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 slut, bitch, ugly, fat, 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.