(don’t) label it

Ever think about the impact of slapping a label on something?

I read with interest a piece entitled, “Don’t call it ‘vegan’ and other tips from hospitals to get people to eat less meat.”

Apparently, the way to get people to eat less meat is to not explicitly label a plant-based dish vegetarian. And definitely not vegan!

Probably because when you focus on what’s missing, you miss it?

It’s sort of like trying to make “fake meat” sub for animal flesh: it’s just not the same.

I’m not picking on the meat eaters. I know I’m going to enrage a lot of plant lovers when I say it’s also like trying to sub spaghetti squash for pasta. Please, just don’t.

what’s in a label?

Apparently, a lot.

I recently got this thank you note from a friend (yes, people do still send them).

“Dear Liza, Thanks for a delicious dinner. We were a bit skeptical when we found out it was going to be mostly vegetarian, but everything was amazing!”

To be fair, both the author of the note and I are of the generation when vegetarian = bad hippie food. And believe me, if you’re read that old post of mine, no lentil loaf was served.

(To give credit where it’s due, most of the meal came from Ottolenghi’s Plenty More cookbook.)

labeling ourselves

Many of us frequently slap labels on ourselves: I’m a Gen Xer (just sneaked under the wire for that one, missed being a Boomer by one year), I’m a Vermonter (no you’re not, you weren’t born here!), I am (mostly) plant based, I’m a this, I’m a that.

And by labeling ourselves, we can get stuck.

The best labeling advice I know came from a career counselor in college: “Don’t think of yourself as a Chinese major. Think of yourself as someone who majored in Chinese.”

The explanation being that when you think of yourself as an XYZ major, you are thinking about the content of your college degree—you acquired some fluency in Chinese language. And no, there are not a whole lot of career options open to you, relatively speaking.

If you think of yourself as someone who majored in XYZ, you’re thinking about all the skills and experiences you acquired while learning that content.

  • You had to memorize stuff—a LOT! (Do you know that to be marginally literate in Chinese, you need to know three to five THOUSAND characters?)
  • And then there were all those tones to distinguish—good aural training.
  • You had to learn about a culture and a world view that is vastly different from your own.
  • And maybe you had to have the courage to go abroad—to the other side of the world!

You get the point. An ability to memorize, good listening skills, the ability to see things from another’s perspective, courage—you can use those in just about any work!

stop labeling yourself

I love that reframe. It moves me from being one-dimensional to having a lot of facets.

You’re maybe familiar with similar advice in the medical arena. For example, some patients are advised:

  • “Don’t think of yourself as a diabetic; think of yourself with someone with diabetes.”
  • “Don’t think of yourself as anxious; you’re someone who has anxiety.”

In other words, you may have a chronic illness—and it doesn’t have to define you. You are then free to coexist with your condition—and it doesn’t rule every minute of your life.

The same goes for defining our relationship with food:

  • “I am someone who eats plant-based foods” (and I might eat other food as well) rather than “I’m a vegan.”
  • “I am someone who eats emotionally” (and it happens when I’m sad) rather than “I’m an emotional eater.”

It may feel like an insignificant distinction—and it may be life-changing.

When you embrace your limitations (and they become what defines you), you get to keep them—often to the detriment of your health.

Odd, isn’t it? We’re so invested in proving that we have told the truth that we will cling to something that may no longer serve us or is no longer true.

un-label yourself

When you allow that you are a complex individual, you leave room for change when your label no longer suits you.

Conversely, our labels can become an excuse for inaction.

  • If you’re “a diabetic,” there’s a narrative that says, “So what’s the point of making any changes?”
  • If you’re “someone with diabetes,” you might make changes to support your body better so that you can keep medications to a minimum.

Where in your life have you painted yourself into a corner with a label? What label do you carry around with you as an excuse for not making changes? How can you un-label yourself and free yourself to take some action?

make the connection

If you consider yourself “an emotional eater” or “a stress eater,” be sure to sign up for the Fall 2023 cohort of Stewarding Emotional Eating™. This group program will help you reframe your relationship with food—and with your label.

Details + application