Quite often people chide me for describing myself through the use or rejection of a particular label. When I say I’m something – like a nerd – they go “no you’re not”. When I say I’m not something – like an artist – they go “yes you are”. Still others insist I do not need labels at all, that using them is limiting. These ones say things like “imagine how you could be if you were free from these lexical restraints!”
None of these opinions are helpful. People who say “yes you are/no you’re not” are contradicting my lived experience (even though they are usually well-meaning). They think they know me better than I know myself and obviously they do not.
Those who give the “set yourself free” speech demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of Indira. They think I am shackled and scared, that with encouragement I will face my fears and bloom and soar and throw off society’s norms and embrace my true self and shoot through the stars like a blazing comet and who cares what anybody thinks and you are perfect just as you are. A plethora of wrong (and gross) assumptions.
I find labels and the act of thoughtfully rejecting or accepting them empowering, satisfying and helpful (and never limiting. I can always do whatever the fuck I want). I love the label life.
This is in part because the individual labels I use (‘use’ meaning both accept and reject) have established discourses and can act like shortcuts. Everyone ‘knows’ for example, what you mean when you say ‘nerd’. Everyone knows nerds work in tricky jobs and that they’re studious, awkward and wear glasses.
Yes, this socially constructed mass-version of ‘nerd’ is superficial, but a definition-lite label is still useful. It provides a fast way to introduce and explain who I am. It means that when I say I’m a nerd, others already have the basics and I only need to add a couple of things to make the label properly fit.
This is for those outside of my community/ies. Those inside generally have a more nuanced understanding of what my labels mean, and minimal qualifying is required. This is the world of the deep definition, where I can say I’m a nerd and others will nod and go “oh yeh, you are” and nothing more need be said.
Whether light or deep definition, a label is an efficient and speedy way to introduce myself. The method also has brain benefits. It reduces my cognitive load. It means I do not have to explain to every new person that I like research and what kind exactly and why. A subconsciously trundled out ‘nerd’ is a perfectly adequate alternative, one that frees-up my working memory so can focus on more interesting things.
Labels also help my generally precarious mood. They give me something to hold onto, ground me. They quell the anxiety that accompanies the thought of trying to provide an unbounded impossible exhausting explanation of the complexity that is me. (It’s important to note that ‘grounded’ is not the same as ‘limited’. A label does not stop me from going wherever I want to go but it does provide a comforting place for return).
I also consider the labels I choose to use (or not use) as accurate. The superficial version says just enough and the deeper definition really captures something of who I am.
So here are the main ones with explanations of how and why they work. And I do not consider any of them to be in conflict.
I am a nerd because I love to learn, think and understand. I love the frustrated inadequate feeling at the start of this process. I love the search for information and the related pondering. I love the brain forcing and conceptual revisiting. I love the revelation and connection-making and the carving of new synaptic trails. I love the satisfaction and the increase in my comprehension of the world. I love using words like 'chide' in the first sentences of blogposts.
I also love the things that traditionally scaffold these processes – a purpose or need; a carefully constructed question; a deadline; time and resource to read and write; and a really sharp pencil. These are the things that make me a nerd, the context within which I do them is irrelevant. I do them all over the place.**
In a my-community definition-deep situation others know that all of this is what the label ‘nerd’ means. In a definition-lite introduction situation, others know ‘nerd’ means I’m studious, awkward and they can see I wear glasses. To personalize the label I just say something like I love to learn and I find deadlines helpful. Done.
Nerd is one of those labels that many people think is derogatory. Often when I say I’m one people think I’m exercising some kind of self-hatred and they leap to a caring “no you’re not!” defence. So saying that I am happy and proud to be a nerd is one of the things I sometimes also have to do. It’s no biggie.
I am a punk because I listen to others but will say what I think. I have an open mind but I also have boundaries and I hold true to my opinions and values. I call people out on their racism, sexism and selfishness, even when it is scary or exhausting or doomed to fail.
