What’s in a word? Jenna Opsahl discusses how we see the word ‘bitch’….
There is a camping trip I can’t seem to forget. It was the camping trip where I talked to a new friend about the boy I liked for hours, the trip where I tried my first taste of alcohol at the ripe age of 15 (Mike’s Hard Lemonade – god, how I hate the taste now), the trip – though it sounds ridiculously dramatic – that changed my life.
We were camping for three nights and the showers were incredibly cold. I decided there would be no hope for my hair so my best bet would be to put it up and let it at least become a mess out of my way. He was a man of about 30 who clearly felt weird being around a bunch of teenage girls. My hair had been up most of the trip, but there was one moment when we were sitting around the picnic table and I took it down; the cousin looked at me and said, “You are actually pretty with your hair down. You looked like a bitch before.” Perhaps I appeared uptight or maybe horrifically ugly, I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about what made him see me as a bitch, I just knew that he did. My friends kind of laughed while I sat there, not knowing what to say. One part of my 15-year-old self was like Wow someone thinks I’m pretty! Perhaps not all the time, but pretty nonetheless! But a part of me wondered about the other part of his comment: Am I really a bitch? Or at least, do I look like one?
I think from that day on, I pretty much accepted that I either looked like a “bitch” or was a “bitch” throughout the rest of my high school career, and some of college. I carried that word with me as part of my identity. I threw the word around to describe myself and other girls. I used it when talking about a moment when I was particularly loud or outspoken. Or when I would confess my ambitions or confidence in myself. “Yeah well, I’m a bitch, so…”
I’ve recently started to really think about the word “bitch.” Something about it has been rubbing me the wrong way these days. I only just realised how often I hear the word, and how often I use it. After years of it being ingrained into my vocabulary, I’ve started asking myself questions about the connotations of the word. How do my everyday actions; speaking, clothing choices et al, make me a bitch? And why did I accept the label? And, more annoyingly, why did one dude telling me I looked like a bitch make me feel like I could call myself and other girls that same name? Sadly, I’m pretty sure we can all guess why; I was a young girl who was being told many things about the way her body and appearance represented her. I was feeling the pressures of being attractive and because of that, the word had authority. To suddenly hear I did not come off as attractive, but instead as a “bitch” was hurtful and worrying. It’s amazing that the words of a man I cared very little for could suddenly change the way I saw myself and the way I made the world see me.
It is really an inescapable word – it seems like once it is used against you, it sticks. Unhappily ever after, you are left calling yourself a bitch for speaking up or acting boldly. Or, my least favorite, referring to yourself as having “chronic bitch face.” It’s not only lost on me why women are expected to look constantly happy, but how they’re meant to. My relaxed face muscles are not an invitation for you to remark on how I look angry or upset. I refuse to walk around “smizing” at everyone and I certainly oppose the idea that if I do not do such a thing I deserve to be called some derogatory word.
“Bitch” stands in for “rude,” “annoying,” “cold” and the like, but is used solely against women. I thought it was time I did some digging; I found that it is related to one of the most badass Greek goddesses around: Artemis. Artemis, the virgin goddess, roamed the hills and forests, wishing never to marry but instead to protect women and girls. She hunted with a pack of female dogs, called, of course, bitches. In time, this name was transmitted from the dogs to the goddess herself. Perhaps in the beginning the term was used with respect, equating the fierceness of the dogs with Artemis’s integrity. Beyond that point, however, there was a shift from positive to negative in which “bitch” is used to describe Artemis as a closed-off female body–one that does not permit male input either physically or figuratively. Uh oh.
I recieved the word negatively when it was thrust upon me. As a bitch, I was not desirable to him. It was hurtful at the time. But is there not power in that? When I think of it now, how wonderful is it to be stripped of the expectation of being attractive? Thank god he didn’t find me attractive: a man twice my age for starters, but also a man seeking to assert his dominance over me by putting me down. I have no desire to be desirable to men like that; people don’t know what to do with women who aren’t seeking to be attractive. Clearly, they call them bitches at age 15.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of women reclaim the word “bitch.” We are banding together, making the word positive yet again. We’re being complete badasses and aligning ourselves with Artemis’s power and integrity. A bitch to me now is a woman who is wild and uncontrollable. One who lets no one dictate the terms of her existence. It has been so incredible to hear a word once used against me, a word that has been so misunderstood, become a source of pride amongst women. Our reclamation of the word is our communal yell that we will not be silenced. And we won’t accept weird old dudes commenting on our appearance, or any part of us.
My relationship with “bitch” is a complex one. Some days, I loathe the word because it reminds me of the cruel things that have been said about me or by me. Others, I am feeling strong in the rebellion of my sisters. I cheer when Amy Poehler and Tina Fey tell me that “Bitches Get Stuff Done!” and Amber Rose encourages me to be a bad bitch.
The term holds power for us, and thank goddess for that.
Follow Jenna on Instagram: @nibinquiel
Illustration: Mitucami Mituca