What am I? It depends who you ask, but I have a sheaf of business cards, conference badges and lanyards, online profiles and official documents that seek to answer that question. I’m a UK citizen. A medical journalist. A WordPress blogger, a would-be novelist, a wife, a BMJ member of staff, member of Canoe England, Friend of Dulwich Picture Gallery, NHS patient, daughter, constituent.
At the weekend I went to my first TEDx conference, where my friend Yang-May Ooi (novelist, story-teller, inspiration) was speaking. The lanyard hanging around my neck gave my name, and suggested I finish a sentence that began: ‘Talk to me about…’. As the theme of the conference was ‘Un-labelled’, this was a crafty way of allowing me to define myself for the day. Like a twit, I put ‘books and writing’, which meant a lot of explaining that no, I hadn’t finished the book yet, but I would one day. Yang-May put ‘your first love’, which I suspect started some more interesting conversations.
The theme asked us to think about which labels hold us back, and which we use to dismiss people or think that their lives are unimportant to us. There were some fascinating correlations. For example, I’d never heard anyone explicitly compare female genital mutilation (which we tend to label an African problem) to the breast enlargement cosmetic surgery promoted to young women in the UK. Yet as FGM campaigner Leyla Hussain said, these are both cases of girls being told that their natural bodies are not good enough, and being subjected to surgery to ‘correct’ them.
Baillie Aaron challenged us to think about our blanket dismissal of ex-offenders from the job market. Discrimination on grounds of criminal record is something I’d not really thought about before. As she asked, do we really think ‘once a thief, always a thief’? And if so, what possible future can young ex-offenders have on their release from prison? Her charity Spark Inside is trying to help them find one. But maybe we should all think again about that particular label.
One label that women shrank away from in recent decades was that of feminist. ‘It depends what you mean by feminism,’ people used to quaver, or ‘I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but…’. The image attached to the label by some was that feminists were angry, ugly, aggressive misfits – the term became an insult, instead of a badge of pride. It took courage to shrug and say, actually, yes, I’m a feminist. This is what I believe.
I was relieved that there was little debate about this particular label on the day. The room was full of women and men of different ages and ethnicities, gathered to talk about equality and freedom for women all over the world. Many of us were happy to call ourselves feminist, but that didn’t seem terrifically important. It certainly wasn’t worth arguing about, when there was so much else to debate.
Getting away from the labels brought an electrifying moment at the end of the day. Yang-May held the audience spell-bound with a poignant, funny story about how fear of being labelled for her sexuality caused the loss of her first love – and almost cost her much more. But she’s a courageous woman, and she broke through her fear. Describing her first kiss with a woman, she explained how she finally thought ‘F*** the labels!’ The room broke into spontaneous cheering, and at the end we all rose to our feet to repeat the phrase, as a joyous shout of rebellion.
So do we need labels at all? ‘What am I?’ provides a useful short-hand, a quick answer to a question at a party or an introduction to a new colleague. But it’s no way to encapsulate your identity in the cold dark reaches of the night. Who am I? Now that’s a more complicated question.