Labels: A Strange Relationship

Head's Blogs

We have a strange relationship with labels; some labels we actively pursue, others we do all that we can to avoid.

By work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (Margaret Thatcher Foundation) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsReflections on how we are defined have been prompted by a number of recent events. Firstly, the reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death.  I wonder how she would have wanted to be defined – how she would have defined herself. Known as The Iron Lady in life, a name intended as an insult when given to her by a Communist newspaper, it became one she wore with pride.   In an  article in The Telegraph, Charles Moore wrote: “One should never forget the importance of the most obvious fact about Mrs Thatcher – that she was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. It made everything different. It meant public interest was feverish, and public recognition was certain. She stood out at once, without having to try, from all the suits around her. All over the world people wanted to see what the first woman was wearing and how she looked. They wanted to hear her voice, find out about her family life, learn where she shopped and what she cooked. Like corgis with the Queen or the cigar with Winston Churchill, the handbag became the trademark. In fact, it was much more important than those other totems, because it was also the symbol of her power – of female power.”

Margaret Thatcher was defined, both to the good and to the bad, by the fact that she was a woman. Perhaps this was and is why reactions to her are so extreme. When we think of a woman, we most commonly expect a certain softness in their nature; we expect a sense of the maternal – one who is predisposed to be more of the peace-maker than the war-mongerer. We equate womanhood with motherhood; anything other than this and we are likely to say that the woman is cold or in some way unnatural. Margaret Thatcher understood all of this. And she worked it expertly. She knew how to achieve what she wanted by playing to the label: she played on being a woman, represented by the iconic handbag, but underneath she had the heart and nature more typical of a man. She took the label and made it her own.

Labelling has become even more unwieldy with the advent of social network sites, a modern day defining phenomenon.
Paris Brown is the 17 year old who, having been appointed as the first Youth Police Commissioner, resigned after Tweets that she apparently made between the ages of 14 and 16 came to light, implying that she was racist, homophobic and irresponsible. Ms Brown wanted to convey a certain self online; she gave herself a label. By her own admission, she was showing off – trying to give a certain impression of herself to achieve some degree of popularity or notoriety. She certainly got more than she bargained for. How she chose to define herself online  meant that when she sought a different definition of herself, as a responsible, open-minded, decent person, the two definitions came into conflict. And the outcome was fairly bloody. She hopes others will learn from her mistakes; I think she is mistaken to think that anyone, other than those who know her personally, will moderate their choices when defining themselves online.


Atticus and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtMy thoughts on how we define ourselves were also stimulated by watching To Kill A Mockingbird recently. A story about prejudice and judgement, it is also a story about those who are strong enough to remain true to their own definition of themselves, even when being who you are invites trouble.


Living in line with who we are. That’s the trick.
We will each always be defined by others, whether we like it or not, and whether we deserve it or not. But it is how we define ourselves that matters.
In speaking to Cheadle Hulme School Year 11 students individually last term about their work and plans for the future, several spoke about how they already feel labelled. Significantly, some of these labels short change them, so I challenged them to not use any label as an excuse for being less than they can be. I told an assembled Year 11, after the interviews, that it is one’s  honest definition of oneself that matters. As one colleague said to me about their own expereince of being defined: “At some point I started to understand that other people’s opinions and ideas of what I should be doing were important, but they didn’t define me. I believe that I can only define the true me.”


Labels will put you in boxes so that you can be measured, assessed and predicted.  Taking the examples of Thatcher and Brown, I advised the students to think carefully about how they want to be defined and to make sure they earn the labels that they want to be known by.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”.

For a more modern view, Michael Stipe (lead singer of REM, for those too young to know better) says, “My feeling is that labels are for canned food… I am what I am – and I know what I am.

Head, Lucy Pearson

3 thoughts on “Labels: A Strange Relationship”

  1. Ooo you’ve just hit on a big passion of mine. Great blog thank you Lucy. I’ve just added CHS as my son will be there in Sept. I’ve been fascinated with the impact of labelling on children since learning about Becker’s labelling theory in A level sociology so many years ago. I love it that you challenge year 11s thinking and your philosophies in general. I do hope all this gets into the classroom too.
    Being your true authentic self is a great achievement and if children can learn and respect that what a fantastic place to be. I also think this is a movable feast through time. Be true to who you at this moment in time as it can change. Sometimes we take the male role sometimes female. Everything is on a continuum and we move. Gender, labels, personality, sexuality, team roles even values our very core identity can shift. So loving and respecting who you are right now is a great gift to our kids. Perhaps we might then all give ourselves a chance to believe we can do anything!


  2. Belinda Orr says:

    It seems one of the best of times for a parent. Watching the delicate transition from children, who desire nothing more than to “fit in to the herd”, into adults who, like Lady Thatcher, catch the labels that are thrown at them, examine, discard what is pointless and then wield what is powerful and good and know how to use it to advantage.


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