Words: Yes They Do Have An Impact

People suck at talking about mental health issues. Oh sure, there are some people who have taken the time to educate themselves who know not to use “OCD” to mean “neat, tidy, type A”, but the media as a whole is just not good at portraying mental illnesses as real, serious, and illnesses rather than choices. More often than not, writers rely on a few stock phrases to describe mental illnesses. And more often than not, these phrases are misleading, reductive, or flat out wrong. There have been a plethora of examples of a few of these recently, and I’d like to highlight two that are damaging and overused.

The first one caught my eye after an odd kerfluffle involving a pair of Victoria’s Secret models. One commented that she would never have a body quite like the other’s and that she thought the other was beautiful. Not too outlandish of a thing to say: even models have some insecurities and compare themselves to other people. The response? “Accusations of anorexia”. Sorry what? Accusations? This is somewhat akin to saying “accusations of having pneumonia”. Grammatically it sort of makes sense, but in the actual ways that we understand the word “accusation” it implies some weird things about anorexia. Namely that it’s a choice, that it’s something bad or wrong, that it’s something offensive and you should feel ashamed of it.

It’s a phrase that gets bandied about fairly often, as if anorexia were some sort of character flaw that we should all be above. In discussions of “skinny shaming” (a phrase that should have its own post), naturally thin people often comment that they are accused of having eating disorders because of their body type. It makes sense that no one would want to be told they have a mental illness if they don’t. It implies that you need to change or that there’s something wrong with you. More often than not, it’s impossible to convince the world otherwise if they already believe you have a problem. That sucks. Of course it does.

But having someone mistakenly think that you’re ill is not the same as being accused of something, and using that wording does a huge disservice to people who actually do have eating disorders. It tells them that their disorder is something they should feel some amount of shame over, something they shouldn’t be open about because it’s clearly still seen as a choice or a character flaw rather than an actual illness. The phrase often perpetuates the idea that people with eating disorders are all skinny and that you can identify them on sight, because it’s most often leveled at thin people with no other evidence of an eating disorder beyond “you’re really skinny”. Very rarely is someone “accused” of having an eating disorder because they express unhealthy or damaging attitudes towards their body.

Other ways of phrasing this idea might not be quite as succinct. “Believed to have an eating disorder” doesn’t come across in nearly as dramatic a light. But it is more accurate, and that means that it’s preferable. The way we talk about eating disorders contributes greatly to the perception of them and whether or not we see them as serious. This is an extremely easy adjustment to make that can help decrease the stigma around eating disorders.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the endlessly overused phrase “battling depression”. In my Google alert for depression today alone I saw three articles that used this phrase in their title. There are probably times and places to use the word “battling” when describing someone’s relationship with depression. There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve felt as if I’m waging a war inside my own mind. But it should not be the only phrase we can come up with to describe an illness. Especially because depression is not always incredibly active in someone’s life, even if they do still have it, the phrase “battling” can be misleading about what it’s like to live with depression. Sometimes you’re surviving. Sometimes you’re struggling. Sometimes you’re being beaten up by your depression. Sometimes you just have it.

Of course it’s hard to have depression, and most people who have it end up fighting back against it in some fashion or other at some point in their life. But not all of us feel like we can do it all the time. Not all of us have the energy to constantly be “battling”, and the implication that having depression is always a battle means that if you aren’t fighting back then you’ve accepted it and you’re not trying hard enough. While depression has started to move past some of the stereotypes and stigmas that still seriously plague eating disorders, we do tend to have a single narrative about it, and it’s rarely one that recognizes the complexity of what it means to experience depression.

We rarely note the fact that people with depression live like most other people, have hobbies, sometimes enjoy themselves, have relationships, hold down jobs, have good days and bad days, sometimes let the bad feelings happen and sometimes work really hard to feel better, just like most other people. They have an additional stressor to deal with, but they’re more complicated than a single trait.

I’m certainly not proposing a complete ban on the phrase “battling depression” but for goodness sakes could we shake it up every once in a while? This is just getting to the point of extremely bad writing, and we can do better.

 

The Common Language of Pop References

Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.

You’re Not a Virgin (Probably)

As I am wont to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my sexuality lately, and as part of that process I’ve been talking with other people. Through these conversations I’ve had a number of people mention to me that they’re virgins. I don’t particularly like to contradict people’s self-identities, but every time I hear someone say this I cringe inside a bit and want to mutter “no you’re not”.

I’m not the first person to criticize the concept of virginity (oh hell am I not). It’s fairly well established in most feminist circles that the concept of virginity is a myth. Typically it’s used to refer to penetrative sex, but there are all sorts of people who have most certainly had sex but not penis in vagina sex (see: lesbians). There’s an obsession with the hymen, but rarely is the hymen actually broken during the first instance of PIV sex (often it’s already gone). At the end of the day, there’s good evidence that the whole concept of virginity is a holdover from patriarchal obsessions with female purity and the establishment of biological fathers.

I’m going to let all these other people explain why it doesn’t make sense to just say you’re a virgin (seriously, click the links, they are helpful), but what I’d rather focus on here is a.how unhelpful it is to tell someone you’re a virgin and b.how you can often inadvertently belittle the sexual experiences you’ve had with your partner(s) by using the word virgin.

So first and foremost, when you assert that you’re a virgin you are not actually telling your conversational partner a whole lot of information about you (except possibly that you don’t read nearly enough feminist theory). They’ll probably assume you mean penetrative sex, but what if you mean you’ve never held hands? What if you mean you’ve never achieved orgasm with another person? What if you mean you’ve had oral sex and anal sex but not penis in vagina sex? And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi (this reference  is really just for my Minnesotan folks out there).

