Who am I? Labels and ourselves.

Labeling theory in Psychiatry – in brief – states that people’s perception of others is coloured by the labels given to them by society, the perceiver or the perceived. Labeling theory was initially concerned with the effect of labeling someone as mentally ill, after Rosenhan’s 1973 study whereby 12 sane stooges got themselves admitted to a psychiatric hospital under the label of ‘mentally ill’, after complaining of hallucinations. Their task, after this, was to be released; a task that should be easy enough as they would simply have report to be free of hallucinations, and be ‘themselves’ – correct? Well, it was not the case. They failed to get spotted as ‘psuedopatients’ and had extensive medical reports of their ‘strange behaviour’. An example that always stuck in my mind was when one of the confederates was recording notes from being inside the institution, the psychiatric staff reported it as ‘strange writing behaviour’.

The point of the experiment was to show that the stooges’ behaviour was seen in a different light when they were labelled as ‘mentally ill’, and to raise awareness of the possible problems caused by the stigma that may be associated with mental illness. I have not kept up to speed with modern day labeling theory in scientific research, but I am aware that it is used in the diet and fitness literature to positive effect. Whether it is substantiated or not, Runner’s World has reported that if you are starting to learn to run, it can be beneficial to label yourself – to yourself and to others – as a ‘runner’. This will, apparently, help you stick to your new running plan, and help other encourage you.

I don’t know if Runner’s World is correct, but I have been thinking about labeling a lot recently – in terms of how we label ourselves. And how this can be a positive or negative thing. I moved to the US 24 months ago. Back then I was 118 lbs of skin and bone and hated sport. As a friend put it ‘you don’t have limbs, you have twigs’. I labelled myself as ‘skinny’ (skinny-fat maybe, but nonetheless, ‘skinny’). I didn’t eat carbs. I just didn’t. Once a month there would be a transgression (often alcohol fuelled), but otherwise I was strictly anti-carb. Another label. I was also bulimic. Not a label I wanted others to know, but a label nonetheless.

Then I got out of a very destructive relationship. I looked around and saw that I had moved continent on my own, been knocked back pretty hard in my personal life, but picked myself up and started again. I had established my own life far from home, far from my friends, in a very different culture. And I loved it! As I came out of a subservient position in my personal life, I began to think of myself as ‘mentally strong’, and along with a few other reasons, decided that this required a stronger body. I started weight training, I loved it, so I started body building. Nutrient timing, a strict cardio routine and heavy, heavy lifting ensued. Within 3 months I was regularly running 10Ks, bench pressing my body weight, squatting god-knows-what and I relabelled myself as ‘fit’ or ‘sporty’ and ‘a body builder’. I was 126 lbs of muscle.

Then… I don’t know quite what happened. I relaxed my diet. I started to really dig into my work, writing my first big grants, and pushing papers out. I became a Mum to little Walter who needed a lot of love and attention. I stopped lifting for some reason. I ran a bit, but not seriously. I did zumba and labelled it ‘cardio’. I got back into cooking and socializing. And I kept labeling myself as ‘fit’ and ‘thin’.

Until I had a wake up call. I went to England, where I could not wear endless floaty dresses (Brrrrrr….) and found my trousers could not get over my thighs (no exaggeration, I had to borrow clothes to fly home as none of mine could be put on!). I didn’t quite believe it was real, as it was not *me*. I was ultra fit! I was skinny! Sure – the dial on the scale had moved to 143 lbs (good grief) but that was muscle, right? I mean, muscle weighs more than fat? Everywhere I went, I found people to agree with me. ‘You don’t look any different’, they said, ‘You are so sporty’, ‘all that activity, you can’t have put on weight’, ‘it must be muscle, it is a body builders body!’. I believed it all, as it fit my labels I gave myself.

Then I spoke to another friend. He asked me how my trip to England was, and I said that I had had a wake-up call to having put on a lot of weight (I said it with a smile in a jolly manner). I was shocked at his response: he cheerfully replied ‘yup’. In the next sentence he said ‘you used to be so fit’. I crossly thought ‘I am fit’ and was shocked at his honesty. Then, later, I really thought about it. I am not super fit anymore – 5Ks are not always easy. I struggled to run 6 miles on Saturday, when timewise 1/2 marathons were completed before breakfast every other week – for real. I am not super skinny anymore. I am currently, to be honest, kinda chunky. So, I need to relabel myself, and not cling to labels that are not true – as my friend had accurately relabeled me.

Then I thought about it some more: how could someone who was a friend of mine say this?? How could they be so mean? Then it occurred to me: he used labels like ‘unfit’ (or just ‘not fit’ would be more accurate) and ‘heavier’ to mean exactly that: not fit and heavier. It didn’t have all the negative connotations I associated with these terms. I think (I hope) to my friend, I was exactly the same Lekki in terms of integrity, value, intelligence, interest, fun – in fact all ways – as I was when I was a muscle bound runner. I was just heavier and less fit – nothing more, and nothing less. He used the label to be exactly what it was: he did not become the psychiatric ward worker above who viewed me and my attributes through the lens of these labels. I am less fit and 25 lbs heavier, and to coin a Southern phrase: ‘It is what it is’ i.e. nothing more and nothing less.

So, I have rejigged my labels of myself, knowing that I want to change them, and I will.

I am, as of this moment:

-25 lbs heavier than when I arrived in the US
-2.5 dress sizes larger than when I arrived in the US
-Unable to run more than a 5K without stopping to walk
-Tired after 3 sets of 12 reps with 12 lb weights (really).

This helps me when I think ‘I don’t really have to lose weight to be as I was two years ago, I just need a crash diet to lose this water weight’ or when I think “Oh, I am fit, that was just a bad day – I need some more sleep!”. *IF* I want to be thin, and *IF* I want to be very fit, it is going to take some work.

But, that it is all it is. It has no bearing on the rest of me. And, I am also, as of late:

-A productive and devoted scientist
-Able to let go of controlling everything and enjoy life in the moment sometimes
-Able to look in the mirror, not like some aspects of what I see but not freak out and still see some things I do like
-Able to prioritize: I choose to let work / my puppy / my friends take precedence over my fitness and body sometimes
-HAPPY.

That being said, I am also capable of change. I am following a 1/2 marathon training plan, and the DAMY bikini body plan. In the next 12 weeks, I would like to get back to a size 8-10 (UK) and get somewhere near the weight I came to the US at. I would like to be able to run 10Ks as and when I like, and half marathons with some prep. And I will, but while I can’t: it is what it is. Nothing more and nothing less than that. I have more important (to me) things to judge myself by.

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