On Labels and Finding a Home

I have been told a lot that labels do not matter. I understand that, and I do not begrudge any person who does not feel like they need labels to define them. In fact, I think that is amazing. But dismissing labels is something that has never worked for me, and that’s okay.  

For the most part, humans want to categorize, to find groups, to find a home. This is so widely known that when psychological studies are created to study group behavior, they often arbitrarily create groups by simply telling the participants which group they belong to, and the participants will behave in a manner that favors the group they were assigned to at the expense of the other group.  

Social psychologist Marianne Brewer theorizes that there is a fundamental tension needed between the need to assimilate within a group and the need to maintain uniqueness (source). This concept, called the Optimal Distinctiveness Model, posits that we identify most strongly with groups which offer us both assimilation and differentiation. In my unscientific case study of one, I can say that this theory fits very well.

When I was in my early teen years, confused and alone, I found a safe space in labels. Having a label meant that there were other people out there who also identified with that label. People with whom I could find a home.  

I cannot deny that a lot of this growth took place over Tumblr. It is something to laugh about today, but I do not want to disparage the power that a community like that can have. Tumblr is a space that many marginalized people gather, especially queer women. It is definitely not a perfect space. It can be toxic at times, and I have been a part of that toxicity at points in my life.  

Tumblr is home for cancel culture, for calling out children for problematic behavior, for exposing and shaming. It's also home to pro-ana and pro-mia communities, which promote eating disorders. Keep your eye out for an entire article about that next week!

But despite its problematic nature, Tumblr was a place that I was able to find myself. There were so many labels to choose from, and I could find the ones that fit me best.

Sexual orientation. Gender identity. Astrological sign. Myers-Briggs Type (which, as a psychology major, I feel I am legally obligated to tell you is garbage). Fandoms. Religion.  

For reasons too complicated to go into for this article, I first identified as asexual, a woman, technically a Leo (although it really does not fit me), ISTJ, SuperWhoLock (unfortunately), atheist. Nearly all of these labels have changed since my first Tumblr years, some for the better. But there was comfort in them when I held them.  

That is the most important point to emphasize. There is comfort in labels. They may not stay with you your whole life. They probably will not. You will find new labels, discard old ones, and maybe pick them up later in life.

You cannot change some labels. I am not straight passing, so unless I decide to drastically change the way I style myself, society is going to see me as a lesbian. I am okay with that. But the way I present myself has changed over the years. People who did not know me in high school are often not aware that I used to be very fem. That has changed a lot, for complicated reasons.

Labels change, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable and important. And there is comfort and home to be found. Humans want to belong, but not to completely assimilate. And finding a variety of labels that fit you allows you to find those groups but still maintain your own individuality.