Labels Pigeonhole Teen Identity

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

People love to belong. Human desire to classify, sort, and label ourselves and others stems from a want to find commonalities with those around us—but also to define boundaries between us and them.

Such classification, easily reducing identity to a set of simple terms, stifles self-exploration and growth.

Gender, race, sexuality, personality, intelligence. My entire identity, succinctly put: female, white, straight, introvert, smart. Our classification is confining, to say the least.

On some level, I understand our obsession with labels. It’s easy to describe oneself with a few adjectives, and language itself depends on categorization to make sense of the world. Because we are trained to define, to explain, and to categorize, it’s easy to feel lost without a label.

The mass popularity of personality quizzes—from MBTI to horoscopes to moral alignment—supports this desire. In the age of Buzzfeed, who even are we if we don’t know what Magic School Bus character we are based on our zodiac sign?

Mass connectivity through the internet has given us nearly unlimited avenues to understand and further categorize ourselves. But we tread a fine line between information and obsession in the digital age— from access to untapped knowledge through unlimited sources of news, blogs, and research papers to a spiral down a rabbit hole through the dark web that lands you in the middle of a Reddit forum.

In between these extremes, we’re allowed not just a glimpse, but a panoramic shot of the inner workings of the minds of millions. Our generation has come of age with online platforms, has documented our thoughts prolifically, and has made sizable additions to humanity’s dictionary. Often, the breadth of 21st-century vernacular shows a borderline-unhealthy fixation on categorization that reveals a questionable obsession with labeling ourselves.

This generation’s exploration in defining gender is an especially telling example of our struggle with identity, as cultivated by the internet.

A quick Google search for the complete list of genders delivered me a list on Wattpad 13 pages long with 100s of identities that read as more of a cry for help than anything else. Among the highlights were “batgender” (a gender that feels more intense during the night) and “chaosgender” (a gender that does a lot of things that have no identifiable pattern or logic). I am accepting of others and how they choose to identify, and I support that everyone follows a different path in discovering themselves, but… was this a joke?

The comment section similarly echoed my disbelief. “Sometimes I find it really hard to be accepting,” lamented one user.

That teenagers struggle to understand themselves as they reach adulthood is no secret, but I believe that none of us (or at least most) can fully label ourselves at this stage in our life because we are situated in the middle of a period of growth. I respect and relate to those who question who they are and who they’ll be. I recognize that many people can definitively categorize themselves and feel satisfied with the sense of finality this creates. For many of us, that isn’t the case. Yet the pressure to understand and define ourselves right now remains—not just imposed by our peers, but by ourselves. It is harmful to our development to feel pigeonholed, and we must understand that.

Our fixation on labels and gender also beg the question: is this “identity” really… our identity? Do words such as these really encapsulate all that we want to say about ourselves? Labels can be self-prophetic, so when we do settle on one, does that chain us down to it for the rest of our life?

I understand that as young people, we’re all still finding our own way. To feel understood, finally, and to feel like someone out there has put into words how you feel—or to recognize yourself in terms that don’t fit within society’s rigid binary—it’s a relief. Having the ability to answer questions of identity, previously too taboo to utter aloud, is unique to our generation. And having words to define ourselves affects how we present ourselves in public, largely helping us to achieve greater comfort. This should not be delegitimized.

Sometimes, though, categorization indicates insecurity that results from the tremendous pressure we put on ourselves. We must understand that we have the ability to change our minds and that the problem with labels is that they cannot be enough. We must not accept superficial labels as a replacement for the deeper act of true self-discovery.

We need to find the middle ground between the strict binary gender system and the superfluous snowstorm of genders that vocalize a desperate attempt to categorize every aspect of ourselves.

Understanding oneself will never be as cut and dry as the result of a personality quiz. We must not force it to be.