Posted by: *carrie* | May 6, 2010

The Power of Words

I’ve been making a conscious effort in word choices. This isn’t an entirely new idea to me. I’ve always been a bit of a word geek, so I try to use words that have the precise meaning I wish to convey. (Think saying “gargantuan” instead of “really big”).

I started replacing the word girl with woman when referring to adult females. It actually took concentrated effort. It’s starting to happen more easily now, but something in my brain clicks when I say “woman”, a kind of little self-congratulatory internal bell saying “Hey! You did it!”

There was a moment of internal victory when, while having a casual conversation with a male friend, he automatically corrected himself from calling a coworker ‘girl’ and said, ‘I mean woman’. We haven’t even discussed gendered words, but he immediately recognized his error.

While my focus started around gendered words, it’s quickly embodying lots of other words. The same friend’s wife and I have discussed that we’re trying to eliminate the word ‘retarded’ from our vocabularies.  I’m not even sure where I picked it up. I didn’t say it in my youth  and it’s really appalling that I have been using it so cavalierly.

I thought I was doing pretty well in both the gendered and abled word areas. Until yesterday someone mentioned that the word lame is ableist. I don’t disagree. So I have another word to unlearn. And I haven’t even begun on the heteronormative language.

It’s not just the words alone I am focused on – it’s also the types of words, specifically in relation to sex and gender.

One of my recent reads was The Difference: Growing Up Female in America by Judy Mann. (Every, I mean every, woman, girl, and parent should read this book). Throughout the book, Mann discusses the language used towards boys versus the language used towards girls.

Instead of calling little girls cute or pretty, I am deliberately telling them they are strong or smart or funny.  My niece often hears how beautiful she is. I have started telling her how athletic and smart she is, even though she is all three of these things.

What has, surprisingly, been a bit harder, is to cease complimenting my female coworkers and boss on their appearance. My boss is a bit of a fashionista, so it’s not that the compliments are undeserved, or that she doesn’t find them flattering. It’s that I don’t value her for her fashion sense. I value her for her business savvy and her humor and her ability to pull together a strong team.

It might seem like a small thing. But I almost never compliment any of my male coworkers or boss on their appearance. I realized I rarely compliment any of my male friends or coworkers on any physical attributes. Maybe if they’re dressed up for a special occasion, or just have a really dope pair of shoes I like. I have frequently complimented my female friends and coworkers on these things. While the sentiments are genuine, I have to question why I am placing that value on the women and not the men.

It’s not a secret that society values beauty, especially among women. So I’ve really started to think about the things I value and admire in other people, and those are the attributes I want to compliment them on and bring attention to.

I want little girls to know that it doesn’t matter if they are wearing a gorgeous dress, they can still be the best tree-climber in the neighborhood.  Sure, it’s okay for them to enjoy the dress and looking beautiful, but it’s not the only thing for them.

One of my current favorite quotes is one I keep coming across in 80s and 90s feminist writings:

The thing women have yet to realize is no one gives you power. You have to take it.

-Roseanne Barr

It’s true. Power is something to be seized. But it can be given, if we choose to do so. And I am choosing with my words to give power to the girls and women around me.

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