Reclaiming words is officially a thing. From queer, to slut and even n*gga marginalised groups are taking back the words so often used against them and wearing them with pride.
To an extent it seems like a radical move. Reappropriation allows people to own their identities and stick two fingers up at haters in the process. When I first discovered Queer Theory was a thing I enjoyed its stubborn and subversive nature. The first ever SlutWalk in 2011 felt so brilliantly revolutionary and brought women together in a way I’d personally never seen before. It felt like a beginning and got the ball rolling for the mainstream revival of feminism that we’ve enjoyed in recent years. In the same vein calling myself a slut feels liberating; I feel lucky that I live in a society that allows me my sexual freedom.
But there’s another part of me that feels uneasy about using these words. Should we not just put them to bed and banish them completely? It’s safer than leaving them out in the open where they can still be used against us. As someone who loves words, and the wonderful rolling wave-esque way that language continually evolves I’m not entirely keen on this idea of some words being of limits. Words (and a desire to shock) are my thing and some of my favourite words are those that a lot of people tend to avoid. At the end of the day though, it makes sense to call a ceasefire on a culture where there are rules over who can say what and when. It blurs the lines between what’s okay and what’s not and makes the divide between them and us even more intense. Makes us even more apart, separate and opposite. I can call my friend a whore, but if you say it you’ll be on the receiving end of hell. This is not my kind equality; this is a some people are more equal than others kind of equality and it’s bound to end in tears.
Having been on the receiving end of sexism, homophobia and classism myself I can tell you it’s not pretty. The kind of people who hate on minorities definitely don’t need any more fuel for their vitriolic fires. Let’s not give them a get out clause, or be accused of hypocrisy for preventing them from using words we ourselves bandy around like there’s no tomorrow.
On top of this, there’s the fact that the only words feminists have reclaimed are those that continue to define women by their sexualities. Surely this just perpetuates the patriarchal idea that women are purely here for enjoyment of men. That, as an entire gender, we are split up into virgins and whores. There’s a whole litany of other words used against women that have never been reclaimed; words that are part of an unequal his and her pair. Spinster for example, is not something I’ve ever heard anyone call themselves with pride.
For myself, and most of the other young feminists I know, calling yourself a slut is no hard feat. It’s a joke, a term of endearment and for some of us a home truth we revel in. The word slips off my tongue on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. And perhaps the reason why I find it so easy to use this word is because it’s not one hundred percent a compliment.
The words that don’t come as easily for me are those that praise myself. While I’ll never have the confidence to call myself intelligent or even kind, and I’ll physically squirm if anyone tells me I look okay I’m totally up for recounting how rubbish I am with directions. How I still struggle with left and right. How one time I couldn’t remember whether the past tense of split was ‘splat’ or ‘splitted’. Pulling yourself down is just easier, funnier and doesn’t run the risk of being perceived as arrogant. And this isn’t just a personal problem. In recent years girl’s self-esteem has been dramatically lower than boy’s. The Girl Guides’ 2015 Girls Attitudes Survey found that 37% of the girls and young women surveyed said that they had personally needed help with their mental health.
The media and the misogynists have long since been blamed for this pandemic of low self-esteem and the mental health problems that come with it. For the fact that women don’t respect themselves and their bodies. For making us feel unworthy, unattractive and immoral. In the same survey mentioned above, 52% of young girls and women had felt uncomfortable about images that sexualised women in newspapers and magazines in the past week alone. It was also the media who first coined the term ‘suffragette’ and used it as an insult against the women fighting for their right to vote. Should we take inspiration from the suffragettes and own ‘cankles’ and ‘cellulite’? Should we draw red circles around our own flaws and wear them as a fashion accessory? Does this take back power or does it just play right into their hands?
I grew up with girls who starved themselves, harmed themselves and tore themselves down in the blink of an eye. I don’t think we need any more words that the world can use against us when we’re already our own worst enemies. We need words that make us feel good about ourselves. Words that everyone can use without causing offence. In a world that continually divides and attacks and pits one group against another, only bringing people together is truly subversive.
I have some fabulous friends who are so brilliant at complimenting themselves and I love them for it. They can literally look themselves up and down in a shop window or a bedroom mirror and say out loud, ‘yeah I look hot.’ They can read an essay or a poem they wrote and celebrate how clever they are. They make me want every woman in the world to be able to do the same.
Maybe these words are the words that we should be reclaiming. The words that make us love ourselves. Those are the words that make us feel powerful.