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Break the label machine

January 23rd, 2014

“Can you talk?”

Walking through the hallways between classes, sitting at my desk, playing outside during recess – it didn’t matter where I was; this simple yet mocking three-word question was jabbed at me daily when I was in elementary school. I guess my quietness had peaked to such an absurd, mind-boggling level that some of my classmates felt compelled to enforce the running joke that I didn’t know how to talk.

Usually I responded to their endless inquiries with the biting one-syllable response of “yes,” which probably didn’t do much to help my case. But opening up to others didn’t come easily to me, and when they pointed fingers at my shyness, it terrified me to imagine how they would judge me if I actually opened my mouth and voiced my thoughts.

I’ve come a long way since my elementary years, but the label my classmates branded me with years ago still haunts me every so often, and a pounding mantra tiptoes back into my thoughts: “You’re not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. Not normal, not normal, not normal.” I still encounter the occasional comment that I’m too shy or a passing joke that I never talk, usually by people who don’t know me very well. No matter how harmless they may seem, statements like this stab directly into my heart and shake the confidence that I will ever overcome the label of shyness.

Everyone has a story like mine in which they’ve been labeled or pigeonholed by others. I am even more certain of this after viewing the photography project and movement called “What I Be.”

Photographer Steve Rosenfield created a stunning collection of portraits of individuals with their deepest insecurities and most hurtful labels exposed and scrawled in ink across their skin. His social experiment provides visual evidence that every person endures a struggle. It also reveals that many people are grappling with the same issues and may not even realize it.

Some of the individuals Rosenfield photographed are trying to overcome the same label I identify with. There are eight images on his website filed under the tag “shyness/reserved.” One photo shows a man with the word “converse” boldly inked above his upper lip, the caption “I am not my shyness” displayed below his photograph.

Other captions read: “I am not my body image.” “I am not my depression.” “I am not my neediness.” “I am not my vices.” “I am not my failure.”

The vulnerability expressed in these images is equal parts powerful and beautiful.

“We don’t normally like to share our insecurities in the open due to people’s reactions,” said Rosenfield when explaining the intention of his project. “I mean, we all want to tell a story about ourselves, but sometimes don’t know how to do it. The ‘What I Be’ project allows everyone to do that in a way where we’re not judged or ridiculed. In fact, it’s the complete opposite: it’s a way to be accepted.”

There’s a TED talk video buzzing around the Internet given by a woman named Lizzie Velasquez, who was diagnosed with a rare syndrome at birth preventing her from gaining weight. In her talk, Velasquez details her discovery of an eight-second Youtube clip someone made about her, labeling her as the ugliest woman in the world and featuring comments declaring her a monster.

As hurtful as this horrid proclamation was to bear, along with the other bullying, harassing and labeling she has endured, Velasquez revealed what resulted from these experiences: Use the negativity in your life to make yourself better. Despite her unimaginable obstacles, Velasquez maintains a positive and humorous outlook on life, using the hurtful labels hurled her way as fuel.

This quote from her resonated with me above all: “You are the one who decides what defines you.”

The brave work of both Rosenfield and Velasquez have led to two revelations of my own: In the end, you are the only one who can accept (and slowly learn to embrace) the characteristics about yourself that you cannot change. You are also the only one who can shatter the labels surrounding you, whether they come from others or are self-enforced.  And realizing that you hold that power is a beautiful thing.