The Sticks and Stones Fallacy: Words Have Power 1

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
Audrey Hepburn

So it has been a little while since I last posted anything particularly substantial (I’ve been kind of busy helping the newest member of our household settle in), but this article got me actively thinking about feminism again.  Well, to be fair, since my personal epiphany I haven’t stopped mulling over it but Anne‘s words left me contemplating my own experiences – and behaviours.

I am particularly lucky. I don’t recall ever experiencing physical violence or abuse (the closest would be one of my ex’s asking me to hit him so he would be justified in hitting me back, I’m so glad he is on the other side of the planet now).  I have been subjected to mental abuse though.  Not just from men/boys, the women and girls are just as bad.  Why are we so awful to each other about the way we look?  Self proclaimed feminists who use the way someone looks to belittle or ostracise a person is just not feminist. My entire time at school has a background of feeling like there was something wrong with me and most of that feeling came from my female classmates.  I think that is why the only time I can really remember a specific incident where someone was overtly horrible to me about the way I look was when it was done by a stranger.

I was always tall for my age.  I was head and shoulders above all the other kids through primary school (I was 5’ when I was 10 and stopped growing when I was 13 and now stand at about 5’9″).  This was one of the prime reasons at that age for name calling (although my parents not being able to afford fashionable clothes and trainers did contribute).  It also meant that, at 13, a quick glance may lead a stranger to think I was closer to leaving high school than starting it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”

(old nursery rhyme which, as it turns out, is total bollox) 

The particular incident I am thinking of was when I was actually walking home from high school.  I was in Year 8 (at the time that was the lowest year at the school I went to) so was 13.  I was less than a mile from the school and on my own (for some reason I had left school later that day).  A car drove up from behind me and a lad in it called out to get my attention.  Turning to see what was happening all I got was “Ugh ugly” shouted at me by one of a the teenagers rammed into a small red car before it sped off.  I was left feeling shaken and ashamed.

Now with my ridiculously skinny and lanky frame, unruly curls and early 90’s spectacles I wasn’t exactly a classic beauty, but I certainly wasn’t ugly.  The writers of Shallow Hal  got it right when they showed us that ugliness and beauty come from within.  I certainly didn’t deserve such treatment from a complete stranger.  Or anyone, come to that.  Now was this something a woman would do to someone? Would she go out of her way to get another individual she didn’t know to turn around just so she could see what they looked like and then pronounce their judgement loudly in front of a group of their friends? I’m not sure what the answer is to be honest – for me to make a sweeping generalisation just wouldn’t be feminist, after all, would it?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me your words will always have the power to hurt me.”

That brief moment was over 20 years ago but it still sits in the back of my mind.  It is one of many experiences which dictate how I react to compliments from men.  It has also left a lingering distrust of groups of men when they look my way.  While I was single I was paranoid that a bunch of lads on their night out would be playing some twisted game (such as “Pull a Pig“) if one came to speak to me.

From xkcd - words have power

source: xkcd

Those kind of experiences are still shaping the way girls and women grow to view themselves, and that’s just not right.  It can’t be excused as “a bit of banter” because it’s not.  It’s up there with racist and xenophobic behaviour, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, misandry and every other type of prejudice you can name (there are too many for me to remember and/or know the formal names for them).  Prejudice breeds bullying, tribalism and contempt – and in the extreme they can lead to terrorism and war.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

So whilst this article focuses on one experience of a white girl living in the English Home Counties my main message is this.

Words have the power to build great things.  They can also bring them down.  Let’s make sure our kids know that too.  They are the next group of our society builders and they need a good foundation to build it on.

With great power comes great responsibility.  Be a superhero.



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