Home > Daily Special

Names, Labels and Lists

By Kellie Purcill

“Hi, my name’s Kellie/Kel/Sister George, and I – what?” What comes next? In the past month I’ve had to write a bio paragraph and introduce myself to three different groups. Each situation was far from simple or easy. Sure, some parts were fairly constant. Like my name. The fact that I have kids is usually mentioned. But mostly, what else is included is subject to change without notice.

Because really – what IS in a name? Not just the name that our parents decide to saddle, gift or burden us with, but all the other names we give ourselves, or accept, or can’t seem to shake off. Names, or labels, put us in certain categories and out of others, and frankly some distinctions I refuse to add to my list.

Case in point – when asked, or required, I state that I am a sole parent, and not a single Mum. Some may see it as splitting hairs, but I identify much more with being the sole parent of my sons than in being a Mum who is single. Which leads to the classification looming on my horizon – in 4 days, when my divorce becomes final, I am not adding “divorced” to my own personal list of labels.

I’m not adding “single” either, but “divorced” has no relevance to who I am as a person. Does it? Does it have to apply? Particularly considering I don’t like the connotations and baggage associated with the term, even though it is a classification that I can’t dodge. Why does THAT term have to carry such weight, in the sum of who I am?

I know that I am more than the total of my summarized past experiences, but the importance we give to words are difficult to cast off. The word associations that hang off names and categories are stubborn (and often illogical). Unborn children are not called Helen because “I went to school with a Helen and she was fat and mean.” Who would you rather be compared to in conversation – a Ruth or a Jezebel? Redheads have a temper, blondes are dumb, brunettes are needed for the joke’s punch line – yes and no and maybe only sometimes or often. Military personnel (past or present) have assumptions made about them, based on nothing other than a uniform, a hair cut or a news bulletin. The examples are endless.

I may not be able to alter which words others use about me, but I want to choose the words that define who I am. I read the words that are used in the scriptures, and it’s clear that words and names convey important qualities of people. Just as the many names of Christ – Wonderful, Prince of Peace and Savior – give more depth and understanding, so do the words we choose to use to describe ourselves (and each other) add to how we see ourselves (and each other).

I am more than random, planned, or unexpected events in my past. I am more than my genes, or my location. Telling you that I’m a redhead, an Australian and nearly completely finished with the divorce process gives you some idea of what I may look like, or sound like, and tell you what sort of things we could talk about. But doesn’t the fact that I’m a woman who doesn’t like having sticky fingers and inhales science-fiction, tell you just as much – or more?

What are words, names or labels you use to describe yourself? What are words, labels or phrases you don’t use, or use instead – and why? Are there names that others/society gives you that you refuse to accept? What is a fact about you that is a peek into who you really are? Do you have word associations that affect what you do/think/say?

About Kellie Purcill

lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

22 thoughts on “Names, Labels and Lists”

  1. Great post. I'd never before thought of how "divorced" so completely traps someone by the past: so backwards looking.

    My unwanted label is SAHM (stay at home mom). I am raising my children. I do not stay at home much. To me SAHM seems sort of lazy and passive. But I know that label is fraught with all kinds of complications, so I don't spend a lot of time correcting others.

  2. Too many labels. And yes, yes and yes to all your questions. It so often seems that the activities we do are the defining labels – runner, writer, chef, artist, whatever.

    Some of those labels are difficult to let go of (runner no more!), some of them are uncomfortable to hold on to (disciplinarian?), but the most difficult thing for me is to try and define myself by something more than what I DO. If I were to be rendered physically useless tomorrow, who would I be? I want to rewrite my labels to be who I am, not what I do.

    And I have no idea how I'm labeled by others – I don't want to care.

  3. Red-head, little, quiet, stubborn. I get those the most. And it's not like I ask people to tell me what they think of me, for some reason they freely share it. Maybe they're just trying to justify my appearance to themselves. I have no idea. One time I stopped talking to a guy I worked under because he compared my hair to an orange shirt I had to wear. So he would add sensitive and strange to the list.

    I like how you said "sole parent." Because, you know, that's what you are. You don't share any real parenting responsibility with your almost-former spouse. He's left it all up to you. We could even say the same thing about my mom even though my dad was around. For the most part, he just supplied funding. Very interesting label you've given yourself.

  4. Sole parent implies there isn't another parent. Is that really the case? The other parent might not be a particularly good parent, but has is abdicated his position entirely, or just somewhat?
    I am a little sad that someone who provides food, shelter and money to provide for his children doesn't get any credit for it in some people's opinion. Tay's dad might have been a poor father, but he did do something. "Just supplied funding" meant that the mother didn't have to supply funding and was free to be a parent in ways that she couldn't have if she was also supplying al the funding?
    Of course these days we just let the government help out so we really don't bother giving credit to parents who actually supply funding out of their own free will.

