It matters how women label themselves, each other, and how they are labeled by a masculinized and patriarchal society. It matters how we talk about ourselves in a culture of weight-loss and plasticization.
We have all heard the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is great for a child beginning to develop a sense of individuality, but does not work as well in the realm of gender equality and rejection of expected standards. Because the reality is that although an individual might have enough fortitude to be unaffected by language used to demean and insult, a movement is based on evoking relatable and equalizing words. We cannot lift others up solely to benefit ourselves, while tearing others down. Do this and the foundation of equality, fairness, and human dignity crumbles.
In other words, progress happens when we act as the example we want to set. While it is important to recognize intent behind misogynistic language, as it is designed to categorize and minimize women’s position in society, it is more important that women set the tone for different standards in the language they use about themselves.
“Fat Bitch”. “Butch”. “Whore”. “Slut”. “Flawless”. “Skinny Minnie”. “Prude”. “Curvy”. “Damaged Goods”. Feminazi”. “Bitch”. “Cougar”. “Heffer”. “Daddy’s Girl”. “Cunt”.
These are just a few words sometimes used to “describe” women. They might be used by internet trolls with the aim of riling up women who speak their mind. They might even be used in men’s rights forums or sadly, by kids cyberbullying other kids. Sometimes they are used as a compliment. But, used to cast women into particular roles and representations they do not self-describe as, they can be damaging to all.
Language used to measure how women “fit into” the collective whole can pin them in a category not of their choosing. However, on the other side, language feeds into the agonizing quest to belong to an “acceptable category”.
Let the Labeling Begin
If a woman is too “fat”, she must strive towards the socially acceptable “skinny Minnie “category. If she is too much of a “bitch”, she should care enough to be a “people-pleaser” and change her assertive ways. However, if she is too much of a “people-pleaser”, she really should try to move closer to the “assertive” space without being too much of a “bitch”. Of course, if she is a “whore” or “slut”, she needs to better control her insatiable sexual appetite while still maintaining an idealized sexy appearance without being too “prude”. But, if she is “damaged goods”, there is not much she can do to be more socially acceptable, except to live her life in penitence, sacrificing needs and wants in order to earn the trust of patriarchal figures. And, if she is a “fat bitch” or a “fat whore”, she might as well just give up on life and hibernate for the remainder of her days, so that society does not have to be disturbed by her disobedience to diet culture and sexual expectations.
It is not just men labeling women. Women label other women too. I am guessing most of us have either been in a discussion or have engaged ourselves in a discussion involving intense shaming and blaming other women. This is the gross and devastating consequence of female competition in addition to misogyny. The safest identity sometimes seems to be the Barbie doll on display.
How can women ever find the safe space of their innate selves when they are automatically labeled? This is what is means to have our collective voice diminished!
You see, language has the power to enable a sense of shame through a designated identity. We are taught to define our identity as it relates to beauty and behavioral standards.
It matters not only how women speak about other women, but how women speak about themselves.
It is not words themselves that are harmful to women’s social sanctity, self-esteem, and even their safety. Rather, the intent behind words used to define a woman’s identity is what hurts and damages. For example, “fat” is not a hurtful word in itself, but the intent to use it as a demeaning measure of a woman’s morality insinuates a sense of right and wrong in a woman’s identity. In other words, we are taught that it is wrong to be fat and that is why it is used so often to insult women. If we lived in a culture that deemed fatness, rather than thinness, as the ideal, we would not hear women demeaning themselves with self-harming rants like “I am undesirable because I am fat”.
The key to take away here is that language can impede and disrupt our conscious identity of womanhood.
Consciousness is Key
When women create the illusion that something is inherently wrong with themselves because of fat on their thighs, their hyperactive sexuality or lack thereof, their “irresponsible” mothering skills, etc., a set of rules about how to think, talk, and act gets unduly assigned.
Inaccurate, unfair, derogatory, and demeaning language about women’s character highjacks the autonomous space that so many before us have fought for. This means we need to make sure we create a space for all and not those we identity with or who fit the ideal standard…if we really want equality.
So, yes, language indeed matters, especially in the realm of progress towards social justice.
Remember when Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut because she lobbied for affordable birth control? This was meant to be an insulting description that would put whorish, over-sexualized women who wanted to be in control of their bodies in their place. Yet, terrible and demeaning as it was, we could brush it off as just the ramblings of a crabby old man who let his words speak to his ignorance about how birth control actually works. Was this language offensive in my personal opinion? Yes. However, I say let fools show how foolish they are when trying to sound smart. What really mattered in Rush Limbaugh’s language was the intent to create an image of women who wanted affordable birth control as inhuman, irresponsible, and worth nothing more than their supposedly hyperactive sex drive.
What Can Women Do?
It seems that what we, who fight against oppressive standards, need to focus on more than the words of a cranky old man who believes women are second-class citizens, and more on the language we use in our everyday conversations about ourselves. When we routinely point out imagined flaws of others and ourselves that are based on arbitrary standards, we give ourselves power to create a precedent that somehow our worth is less because of them. When women say that they want our societal worth to be based on more than our body and looks, but then chat about how “fat thighs” make us disgusting, we defeat the message we want to permeate into the collective whole of women. The message that women should and are worth more than the body is defeated when we engage in competitive behavior with one another.
Sure, if you do not internalize words used with the intent of demeaning, you need not suffer. You might be in the ideal position of fighting impossible standards by ignoring them.
However, language has in many ways become gendered, especially as it relates to behavior and beauty. We see this in magazines that target women, internet forums and advertisements, and any type of media or literature aimed at identifying specific markers of the ideal woman. The language used in the media and advertisements seems to be aimed at creating a polarized relationship between a woman’s self-esteem and cultured standards, such as the thin ideal. Let’s not feed into this by buying perfection and diminishing womanly value to aesthetics and specified behavior.
When used with the intent to insult either others or oneself, language weakens the base of self and collective autonomy.
An important step towards liberation from unattainable standards is to change the language we use to characterize ourselves. Consciousness of how we describe the qualities of our humanness and being is a cornerstone in the betterment of our self-vision and positioning in a patriarchal society.
The lesson I really want to preach is to be aware of the words you use. Take care to lift others human dignity up, rather than judging imagined flaws. We are all just people trying to get on in this world. Progress is dependent on looking at our own self-descriptors, then examining those we give others, and making a conscious effort to dignify each other’s humanness and right to live in a safe space.
No, words cannot physically hurt us, but they can and do attack the sanctity of equality. Change how you talk about women, including yourself, and let the ripple effect win. Progress happens in numbers; when it is clear that hate or misogyny has no home in the realm of a woman’s autonomy.