What’s in a name?
Yuck My Yum is a column that explores how culture and community shape identity and influence our health. In this first installment, we’ll explore how names and labels connect to how we treat ourselves, and all of the good — and bad — that can come from that.
I go by many different names.
When I was a kid, if I went to the store with my mom and wandered off, I knew she would always be able to find me. Why? Because her nickname for me was very specific. It was a nickname that no one else is allowed to call me.
Hearing my mom full-on yell this name in a crowded supermarket is enough to get anyone’s attention, but at the time it also made me aware of the power names carry.
In my personal life, family members would shorten my name, calling me “Cami” or “Cammie” (tbh, the spelling would change depending on the person calling me). But over the years, something as slight as the creative misspellings of my name has left a deep-rooted psychological impact of my own self-perception and confidence.
Constantly having to defend my name, its pronunciations and spellings, and even my desire to want to be called a certain label, can linger through my interactions with others long after. What’s often left unsaid, I soon learned, is this challenge of balancing the hierarchy that comes with these interactions. It’s never just a name.
As I got older and began to carve out my sexual identity, the importance of names was carried with me. Just like how my mother’s nickname for me is situational, so are the names I identify with and allow others to refer to me by, in certain situations.
Within the confines of a sexual scene or experience, being called a “slut,” “whore,” or “dirty little girl” wouldn’t be inappropriate (and could be really hot!). But outside the confines of the bedroom, there’s still a heavy stigma on claiming those words for ourselves.
Over the last year, questions of “Is this right?” “Is this ethical?” and “Where does this fall in line with my personal politics?” resurfaced for me as my chronic pain has forced me to reexamine the relationship I have with names — and the health effects that come with these names and labels.
What we accept, or allow, others to call us can influence our sense of self. It can affect our self-esteem, reaching out to so many other parts of our lives. In short, they can have a psychological effect on how we see ourselves and dictate how we’re able to interact with others.
Studies have shown the negative health effects of racism on individuals, but the same can be said for other identities we hold and the oppressions we encounter because of them.
These names and labels influence access and quality of healthcare. Just look at the countless stories of how women — particularly Black women — face the brunt of racism, misogynoir, and stereotyping in the doctor’s office.
On the flip side, agency and affirmation are critical pieces of mental health for many marginalized groups. We’re starting to see this in studies exploring the positive effect that correct identification has on trans and gender nonconforming individuals that show how important it is not to assume how others (in the case of these studies, gender and sexuality) identify.
Embracing the labels we seek to be associated with, rather than ones forcibly given, can also revive us.
So, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to names. I’m not only reexamining the importance of labels and names from the perspective of what fits, but also how to find the community I connect with.
Did I want to use a completely different name to explore myself and my desires in specific spaces? But most importantly, what names would I let my partners call me when we were intimate?
Personally, I don’t use “disabled” to describe myself — and I find that this has become one of the most challenging things in searching for where I fit, even with the desire of wanting a community to connect with on this part of my identity. I don’t feel that it’s a term I could claim for myself and my experiences.
Even though my chronic pain affects the way I navigate the world, it’s not in a way that completely prohibits or makes everyday tasks difficult.
Still, existing as someone with chronic pain sometimes feels like moving in limbo; somewhere between “disabled” and fully “able-bodied,” chronic pain feels like the only accurate way to describe my experience at this point. This in itself can be a living example for how labels can be helpful for us to find community.
My mother’s nickname for me; “chronic pain”; pet names in bed: These all circle back to the importance of names and labels. The options of labels and names can bring up complicated emotions, but I’m finding more acceptance for navigating them and how I want to be perceived in the world.
I find strength in being able to adapt to how I want to be called, even in ensuring that my name is pronounced correctly the first time I meet someone new.
What we go by, what we choose to be called, and even finding peace in being called the wrong names comes with a unique form of empowerment. The feeling of empowerment over claiming these names and labels ourselves can mirror the communities and healing that we’re looking for by (re)claiming.
Cameron Glover is a writer, sex educator, and digital superhero. She has written for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Bitch Media, Catapult, Pacific Standard, and Allure. You can reach out to her on Twitter.