  5. I've been introducing myself a lot lately and I've noticed something similar. I compared it to playing a card came. There are some cards I'll play long before others. I want people to know certain things about me, certain labels, certain names, before they find out about what else I do.

    I tell people I'm in graduate school long before I tell them I'm a newlywed because of the assumptions that go with each. Each carries a different weight with it.

    It's real interesting to look at how we define ourselves and then how others possibly define us.

  6. Interesting, I always used the term "single mom" because I wanted people to see that not all single mom's fitted into the stereotype. I am a newly married former single mom who put herself through law school. I am now legal counsel for a standing committee of a state legislature. I am a wife, mother, lawyer, pregnant person, and many other things. I think we can change the meaning of some labels if we are willing to show people how the negatives don't apply to us.

  7. jks – I see what you're saying. It does sound very insensitive and ungrateful. But sometimes the details are complicated. Thank you for pointing that out.

  8. I think any time we start caring too much about semantics we open too many doors that lead to being offended, being offensive, or limiting what we see in ourselves and others. jks's comment is a terrific case in point. I recently had a friend get upset when another friend said her kids 'are' adopted, saying that it was a one time event and that they 'were' adopted, not 'are' adopted.

    I don't care what people call me (I think). I don't care how people define me (I think). But nobody's recently asked me to describe myself, so maybe its easier for me because I don't have to think about too hard…

    "But doesn’t the fact that I’m a woman who doesn’t like having sticky fingers and inhales science-fiction, tell you just as much – or more?"

    Most def- yes! And that is the kind of description that would get me and you chatting away!

  9. Interesting in many ways. I can think of some names I don't care for. I have to admit that I prefer being called Mummy to Mum, as Mum just sounds old and makes me feel older. However, the one 'label' that drives me insane is at church if people call me Sister Bishop!!!No, no, no. I still have a name, not a calling as the Bishop's wife. I just find it rude and not funny at all.

    As a child I was the clever one and not the pretty one. I love being clever but it took me years to come to terms with my looks partly due to what I would hear about myself. I now feel I look o.k., but never pretty. What we hear does affect our self esteem.

  10. ESO – that's a point I hadn't considered.

    Red – SAHM is an excellent example of a name that means different things to different people. I see the term and wonder what the acronym is for Mums that don't stay at home – for whatever reason!

    Justine – "I want to rewrite my labels to be who I am, not what I do." Me too.

    Tay & JKS – your points are what lead me to write this post. Even the labels we give ourselves mean/imply different things to others.

    Laurie – "I think we can change the meaning of some labels if we are willing to show people how the negatives don’t apply to us." Again, a perspective I hadn't thought of! (And a brave one!)

    Tay (again) – yep, sometimes the details ARE complicated, and hard to understand fully from a single name/label. Thank you!

    Carrie – you hit on an important point, that descriptions work better than labels for all sorts of reasons (particularly with books!)

    Kay – Sr Bishop? Really? Wow. And amen to what we hear/are labelled affecting our self esteem.

  11. Your post reminded me of a woman in my ward. I got to know her well when we both attended another ward. When the boundaries for the units were changed she talked in church and introduced herself. She said that she had 5 grown children and is married to Bob. Then went on to give her talk.

    Her brief bio was strange to me because Bob is her husband of 9 months, and he isn't old enough to be the father of those 5 grown kids. Her divorce was an ugly thing and she is still grappling with the damage done to herself and her children by her ex. I did feel it was disingenuous for her not to mention her divorce. I think she also did herself a disservice, because by not mentioning it gives the hint that there is shame in divorce. How will the Mormon community ever come to accept and understand divorce if good people who've been through it pretend it didn't happen?

    My friend is an amazingly strong woman who is working very hard to gain what she thought she had with a man who shared her life and lied to her. That is something that shows her strength, not a shame.

    Whatever I'm labeled with – SAHM, formerly depressed, Mormon, etc. – I hope that I give the world a good example of what that means and even change some attitudes.

  12. So Kellie and Selwyn are the same person?

    "Labels" are just words. They are not things we have tattooed on our foreheads. They are not edicts. Sometimes the words used to describe us are more precise, sometimes they're more ambiguous. Sometimes we equate words used to describe us as labels.

    Accept the positive words used to describe you, consiser the value of the negative words, and brush off the stupid or ignorant words used to describe you. Even when it is yourself doing the describing.

    Different "labels" can have different values depending on your company. While "divorced" may have no bearing in one set of associates, it may be very valid in another set.

  13. This is such an interesting post that I want to think about it further by answering your questions:

    What are words, names or labels you use to describe yourself?

    married, mom, grandma, poet, writer, blogger, binge reader, craft-challenged, blind as a bat, short

    What are words, labels or phrases you don’t use, or use instead – and why?

    I call myself a writer instead of an author because I don't like to limit myself to books. I don't call myself "fat." I prefer "overweight," or I say that I am plump as a partridge or look like Mrs. Santa Claus (which I do, by the way). I rarely call myself a wife because the term feels limiting, somehow, but I'm very comfortable saying I am married.

