On Being Labeled a Bitch

Last week I read an article about gaslighting, which – if you don’t know – is a term that refers to a form of mental or psychological abuse. It involves manipulation on the part of the abuser, to the point that the recipient begins to believe things about himself or herself that aren’t true. There have been several articles written on this, all of them good. But now it’s my turn.

In that first link, the writer mentions what he labels “five deadly words” that men (and, sadly, sometimes other women) use to describe women in hurtful ways. The five words are slutbitchuglyfat, and crazy. Believe it or not, I have been called all of these words at one time or another except for fat. I suppose that’s simply a logic problem, though. Because of fast metabolism, luck, and a little fitness, fat has not been an accurate descriptor of me since I was about two years old. And even then, I like to say I was “delightfully chubby.”

In any case, I’ve been the victim of gaslighting. One of the examples that most hits home for me is the one that says a man calls a woman “crazy” or says she’s being oversensitive simply because she doesn’t like something that was said. This happened to me less than a week ago on Twitter. I took issue with something a guy said, and once I brought the offensive comment to his attention, rather than apologize, or think through why his comment might have offended me, he simply insulted me, starting with calling me oversensitive.

If only someone accusing me of being “oversensitive” was the rudest thing anyone had ever said to me over the years, or even the worst of the gaslighting. That first article I linked to focuses on the word crazy, but I want to talk about the word bitch.

This is the word I’ve been called the most in my life, at least, of the “five deadly words.” The worst part is that this isn’t a misogyny problem. Men have called me a bitch a lot, sure. But so have a lot of women. Some of my best friends (both male and female) have called me a bitch. None of my friends mean it as a bad thing, of course. I’ve often heard them make that disclaimer, in fact. “Oh no, I am not insulting her. I like Audra because she’s a bitch.”

When people use the word bitch as a compliment, what they are trying to say is that I’m candid, honest, blunt, unafraid to speak my mind, assertive. Sometimes they use it as a synonym for confident. Sometimes they use it to mean passionate (though, more often, when they mean passionate, I get another of the “five deadly words” attached to me: crazy). Other times, surprisingly, bitch is not a compliment, such as the times it’s used as a synonym for insensitive, uncaring, rude, impolite, speaks without thinking, tactless, unnervingly aggressive.

What’s interesting to me is a trend I’ve noticed in my friendships and interactions with people. The more someone gets to know me, the less bitchy I seem to that person. Do I change, as a person? Not really. It’s simply that they’ve gotten past the exterior shell that we all have. It’s that they’ve had more than a thirty-second conversation with me, and they’ve stuck around to hear what I have to say after I say the one or two things that might initially cause someone to label me bitchy. They hear me at 45 seconds, and 60 seconds, and 90 seconds; they hear me articulate more clearly what I meant by what I first said, and they see that there is more to me than anyone could possibly know in the first thirty seconds (as is true for all of us).

In fact, one such friend – after getting to know me quite well, and learning that I have a tendency to tear up when I’m speaking about an issue that is close to my heart, or a person I care deeply about, or even just a flaw I’ve identified in myself – told me, “Audra, I know why people are afraid of you to begin with. You can be intimidating. But all those people who turn away before they get to know you are missing out on the real you.” After he said a few more nice things about how sensitive I am capable of being, he concluded with, “I think I’d still call you a bitch. But… I dunno, it’s like that’s an incomplete description. I think it would be more accurate to say you’re a bitch with a heart of gold.” And then he laughed nervously and looked away.

So, is that the best we can do? A friend who got to know me on an intimate, authentic level still thought the best way to describe me was to use the word bitch, as long as he tacked some nice stuff onto the end? This trend of qualification, along with the tactic of using the b-word in place of nicer, more positive, more constructive – and, likely, at times, more accurate – words to describe me became commonplace to me. It got to a point where I didn’t flinch if I heard that word used to describe me. Most of the time I didn’t even bother examining the user’s motives in labeling me as such. I didn’t bother to wonder whether it was meant as a compliment or insult. I’ve been called bitch so often in my life that, somewhere along the way, I became immune to it, and then, somewhere a little further down the road, I was convinced it was actually a good thing, a positive trait about myself, a strength, and I even began to call myself that in introductions.

“Hi, I’m Audra. I’m a bitch.” (Sometimes, if I knew the person being introduced to me was someone who had heard about me previously through mutual friends, I would switch out the article a for the.)
“Hi, I’m Audra. I like to speak my mind. What can I say? I’m a bitch.”
“Hi, I’m Audra. Historically, women haven’t liked me very much. I’m just too bitchy.”

These variations and more are all methods I have employed in trying to explain myself to new people, in a nutshell. I suppose I saw it as a warning, a preemptive strike, so to speak. A classic defense mechanism, an attempt to absolve myself of future guilt or an obligation to apologize. My subconscious probably operated under the idea that if we got the [un]pleasantries out of the way at the beginning, then maybe nobody would get hurt. After all, whose fault would it be if they were warned from the get-go and then got their feelings hurt later on by something I said? Certainly not mine. Right? I was just living into who I was. I was a bitch, and they’d been warned.

