“Look it’s that skinny girl from our class”, “Please do not give this task to him, he is not meticulous”, we hear many such statements from people around us or say it ourselves too. It may not seem harmful, but it can have negative effects on people.
Labeling people can be defined as using tags, names, or phrases to describe them or their actions. It is usually restrictive and damaging. Labels have been around for a long time; it is an effective way to connect and link people to ideas. But often these labels turn to be negatively associated with people.
We all have different reactions to different labels. Look at the image below:
Every label is associated with some emotion; you may feel different emotions like anger, sadness, happiness or emotional. They are often words that describe your opinions, appearance, certain character traits or a stereotype.
Labelling begins at a very young age. When a child is born, everyone wants to know if it is a boy or a girl. When the baby is born, according to gender, they start labelling them by buying only pink things or dolls for girls and buying cars, swords, and blue stuff for the boy. Did you ever wonder, in the current trends of gender reveals, why is it just blue or pink colour to specify the genders? Even before a baby is born, they are labelled by associating a particular colour to them. There is nothing wrong about this; it is just an example of how labels are around us without us even realizing.
Labelling is not used at just homes; it is highly prevalent in institutions such as the government, media, education sector, business etc. These are places that have a strong influence on our lives, be it religious or political views, how we perceive a particular individual or how we learn about specific labels as negative and some as positive. These labels are powerful and resistant to change; they are often automatic.
Labels used in school can significantly affect children as it hinders their growth and self-esteem. On the other hand, mental health labels can be harmful. With the existing stigma around mental illnesses, when a person with such conditions is labelled, it affects them by causing further damage. You may have often heard people say, ‘You are what you think”, different individuals deal with their labels differently. Some stand firm in the face of it and some shrink into it. Edwin Lemert (1972) a sociologist formulated the labelling theory where he describes that the way a person is described eventually explains their behaviour. Labelling some as deviant encourages them to be deviant.
But just like everything has two sides, although often negative effects of labelling are known, there are also some positive effects. Let us take a look at both these effects:
- Using positive labels can provide a mental boost. It can help someone strengthen their positive qualities.
- Labels like “learning disabled’ distinguish children with special needs and makes it easier to recognize them and provide with the extra support that is required.
- Teachers and caregivers can develop an effective IEP (Individual Education Plan) according to the child’s need.
- Labelling allows one to recognize their strengths and requirements, which can be useful to understand someone.
- Labelling someone can influence the opinion of others about that individual and how they are seen.
- A negative label causes people to have low expectations from the child or adult. This causes hindrance in obtaining appropriate opportunities due to such preconceived notions about them.
- Even positive labels such as ‘responsible’ and ‘mature’ at a young age can put a lot of pressure on children to behave accordingly to appease others and meet their expectations. This may harm the development of a child.
- Once labelled, it is very difficult to undo it.
- Labelling can be a self-esteem crusher. Just as the labelling theory suggests, when people continuously hear labels attached to them, they unconsciously succumb to that behaviour.
- Labelling in school can cause increased bullying. These labels are often linked with shame and embarrassment.
- Labelling can cause a decrease in performance.
What do we do now?
Schools are foundation institutions for learning and shape a lot of our thought process growing up. But they lack the ability to enhance individuality. Children must be dealt with care and love. Showing compassion instead of punishing and labelling children can make a big difference. It is essential to have positive affirmations in student life; they should be made aware of their strengths as children at different ages are often in self-doubt.
In the current era, most of the actions seek validation from others. As human beings, we all want to be loved, appreciated, and understood for who we are instead of placing everyone in specific boxes. We must learn to look beyond the labels of society, peers, and other institutions. In the time where #selflove and #beyou are trending, we do not embrace it as often as we post and talk about it. Lastly, the more difficult but a step towards change is to not use labels at all.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRwt25M5nGw
Labels have defined our existence for a long time, be it identity labels like black, white, Asian, or titles such as fat, beautiful, moody, and quirky. Labelling people has generally caused more harm than good. We have to keep growing, evolve and be more mindful of things we do and say. Next time you attach labels to someone, or someone does it to you, think about what kind of impact and effect it has. Next time you meet someone, do not just make assumptions about them label them as something they did or look like, look beyond these labels, and understand them. Include positive affirmation in daily life, and do not just be in that box, step out of it!