    Are there names that others/society gives you that you refuse to accept?

    Yes, obese. My doctor says if you are 30 pounds over the standard weight for your age and height, you are obese, yet no one would look at me and say I was obese. Including myself. (Maybe I should! It might motivate me more.) Other than that, I'm pretty thick-skinned about labeling.

    What is a fact about you that is a peek into who you really are?

    I have a really good feel for people and situations, almost a sixth sense. And I am a loyal friend who can keep a confidence.

    Do you have word associations that affect what you do/think/say?

    I do have them, but because I am aware of them and their etymology, I usually manage not to allow them color what I do, think. or say.

    Thanks for the post. Really gave me something to think about.

  14. Thanks for this thought provoking post Kellie.

    I often use labels when describing others and I'm mad at myself even as I say the words: single, mother-of-3, divorced, working mom, Republican etc. I know the labels only give a snapshot of 'who' they really are. I try to add in other descriptors such as: artist, fabulous cook, musician, incredible leader– I need to get better at this.

    In high school, I was always labeled as a brain. I remember a slight twinge of disappointment in college when my position on the cross-country team labeled me as an athlete. I missed being the brain! 😉

  15. Jendoop – your comment has given me a lot to think about. There definately is significant shame in LDS cultures about being divorced. I've usually used the term "surviving divorce" up to this point, and your comment has made me think maybe I use the term divorce for my own reasons, and say that I'm "a divorce survivor". Again, from me a HUGE thank you for your comment!

    Strollerblader – Yep, Selwyn is my blog name, IRL I'm Kellie. Pleased ta meet ya! 🙂 And YES to different situations = different labels! I've met amazing people due only to the fact of my separation and divorce, or my love of sci-fi, or my kids.

    Sue – fascinating answers. Dichotomy is everywhere, as you shared. Thank you!

    Michelle – adding descriptors to labels is a great idea. I'm going to practice that!

  16. Selwyn, I'm glad you saw my comment in a positive light, as it was intended. You have my support from across the globe, no matter your label!

    I did think of a label I hate: HOUSEWIFE! I am not married to a house!!!

  17. Kellie! I loved this thought-provoking post. I really enjoy writing homemaker on the line that says occupation. I know it is an old term, but I prefer it to sahm or housewife (for the same reasons as mentioned above). I like the term because I did make my home (was the general contractor for my home remodel and did lots of the work myself).

    I've been thinking lately how I need to label myself a bit more in hopes of rekindling passions. I say to myself–"I am a dancer" and I will myself to work out longer in hopes of finding my college dancer's body in here somewhere. Or I say I am an artist and I will get my stuff together again and start creating something.

    But mostly I identify myself as "Mother of Five!"

    Thanks for always sharing your ideas so beautifully.

  18. I can see it both ways. I think that sometimes it helps people to know what we have been through or are experiencing. I don't like to be defined by my chronic illness, but I talk about it pretty freely because I think it's too easy for us to paint a picture for others that isn't really real, either. I am one who appreciates knowing about others' lives a little.

    For example, I know you don't want to be defined as a divorced woman, Kellie, but I think what you have been through helps give context for who you are — a strong and capable woman. Does that make sense? Maybe we can separate out what we have experienced by what kind of person we are trying to be, what we love about ourselves, our passions, etc.

    On a related note, I think about Elder Oaks' talk about becoming vs. doing. And I think of the Savior's title, "I AM." I think it's so easy to get caught in the measurable, externally-validated kinds of 'do's in our lives. But ultimately we are here to become. That is hard to capture when introducing ourselves to others ("I feel I'm growing and progressing, even though I know I seem like a wreck"), and hard to measure, but I see it as essential in the path of faith to have confidence in the process of becoming.

    (I think about that a lot as my ability to 'do' has been lessened through my health struggles. And I have to go to that place of trusting in the growth even though I am kind of a wreck in a lot of ways. 🙂 )

  19. Housewife = house fly to me.
    Stay at home mom = prisoner of my home
    At home mom or full time mom just feels right.

    I love to just get it out that I am a democrat and hope that by knowing that, my friends who are primarily republicans won't say things that would intentionally hurt my feelings.

    Sister– I love this label. It makes me feel wise and helps me want to be better than I am.

    It's funny how some labels appeal to some people and repulse others. Thanks for this interesting piece.

  20. On the subject of the word divorced:

    I think it has less negative connotation for those who have experienced it (Sometimes much later after the initial pain is scarred over). I think much of its baggage comes from the fear of the unknown. My parents divorced when I was nine. I eventually realized that divorce isn't always a three horned fire breathing monster. Many, many, nice, normal people have that adjective applied to themselves or their loved ones. It's just a word. It has the power we let it have. (In my opinion, which has often been wrong. Oh well.)


Leave a Comment