness alongside irreverence, being an old soul and yet always the youngest in my cohort, being ambitious and childishly playful, being adventurous and yet analytical.
I hold what would be seen as a feminine disposition alongside what may be traditionally considered a more masculine energy that often had me competing with boys for first prize and disliking dresses most of my teens (that has changed).
I am both an artist and scientist — so much that I see the distinctions between those fields as artificial and limiting. Even my cultural identity has become complex from all these years of living all over the place.
These make it such that whatever boxes people try to place me in (especially when they are so sure of them), and their gauges of who I am often wind up a bit off.
I am not that different from you, am I?
We all have a huge depth of layers — a mystery beneath whatever labels we find ourselves in. This mystery is awful if you really think about it. Awful in the awe-inspiring, deep, profound way. But awful in a terrifying way too. You do not know me or anyone — not even those closest to you — as much as you may think. That has a terrifying dimension to it.
Because of this, labels can be dangerous. Labels can get presumptuous. Labels can be lazy. Labels can be arrogant. Labels can be reactionary. Labels can make us feel claustrophobic. We may be caught in that awkward place between what those labels say of us and all they leave unsaid.
Labels can also be gifts that remind us that we are not alone. They can be tools that unite us to do some great things together. They can connect us with people and places and experiences that help us belong, survive, situate ourselves and be more likely to find what we are looking for.
So maybe labels can be a good thing and the problem is actually in how we use them, the ways we rush conclusions out of them and the baggage we may bring to them.
Instead of being definitive, what if labels are simply a unique invitation?
Maybe that thin insufficient sliver of a label is an invitation to meet each other and to be pleasantly surprised. Knowing I share your sense of displacement is also a form of us being less displaced together. Knowing our uncanny intersection you may trust that I am likely to sense the shape of your complexity, to help it feel more at home, to respect its beauty and immensity. That is also a form of knowing you.
And doesn’t it feel good?