So there are a lot of critiques of the concept of virginity that talk about how it plays into purity and larger patriarchal social constructs, but I want to point out one that’s plain and simple: calling yourself a virgin is straight out unhelpful and unclear. If you’re trying to communicate with a partner about your past sexual experiences or have a discussion about your feelings on sexuality with a friend, you give them almost no information when you say that you’re a virgin. You may even be misleading them as your definitions of virgin likely differ. The use of the word virginity in serious conversations gives everyone a pass to not have the hard discussions about what really constitutes sex and when we feel as if we’ve passed certain milestones and what elements of sex are more or less life changing and why. It circumvents all those real, honest questions and just says “we all know what I’m talking about right? No more questions asked, right? Let’s move on”. It also asks all the people in the conversation to participate in a variety of patriarchal myths about sex, the role of sex, and the morality of those who are or are not virgins, because in order to accept the term “virgin” as it currently stands you have to be willing to accept penetrative, PIV sex as an important milestone that other types are not.

All of that being said, it is probably useful to have a term for not having done a certain sexual activity before. So in my mind, we need to revamp the word virgin: virgin is actually just a phoneme. It needs a modifier. You could be a kissing virgin, or a making out virgin, or an anal sex virgin, or a frottage virgin (a word I just today discovered and am totally in love with), or any of a million other kinds of virgin. All of us are on a spectrum of sexual experience, and everything about making that linguistic shift is helpful to validating more types of sexuality, sexual experience, and sexual preference. It also means that if you’re having a conversation about your own sexuality with another person and you want to use the word virgin to describe your experience, you’ll actually be communicating clearly, which is something we could all use more of in conversation. I wouldn’t advocate to erase the word “virgin” from our vocabulary, but rather to be more thoughtful and careful with the ways in which we use it.

More specifically, using the word virgin in a sloppy way can have some seriously negative effects on your partners. I was talking to a friend recently who in the midst of having sex with someone was informed “by the way, I’m a virgin so I don’t want to have sex”. I have also been with individuals who have told me they were virgins after we had engaged in activities that by most definitions would be called sex (although they were not PIV). Conversing with your partner about what you mean by sex is generally a good thing to do before you’re having sex, but if you don’t, then being specific about what you have and haven’t done rather than assuming your partner has the same definition of sex can go a long way towards not being a jackass.

When you just say “I’m a virgin” you could be implying to your partner that you didn’t care about the activities you’ve engaged in up to this point, that you have really strong feelings about penetrative sex, or that you don’t want to accept that you’ve actually been intimate with them. It can absolutely feel like a denial when your partner does not recognize their actions as sex. It can feel as though they don’t actually want to have sex with you or be intimate with you or admit openly that they have done what they’ve done. It might feel as if they’re ashamed, or as if they simply didn’t care about what you were doing. There is a lot of baggage that comes along with the word, and it seems to be easier for everyone to just be a bit more specific and let your partner know what you have and haven’t done, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with rather than using the word “virgin” as a pass.

So next time you think about using the word virgin, consider the fact that you’re probably not a complete virgin. You’ve probably held hands or hugged or kissed. Be more specific. It’s better for everyone.

Sexist Language-Chicken and Egg

It’s fairly common knowledge that the way we speak can help to ingrain stereotypes and can be degrading. Much of our language is inherently sexist. We often assume masculine as the default, or include diminutive endings for the feminine versions of words. Oftentimes we make words meaning “female” synonymous with weak or bad, or we use them as insults or as ways to dehumanize others. We use words like “bitch”, “pussy” or “girl” to infantilize men that we want to appear weak.

 

Many times, it seems that we assume that we can change our language. We recognize that we have no good words for women or women’s bodies that aren’t either scientific or degrading, and we try to suggest new ones, as if these words were only considered degrading by happenstance. It’s as if we just mistakenly forgot to create words for women that were appropriate and respectful, or that our insults just happen to be female-coded more often than they are male-coded.

 

However it seems to me that the reason these words are considered degrading is not happenstance. Any word that we introduce which is feminine coded that exists in society as it is today will take on a negative connotation because words associated with women are inherently negative in today’s society. Because we associate womanhood with weakness, we associate words that imply womanhood with weakness. While it’s important for us to recognize the unconscious part that language plays in our conceptions of women, it’s also important for us to recognize that simply changed our language will not help.

 

This is true in all kinds of language. In the past, people used the word “retarded” as an insult, and so to create more respect for those who are developmentally delayed, we introduced the phrase “special needs”. Unfortunately, that phrase has now become an insult. While it is important to continue to allow our language to change based upon the desires and needs of oppressed groups, we must recognize that our language responds most to the dominant groups, the people who use language most often and who have the power to control discourse. While we may want to create a word to reclaim our identity, the truth is that it’s likely to be co-opted by the dominant society and used against us because its association with our marginalized identity will necessarily give it a negative connotation.

 

As someone who is highly interested in linguistics, I respect the power that language has. But it is in a reciprocal relationship with culture. Language can’t create culture or thoughts all on its own. The Sapir-Whorf theory is pretty much bunk. Language may help us think in certain ways or confirm our ways of thinking, but we have to shape the language and we can think outside the bounds of our native language. So while we should be aware of language and work to change the problems that language reveals, we always need to remember that language is not the problem, it’s just the symptom.