As the Label Goes…

My daughter is closing in on the final laps of a master’s degree in social work, and in the course of a recent conversation, she reminded me of the power of labels, particularly when applied to children and other inherently less influential entities.

As a kid,  I often heard that I was “big for my age.” I wasn’t particularly big, but the sister two years my senior was petite. Because I was bigger than her (I’m still three inches taller), my most frequent playmate and companion, the “big” label stuck, and I grew up thinking I was the wrong size. What a surprise, I am unequivocally too much of a good thing as an adult and have been for decades. (Though of course,  a fondness for good chocolate and other comestibles has also played a role in my avoirdupois.)

The self-fulfilling prophecy often rides in on a label of some sort–a “strong-willed child” might simply be a child whose parents have no radar for when the kid is tired or overwhelmed. A “stubborn” toddler might have been stuck with parents who lacked skill when it came to giving a child a sense of reasonable control over her life. The label goes on the child, not on the parents. And it sticks.

The upside to this process, though, is that we can also be labeled in a positive sense. I suspect that as a kid, I picked up some vocabulary a few years above grade-level simply because I have five articulate older siblings. When I whipped out those words, I got affirmed for it, and the “verbally inclined” label affixed itself to me from a young age. I then started listening for interesting words, remembering them, and trying them out in company. I pay my bills be wrangling words now, so maybe that label was a great gift, because neurologically, I don’ test as being all that naturally verbal.

In most fiction, part of what makes a story interesting is how the labels a character wears evolve and change as the tale troops along. The washed up detective becomes the canny outsider with a unique perspective. The acerbic spinster becomes a duchess who can knock the chip off the shoulder of an uppity dashing duke.

The transformation of labels is always challenging and messy, and takes a while. I am casting around now for labels that I like and that feel organic to me. Instead of “big,” maybe… stalwart? Vigorous? Substantial? Hmm. This will take some thought, but I suspect will be time well spent.

Have you handed back any labels from childhood or earlier in life? Have you taken on any new ones that you like better? I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for A Gentleman Fallen on Hard Times.

PS: Miss Devoted and Miss Dauntless are now available from the web store as audio books!

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19 comments on “As the Label Goes…

  1. That’s a fascinating concept, Grace! Handing back labels that we were given earlier in life. I really like most of the labels I was given. “Gifted,” “reader,” “organized.” I was also labeled a “strong-willed child” and I like that, actually. To stand up to my overbearing ass of a father, I needed to be strong willed, so I’m ok with that designation!

  2. I’ve traded back socially awkward to socially observant. Easier to see and appreciate human interactions from the fringes.

    FYI- I’d try out grounded as a new label.

  3. I’m OK with “fat” now. I’m short with platforms front and aft and will never appear thin, regardless of my weight. I’ve handed “unmotivated” back for “anxious.”

    My father had a whole list of euphemisms for overweight as he saw it. Healthy, sturdy, strapping, statuesque and voluptuous were some in ascending order.

  4. I am in the process of handing back some labels that stuck: lazy, liar, unmotivated, and, the worst of the worst, noncompliant. I was called a “lazy, fat cow” by a family member in my teens. That one stuck hard.
    They are all lies. Well, except for maybe the “noncompliant” one. I have to know and buy into what some people ask me to do. They see it as noncompliant. I see it as having my own wishes and wants.
    And not one of the “older and wiser” people giving me these labels took into account that I take a medicine that is famous for causing extreme fatigue and exhaustion. It took me about 50 years to realize what was really happening, too.

    The process to take on new labels is going to take time, but I’ll get there!

  5. My labels growing up mirror Make Kay’s, except for “strong-willed child.” I am the eldest and I think my parents were too busy with the 5 of us (we were close enough in age to all be teenagers at the same time) to do much more labelling. Instead, I was subtly (at least to me at the time) pushed in certain behavioral directions such as “don’t call attention to yourself” and “don’t pat yourself on the back.” I have learned to be proud of myself but in social situations, still tend to stay back unless there’s a really good reason to step up. I used to think I was shy (don’t know who put that label on me) but realized I was just introverted.

