Truth in Labeling
by Hillel Schwartz

In a recent book, Hiding, the philosopher Mark Taylor argues that, everything is skin, and there is no place to hide. After all— and this is indisputable—we begin, at conception, as three layers of skin. Gradually, in a process still not fully understood, the cells of the blastoderm learn how to specialize and become nerve cells, tissue cells, or organs, but we begin as skin. Not only that, argues Taylor—and this is disputable—we can no longer look for meaning beyond or beneath the surfaces of things or people. In the postmodern, electrical, digital world, Skin is the Alpha and the Omega, surfaces are all, and we should celebrate the multifold.

If we accept this argument, then labeling becomes more important than ever it was. We have had truth in labeling campaigns ever since the turn of the last century, and we have truth in labeling disputes ever since Greek, Chinese, and Hindu philosophers broached the difference between the ideal and the real, but now we are down to the nitty gritty, where the label is not just an embarrassed attempt to name our world in a post-Edenic world where we do not know, as apparently Adam did, the real and secret names of things. No, today, labels (according to Taylor's logic) are all we have.

And I think it is indisputable that we all read labels more than we ever did—labels on clothing (is it pure cotton? is it a name brand? is it American? is it machine washable?), on electronic apparatus (is it compatible with my other electronic machines? Is it in constant need of new batteries? does it come with a guarantee of local service for repair and upgrade?), and on foods (what do they have by way of calories, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, fiber, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, additives, and preservatives?), on automobiles, trucks, and RVs, and so on.

Indeed, one could without exaggeration call us a culture of labels, and that would include not only the tags on merchandise and the side panels on boxes or cans of food but also the one-liners we use to tag our events, our ideas, our feelings, our political stands, and our religious beliefs. One might in defense observe that all cultures are cultures of labels, that human beings as wordsmiths must ever operate within a context of labels, and that these are the shorthands by which we make our way through the world. But our lives today seem to be conditioned by labels that are at once shorter and longer than ever before: shorter, in the sense that we do not today tolerate long explanations, complicated directions, elegant disquisitions, or careful elaborations in ANY setting, whether on a clothing tag or in a political debate; longer, in the sense that we require our labels now to include warnings about proximater and remote dangers (children suffocating in plastic bags, electrical shock from using a plug the wrong way, food allergy and choking prospects). In our culture, then, labels are much more than shorthands by which to negotiate our way in the world. They create in and of themselves a series of futures (if you do this, that might happen), a set of disclaimers (this doll is not meant to be eaten and we cannot be responsible if your child devours it), and a contour of expectations ("longlasting," "guaranteed for 3 years, ready to eat,-- "just unpack and start cooking"). They accompany everything, and they intuit our intentions, our desires, our fantasies, and our inconstancies— like the products themselves, more and more frequently designed to shut off or shut down if we forget them or leave them in a fit of despair or moment of peril or simple hurry. Irons won't burn down our houses, computers won't bum images into screens, car alarms won't continue ringing....

Further, in a culture of labels, labels tend to stick, in part because they are taken to be so significant, in part because they seem integral to each object or position, and in part because they are anchored in prospective futures about which we are prone to litigate at the drop of a stitch. We sue because manufacturers had not anticipated every possible shortcoming of their product; indeed, it may come to the point that we sue thumbtack makers for not anticipating the danger of a thumbtack swallowed by a child. We sue because the product failed after 20 or 30 or 40 years. We sue because the guarantees were insufficient or the labels not completely informative. We sue in the increasingly firm conviction that labels are fully representative of the person, product, or opinion, now and forevermore.

So labels tend to stick and truth in labeling becomes a matter of great and enduring consequence. One of the reasons why there is a "fat acceptance" movement rather than, say, a "human acceptance" movement, is that fat sticks. I have previously meditated upon the curiously metamorphic phenomenon of the cultural idea of fat as both sticky and greasy, clumpy and oily; here I am talking about words used as labels, and how the word "fat" sticks to people because we are living in a culture that wants all labels to stick. Once one is labeled (or under social pressure assumes the label of) "alcoholic," one is stuck forever with being an "addictive personality" and, even if a teetotaler for 20 years, merely a reformed "alcoholic." Once one is labeled "fat," turning into a thin person is nominally easier than turning into a non-alcoholic (a fact reflected in the strange absence from our dictionaries of a positive noun for people who drink alcoholic beverages without ill effect), but like the sober AA member, staying thin presumes a constant vigilance against "fat"--a vigilance supported by a culture of dieting. "Fat acceptance" is linguistically easier to defend than a movement to dispense with labels that define us by our body type, our weight, or our body mass index, the newest of the labels to appear on the newsstands.