And yes, I have amassed a small contingent of loyal friends (and some family) who have managed to get past my exterior walls – my bitchiness, so to speak – and know that I have feelings, and that I care. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen me cry over stupid things (like a Hallmark commercial). Maybe it’s because they’ve seen me cry over something that is very significant, grave, and important. It might be that they’ve heard me talk about an aspiration I have, or something I love and am passionate about. Or perhaps they’ve seen me pick up a crying baby and whisper some tears away. Or invite a child into my lap to read a book. Maybe it’s been an instance of me asking a friend how she’s doing, and listening quietly and willingly while she told me. Or maybe I’ve simply been caught unawares in a purely silly and honest moment with my dog.

I’ve never been lucky enough – or astute enough – to recognize or pinpoint a specific moment in time when someone went from thinking I’m cold and insensitive to understanding that I am human and that I have a heart. But numerous times I’ve been the recipient of some explanation of perspective transformation, and it’s always some version of: “Well, at first I thought you were _______; but now that I know you better I see that you’re actually ____________.”

Of course, there are a few lucky ducks who – for whatever reason, I don’t know, maybe they caught me on an extra happy day, or three weeks from my next period – have never thought I was intimidating or scary or rude or bitchy. And these people are always totally baffled when I tell them that their experience is unusual. It’s certainly not the norm, but it’s always fun when I get to have the benefit of shocking someone by telling them that I’m actually quite used to being called the b-word.

It was not until recently that I suddenly epiphanized (yes, I made that up) and came to the conclusion that it’s time to stop letting the b-word define me. Allowing people to call me that, and accepting that as an accurate label for myself, has only caused me to have thicker walls, stronger defenses, and harsher views of my own personality. It has caused damage to my perception of my self-worth, and it has weakened my ability to love myself and allow others to love me and truly know me.

Yes, I can own that people’s first impression of me is not always positive. I can even own that sometimes that’s because I say things I haven’t thought through, and that come off as impolite or tactless or insensitive. And heck, since we’ve gone this far, I’ll even be this vulnerable with you: There are absolutely times when I feel too tired, too uninterested, too busy/preoccupied, or too hurt to make the effort to be friendly and congenial and sensitive with someone else’s feelings, whether brand-new acquaintance or very old friend. I make mistakes, both from lack of awareness and from lack of intentionality.

But that’s exactly what they are: They are mistakes. And they do not, contrary to what this world has persuaded me to believe, roll down a hill like a giant snowball, building upon one another, coming to a frozen stop at the bottom and forming into Bitch Mountain, inside which one might find the essence of Audra. They just don’t. That isn’t how it works, at least not in a world where there is forgiveness, grace, and redemption. And I know that I still live in a world where there is forgiveness, grace, and redemption.

So today, I’m going to borrow a little bit of that grace for myself, and I am going to pledge to stop using the b-word to describe myself, whether in jest or sincerity. And I humbly ask you, too, to please – pretty please, with a cherry on top – stop telling me I’m a bitch.

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10 Comments

Filed under bloggy, sentimental

10 responses to “On Being Labeled a Bitch

  1. I have the opinion that everyone has their own set of “exterior walls”. What sets you apart in my mind is your authenticity/vulnerability in your what you’ve written about and your willingness to not allow the bull crap from others define your self-worth.

  2. “Historically, women haven’t liked me very much.” This woman would never have guessed that. No, seriously. I would not have guessed that, because I liked you from the start. May you be forever freed from the curse of that horrible label. Love you! ~Elizabeth

  3. Kalyn

    Audra, I can very much identify with this post because I too, believe it or not, am/was often labeled with the b-word (though I think because of very different behaviors, but with the same variety of intentions on the part of the name callers). And I too have noticed that it is men and women and they sometimes try to use it as a compliment. But that is the most backhanded compliment ever, right?

    The terrible thing about being gaslighted into thinking you’re a bitch is that at its core, it makes you subhuman. It’s not just that you’re implacable or opinionated or self-confident or any one of those synonyms that are neutral in nature. It’s that your behavior makes you less than human. It’s an awful, awful word. And if you begin to believe it, like I did for a while, it makes you forget about grace and forgiveness and redemption–because those things are for the real humans.

    I better wrap it up before my response turns into its own blog post! Good post. Valid points. And, uhm, you go girl!

    • Thanks, Kalyn. You have a strong personality I have always admired. I think that is part of what makes us such kindred spirits. You’re a wonderful friend, and I appreciate having you in my life.

  4. In many ways I identify with your personality. I have always prided myself in being able to say what I think directly and clearly. For many years I described that trait as bluntness. Then a few years ago I began to distinguish between bluntness and directness. I have decided being blunt means being direct without concern for anything but the truth and clarity. Honestly, with a nod to social convention, it’s usually just rude. It’s true. But it lacks class. Being direct, on the other hand, is being blunt but making more of an effort to speak clearly while ALSO caring for how I am being perceived. Frankly the lazy part of me would rather be blunt. But being direct commands respect from others and a much greater degree of self awareness and self control–things that are worthwhile traits to foster on our way to being better human beings.

    • Interesting distinction, Bruce. What you call ‘direct’ I tend to call diplomacy, although I diplomacy isn’t always full truth in the way that directness probably is. Diplomacy/tact are a goal of mine, though I do think this is probably something I’ll always struggle with. But you’re right. It’s laziness that causes me to forget my tact sometimes.

  5. lizzywrites

    Audra,

    You are not only NOT a bitch, you are one of the great blessings of my recent year in Kansas City.

    Love you, friend!

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