Why Labeling and Social Stigmas Are Harmful

Society is known for putting expectations on people based on a preconceived notion that is formed within moments of seeing a person. They label and identify the person based on things they are only looking at through visual cues, often having to do with weight, skin tone, or economic background. Though those are the most predominant indicators for labeling, they’re not the only ones, but all are potentially harmful to a person’s self esteem and psyche. There are many studies that have been done on why the general public; humanity on the whole, is prone to judging a person before they actually know anything about someone. One such study examined a popular comedy, Seinfeld, which poked fun at things like a person’s psychological issues or dermatological issues. Though the show is satire at its finest, it creates an unhealthy atmosphere through which people gain an idea about a group or groups of people through a stereotype that is promoted through a show that is watched by people worldwide. Though we realize that it is done through humor, we don’t have any conscious control over how it makes us view other people as a result. This has long reaching consequences for others who suffer from condition they have no control over, and wish they were born without.

Media is a huge player in how social stigmas are created and perpetuated, often in a negative and erroneous light. People with dermatological conditions become socially outcast simply because they suffer from things like albinism, alopecia, facial scarring, vitiligo, and are cast in roles that depict them as evil villains. This creates a society that is quick to judge and assume that people who have these conditions are less trustworthy somehow, or have a hidden agenda, and at best, are left to a solitary lifestyle, avoided by everyone. They’re looked upon as being dirty or disgusting thanks to the comedic value of shows that portray someone with one of these conditions, which is grossly unfair. It is estimated that up to 20% of people suffer from at least one type of dermatological condition or infection, and it is completely unfair to assume these individuals deserve to be outcast for something they have no control over. It keeps people from seeking treatment for the condition, or from leaving their own homes for fear of being looked upon badly by others. This leads to social isolation, depression, anxiety, and is an unfair punishment for people who never asked to be the target of comedic humor.

We are pre-disposed to making judgmental assumptions of a person from a very young age, when we are most impressionable. (body image) This begins at first through our family, and who our family exposes us to as children. If we have a diverse household, either with adopted children of another race, or mixed heritage parents, our views about others are likely to be more open and accepting. We are less likely to question others who don’t fit what we view as “the norm” and will extend friendship to people from across many different social spectrum that include race, creed, religion and many other things. This creates a society of people who are open and more accepting of others regardless of quirks, faults or other personality issues that may conflict with more rigid belief systems. These children are less likely to view someone at face value, or place them into categories that are unfair and biased due to things that they see upon first meeting someone, and more likely to take the time to get to know a person for who they are rather than what they see. As children enter the public school system, the net widens ever further to accompany what our friends think of others, and a desire to fit in. Some children become bullied and outcast by their peers, and though other kids may want to include them in their circle of friends, the more dominant friend may keep them from reaching out to them out of a desire to steer clear of conflict. When otherwise open minded children meet someone who they look up to, who has stereotypical views about others due to color, religious preference or familial economic structure including a single parent or divorced parents, this takes away yet more children who might otherwise accept someone at face value.

Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labeling as early as the 1930’s when linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed his linguistic relativity hypothesis. His hypothesis stated that the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just a placard – it actually determines what we see. In other words, what we perceive or assume becomes our reality from that point forward, proving that saying that first impressions are lasting ones. It can be hard to break a first impression that is formed upon an assumption, even if unfair, inaccurate or shallow. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford, and her colleagues showed white college students pictures of a man who appeared racially ambiguous in a black and white photo. Half the students described the photo as belonging to a white man, and the other half said his face belonged to a black man. They were then asked to draw the face, and the students who identified him as “black” tended to draw him with more traditionally black characteristics because they were unable to see him through anything else but that lens. Other college students in a study by John Darley and Paget Gross showed similar things when they were shown a video of a young girl playing in a yard in two differing environments. The students assumed in one environment that her parents were poor, and that the girl was less intelligent as a result. In the other instance, they assumed that the girl was well off, with two working and successful parents and that she was likely a good student and intelligent. These kind of labels are long lasting, unintended but long reaching.

Vitiligo in particular, to look at just one of many disfiguring skin conditions, crosses all lines socially. It affects between one and four percent of the population. Patches of white skin and hair develop unpredictably. Though it has genetic components, the cause is yet unknown and there is no commonly used treatment aside from cosmetics or treatments (skin whitening forever) that can help make life a bit more bearable socially. Though there are no adverse health conditions physically for sufferers of this condition, it does have a profound effect psychologically. Kent and Al’Abadie, in a study from 1996 found high levels of distress in people with vitiligo compared to the general populous. 44 percent of the sample reported incidences of stigma as a direct result of their vitiligo. The patches can easily be mistaken by others as dirty marks which is a sign of social deviance, and out of a desire to not ask questions that might be uncomfortable, awkward or just rude, they won’t try to understand if they’re correct in the assumption. To expect people with vitiligo to tell everyone they meet right away that they have this condition, is unfair and an effort that should be unnecessary. It also creates a situation where the person who has the skin condition instantly receives pity instead of understanding. Discrimination is a terrible thing, and rampant in our society, but there are things that people with skin conditions that they are uncomfortable about can do that will mask the condition, or help to make it easier to deal with. Society, after all, is not about to change easily their perceptions of others. It seems a natural inclination of humankind, and a fault for which there is no cure,and far worse than being born with a skin condition.

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