Yet labeling is no longer just a question of words. Precisely because labels are so conspicuous, constant, requisite, and consequential companions to our acts, ideas, possessions, and ambitions, labels have taken on a substantiveness that is as suspicious as it is encouraged. However, although we retain enough suspiciousness to issue regular complaints against the media and advertising agencies as the culprits who encourage the reduction of our lives to labels, we ourselves (each of us) is also, in Mark Taylor's terms, responsible willynilly for endorsing a world in which skin is all, and labels everything. The label becomes the skin, and we buy the cereal or the car because of the label, which must be true.

Truth in labeling, therefore, is not just a question of words but of identity. Many of us carry personal names around that we have never personally identified with, names that have been historical burdens (e.g., Jr., II) or embarrassments (movie stars now out of fashion, saints now demoted). We can change our names without changing our bodies, or we can change our bodies and reclaim an identity more apt to the name, or we can change both names and bodies "in the name of' a personal renaissance. Labels, which once were considered adjectival, verge now on the nominative, and these too may be bur dens or embarrassments impinging on our identity. A person who is called "Slim" because he is Fat, or "Fatty" because she is anorexic, has to fight constantly against the confusion of the adjective with the noun, of the temporary with the eternal, of the superficial with the solid. Living as we do in a culture of labels, and perhaps in a culture that is all skin, such that stickiness becomes entirely conflated with substantiality, the "truth" of truth in labeling inheres as much in the actual endurance of the label as in its meaning, just as our identities are defined over time by certain clear continuities in what we do and how we do it.

Decades ago the movement to defend fat people against discrimination was dedicated to showing how insubstantial, superficial, and silly it was to define fat people in terms of their fat. Basically, the attack then was directed against the very act of labeling. We are all human beings, it was said (and it still is) in our great biological and physiological diversity, and to consider some people first and foremost as fat people is to reduce them to what Aristotle would have called an "accident" or "epiphenomenon," something that is not essential to the being or to the ongoing identity of an individual. In recent years, people of all ilks (in ethnic, racial, religious, and physiological contexts) have instead accepted the accidental as substantive. Rather than denying its validity and virtue as a label, they have taken it to heart.

This would indicate to me, as a cultural historian, that the stickiness of labels is akin to that of our superglues, bonding the accidental to the substantive in the same way that superglues bind unlike materials, glass to metal, rubber to wood. Once the bond is set (and the label says, be careful about getting the glue on your hands, you could bind your fingers to your lips!), it is stronger than love and practically eternal.

We do, on the other hand, have Post-Its, trademarked and rampant. Transient, temporary signs to put up on anything, anywhere, in most any color, for the nonce. (Note the sentence fragment: that is what the Post-It usually is.) And, yes, we do have labels on IRS forms and mail-order catalogues that are peel-off: we can use them again to send in our order for the products of our dreams. Our technology of labels allows for other than the eternal. And I suppose I could pursue an extended analogy from the peel-off label to the resurgence of diet products that promise to make anyone instantly thin, to change individual labels from fat to thin, with many claims but little evidence of permanence. Reducing diets pretend to offer peel-off labels but present us with Post-Its.

Despite these alternative label technologies, I would stick to my notion that "Fat Acceptance" is currently the label for the fat-anti-discrimination movement because it is nearly impossible, in our cultural climate, to challenge the central act of labeling, let alone to change a label. Once a child abuser, always a child abuser. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Once fat, always inclined to fat. Some (mistakenly) invoke genetics in support of this prison of consistency, others (misleadingly) psychology, but what is truly behind the construction of such a prison and of such labeling-in-perpetuity is a loss of conventional faith in the conventional process of conversion and a fin de siecle ambivalence about the very possibility of transformation. This is particularly apparent, and comprehensible, with respect to "Fat Acceptance," since fat is imagined to be, paradoxically, chemically intransigent and personally slipshod, something that sticks around until you finally decide to take your body into your own hands. The increasingly vehement "war on fat" has assumed an evangelical fervor that is characteristic of those who in other frames of reference see evil as intransigent but humans as graced with free will.

How this essay has taken us from the superficiality of labels to the imponderable theological depths of free will is likely to be a bit of a surprise to all but Mark Taylor, who would have predicted this from the start. After all, skin is an anagram for sink, and there is nothing else for us to sink our teeth into than skin. The meat of the issue is that the more we rely on brief, fearful, defensive labels for identifying ourselves and our world of ideas, perceptions, objects, and powers, the more we lose of ourselves that was, not too long ago, beneath the surface. What finally will be the consequences of talking and acting under the rubric of "fat acceptance" and identifying oneself by an adjective that has been rolled over and rolled up into a noun? I suspect that we are all being skinned alive. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the size acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.