  6. Big: Majestic; zaftig (sort of dashing but also sounds a little like a zeppelin, so maybe not?); robust, sturdy, solid, strong, hardy …

    I like hardy the best, it sounds very healthy and as though you spend lots of time out-of-doors with no ill effects.

    I’ve gone from bossy – to organized
    And from nosy – to interested in others
    I’ve never been called stuck up, but you could say it’s simply someone with a more discerning taste.

    This might be a fun game to play at a family dinner.

  7. Being a perverse child, I took “doesn’t live up to potential” & “can’t hack rigorous academics” & turned it into a doctorate & overachieving.

    I think our Grace should get used to labels like “fabulous writer” or “literary genius” with a soupçon of “keen observer of humanity” for flavoring. Add a dash of “cat-loving horsey person”. Whatcha think?

  8. One summer when I was 9 or 10 years old, my dad cut my hair. Badly. By the time he was done it was very, very short. A couple of mean girls in my class called me Boy-girl. Those words stayed in my head for a long time. I was a gifted athlete and enjoyed all sports. I especially liked to play basketball. However, when I got to high school, rather than play the sports I loved, I kept hearing those words “Boy-girl” in my head. I tried being a cheerleader, but I didn’t fit in that social group. It wasn’t until I was in the Navy that I learned to appreciate my strong legs and athletic body. Labels are definitely powerful.

  9. Oh my goodness! I have a petite sister just 16 months older than me. I always felt gargantuan standing next to her. I believe I passed her up when we were maybe 3 & 4 years old. Nobody ever said anything but as you know “actions speak louder than words.” Go ahead and imagine, you probably won’t be far wrong. Looking back I can see that it wasn’t really true (except when I gained too much weight). I have tried all sorts of reframing but nothing has become permanent so far. Please share any good ideas.
    I also had learning problems so carried labels with that too. Imagine my astonishment in college to discover that I was rather bright. With the enthusiasm that came from learning what I wanted my grades did a 180.
    Now why did that just fall into place but the physical self image won’t budge?

  10. I was fat when I was a kid, and got my share of schoolyard jabs. I remember once I started making fun of a girl just to fit in, and the look on her face … I am still ashamed of that. It didn’t help that I went to first grade in one town, and when my parents moved, I started second grade in a new school in a different town where the other kids had grown up together.

    This wasn’t really a label, and I hesitate to share it, but one of the schoolyard chants for me was ‘Pam the ham, the big fat ham.’

    I will simply say that I think I turned out all right. I think the bullying actually made me stronger, more compassionate, introspective, and self-reliant.

  11. “Doesn’t live up to potential” is one that was definitely applied to me as a child. In my defense, nothing I ever did was good enough for my parents, so why bother trying? I learned that lesson by 4th grade. However, as I matured, and met more loving and understanding people, I began to shed that label. Part of me is still that insecure child inside, but repeated reinforcement by my husband, my kids, good friends and co-workers is cracking that shell to reveal a competent, hard worker, who perseveres and gets things done. Stay safe. Stay well everyone!

    • Tina, I hear you! Got a perfect score on my spelling test & Mom wanted to know if there wasn’t extra credit I could ask for! Sigh…

  12. I am a fraternal twin, five inches taller than my twin. What do you say to people when you are a child and they ask, “Why are you so much taller?” You learn early (after much discussion with your twin) to disregard what other people are asking and determine what you want to do. We also subconsciously didn’t compete against each in extracurricular activities and developed separate interests.

  13. I was shy and nothing makes it worse than having someone say “she’s shy”. I prefer “circumspect” or cautious.

  14. You have a perceptive daughter! Not surprising, given how deeply you delve into your characters.

    From a very young age I was labelled “sensitive” (as in, overly sensitive/weak). It took me decades to understand, at a gut level, that I was a mismatch with my parents, who were cerebral and uncomfortable with strong emotions. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own, and a husband who “got me” that I began to see myself as empathetic and in touch with emotions – my own and others’. That I could be strong in tandem with being sensitive – because of it, not in spite of it.

    I can’t write to you without thanking your for your books, most of which I have read many times over. Your writing skills, your depth of characters, and the relationships/families you bring to life create a world I love to inhabit.