Can You Ever Escape Those High-School Labels?

W. Steve Shepard Jr. / iStockphoto

Fattie. Queen. Nerd. Jock. Slut. Geek. Princess. Loser. Brain. Prude. Popular. In high school, we all get a label: sometimes, it's one we spend decades trying to live up to; sometimes it's one we desperately want to leave behind. The need to separate people into distinct, easy-to-identify groups and classes is one that's not necessarily confined to anorak the halls of a high school. Still, high school—when kids first try to determine who they'll be as adults—is where the effect of those labels seem to be most acute and long-lasting. But are they accurate? And how do those labels shape who we become in an age when, thanks to social networks, we don't really ever leave our adolescent friends behind.

Judging and being judged have always been an unofficial part of the high-school curriculum. Most teens are trying to find out who they are and labels help make distinctions about who they could be, who they're not, and who they should aspire to be. And those labels have power. "They're very sensitive to what their peers think of them, in part they're trying to understand who they are and becoming adults," says Judy Baer, professor of sociology at Rutgers University. "To fit in is important biologically—we live in groups and we all want to fit in."

Photos: Today's American Teenagers

Depending on the size of the school, the labels and roles given to kids can begin well before the teen years. "At small schools, kids can feel by the time they're in fourth grade, [that they] can never get out," says Roselind Wiseman, a parenting educator and author of Queen Bees and Wannabees. But even in larger schools, it's hard to escape a label. "By 10th grade, it's often pretty set," she says.

But after high school, whether or not kids are defined by the labels that branded them very much depends on how rigidly that kid adheres to the same systems of structure and hierarchy found in high school. "If you go from a totally stratified high school to a very stratified college where the Greek system is very, very strong and you are aligned with your fraternity or sorority ... If you go from that to that to your country club, when exactly are you adult, and when are you making decisions about what you want and what does it feel like to be outside of the group?" asks Wiseman.

One important change for this generation is that kids are taking longer to grow up and establish themselves in society as adults. And, while this extended adolescence has been lamented as "failure to launch," some experts say this long period of "emerging adulthood," which can last into the late 20s, could make high-school labels less potent. "The kind of exploration and identity-defining that used to really predominate in adolescence and in the high-school years has largely kind of shifted up the spectrum now into this emerging adulthood," says Tim Clydesdale, a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey. "Emerging adulthood," then, gives kids a larger window to figure out who they are and how they define themselves, making the high-school labels just the first step in a longer process of self-discovery.

That might not make high school itself any easier—in fact, some experts think that high school now is harder than ever, since expectations have never been higher for middle-class students, with so few options available to them. "The stakes have gotten higher for middle-class kids. It's much more difficult to get into the good colleges. And supposed you graduate from those places, it's much harder to get good jobs," says Annette Hemmings, a sociology professor from the University of Cincinnati. That pressure is evident to high-school students, who are feeling more and more compelled to ace every class and outperform other students—another factor that may diminish the need to fit in. It's now less about collusion than competition.

But all that pressure may lead to a backlash later down the road, and the fact that there are so few jobs right now makes it easier for kids to reject the notion that they have to be a top-tier lawyer or doctor, and to also abandon the social pressure and expectations that go with those positions—and that may seem so important in high school. "High school used to have much greater impact, say 50 years ago when people would stop their schooling in high school and meet their sweethearts who would become their husbands and wives, so it was really, really determinative at that point and time," says Clydesdale. "Now, they have a second, third, fourth chance to redefine themselves."

Of course, this is true mostly for kids who have the freedom to explore their place in life. Kids from working-class backgrounds often don't have that luxury—and are the ones who are most damaged by high-school labeling. Those kids are also at a disadvantage because the label that sticks the most isn't one given by peers, but by the high-school system itself, and one that disproportionately affects lower-class kids. Tracking—the process of putting kids in remedial, gifted, or average-level classes—has a lasting impact well beyond graduation. "They get messages all along the way about how good and bad they are. The kids who are on the low tracks know they are. They know what their status is," she says, and the label of "smart" or "dumb" carries long beyond "band geek" or "cheerleader."

Once students are set in a track, it's very hard to be bumped up to a higher level. It's these students who often do the best at high school in terms of social status—they create an alternate tracking system, where lower-track classes are equated with being cool, and kids in the smarter tiers are degraded—but those skills don't translate in the real world. "They can actually be pretty high status within the environment of the school while they're doing this, but the minute they leave they're in trouble, because you can't take that with you into the adult world, which is structured entirely differently," says Hemmings. "It works in the short term but hurts them badly in the long term." Kids who can either embrace or assimilate to the middle-class values reinforced by the teachers and adults in high-school settings, on the other hand, end up doing the best in the adult world.

Facebook and other social-networking tools are a double-edged sword. We've all heard about online bullying and the pain that it causes. But the Internet can allow kids who feel isolated or pigeonholed by their labels to find solace in a more well-rounded universe. "For some people, being able to find a place to fit is easier," says Clydesdale. The Internet shows kids that might not fit in elsewhere that they're not alone, or that a label like "queer" or "fatty" might not be as one-dimensional as they think. Social medial also allows kids to continue to get support from their closest friends long after high school ends and they've gone their separate ways in the offline world. Studies have have shown that these virtual connections can be as beneficial as friendships in the offline world.

For kids with the right social support, both at home and online, labels make less of a difference—even the really bad ones. "It can be very traumatizing, but not always," says Baer. "Or rather, It's always traumatizing—but it's not lasting."