I am a punk because I make things for the sake of making them. I make pictures and music and paper mache plesiosaurs, I write blogposts and essays, I make things alone and I make things with others. I believe everyone can and should make things and I do not believe made things have to be competently done so or universally admired or commercially viable or tasteful to be beautiful and important. I lean towards an honest singular silly serious scumbag aesthetic.
I try to support others in their own punkness and value the support others give me. In the my-community definition-deep context others know that all of this is what the label ‘punk’ means. When I am involved in a definition-lite introduction the other person is sometimes a bit confused when I say I am a ‘punk’. They might say something like “but you don’t have a mohawk”. Then I will something like, say “no, but I do look how I want to look” and then it is sorted.
Bipolar is a tricky one because to me it is not so much a label as it is the name of my chronic health condition. But there is and has been for a long time lots of debate about the idea of mental illness diagnoses as ‘labels’ so it feels appropriate to include it.
Some people do not like to be described as having a particular mental illness, in this case bipolar. There seem to be many legitimate reasons for this, including bad experiences with and/or distrust of the medical system; the idea that bipolar is not a health condition at all, just a different way of being; fear of others finding out you have it; a view of the label as imposed by a conformist society; bipolar as a trigger term; a sense of being limited by the word; and disagreement with the diagnosis. Whatever the reason, I defend an individual’s right to reject ‘bipolar’ and to describe themselves however the fuck they want.
But none of these things hold true for me and I do not reject the label. I am down with the medical model. In my mid-twenties, after years of being intermittently, bewilderingly and frighteningly crackers, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The psychiatrist who did it was very calm and clinical and she gave a great explanation. Upon finding out I was experiencing an actual thing with an actual name, my body turned inside-out and my mind exploded and I cried non-stop for about 3 hours. The term ‘bipolar’ gave me relief and power (I’m not going to go into why or how. It's all a bit much for here and now).
This label is a little more problematic than the previous two, particularly in a definition-lite situation. Some people get scared by the word and what they think it means and there is massive potential for weird reactions of all kinds. It requires a little more scaffolding than ‘nerd’. For these reasons It’s not something I ever lead with (it’s important to know though that I am not ashamed and when it’s appropriate, I will totally talk about it).
I reject ‘artist’ and ‘musician’ for the same reason. I say these labels are for those who have made some kind of life-devotion to their practice (this may be emotional, actual, professional, there are a whole bunch of ways to do it). ‘Artist’ and ‘musician’ are for those who consciously work to develop, advance, substantiate, explore and extend how, why and whatever it is they do; someone for whom making art and/or music is essential, a deep part of their identity (the form or ‘quality’ of what they make is irrelevant).
I am not the above. Music and art are things I do but they are not who I am. They are not for me a singular focus or a burning necessity. I do not consciously work at getting better or extending the medium or exploring genres or movements or communicating important ideas. For me music and art are fun, compulsive, social, and blatant.
I like it like this and my refusal to use the labels in no way implies a hierarchy or quality judgement or lack of self-confidence. I know I am good at making stuff and describing myself as someone who does so is no less worthy than describing myself as a ‘musician’ or ‘artist’. Also once I tried on ‘artist’ and it just felt all wrong, kind of greasy. I quickly abandoned it and generally like to pretend this didn’t happen.
So please do not correct me and say “yes you are a musician / artist!” as you so often do. I know you mean well but honestly, you’re missing the point.
I know a few women who identify as witches and I am always amazed at their bravery. To me it is the most powerful of labels, not one to be lightly claimed.
To be a witch of any kind is to imbibe yourself with purpose and to undertake a life of hard helpful joyful awful dangerous work in its service. You need to know all the inner and outer parts of yourself and when and how to use them. I know two real witches and when they want to they can make the water in a glass of flowers sparkle, make you notice necessary things, make the wind blow and make the best cup of tea.
Being a witch is big deal. I am not a witch, my magic is too small and my life is too bitsy and I am too anxious. It’s not for me.
*this is in contrast to ‘geek’ where context is crucial. Geeks may behave like nerds but only do so in relation to computers, role playing games, comics, science fiction and other geek-canon things. I do not think I am a geek.
**you can read about punk goddess Linda McCartney here