Embracing Labels: Small Steps Toward a Big Goal

Guest Post | Alexandra Sieh 

Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.

Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.

From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.

But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.

I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.

Perhaps not.

But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.

Why? I found them intimidating.

These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.

Beyonce's 2014 MTV Video Music Awards
Beyonce’s performance at 2014 MTV Video Music Awards | image from: Independent

I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:

If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.

If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.

What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?

Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.

Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the real me.

Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.

Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.

I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.

Chinese kids in a training school | image from GRCS
Chinese kids attending a training school | image from GRCS

I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”

Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.

With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.

With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.

I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.

So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.

I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.

Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.



Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.


Featured image from: Global Girl Media Network

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