The first time I was ever called a bitch was probably behind my back. The first time I remember being called a bitch was in sixth grade by someone who was once a friend. She was mad because I told people she had uninvited me to her birthday party.
The last time I was ever called a bitch was probably some time today, but the word feels lighter on my shoulders now than it did when I was 12.
Words can hurt.
I learned this for the first time when a boy called me fat on the school bus in elementary school. Other things hurt too, I learned, when my best friend (whom I still call my best friend 15 years later) kicked said boy directly in the shin on that school bus in elementary school because of what he said. She was wearing open-toed sandals and a denim skirt and no one on that bus ever said anything like that to me or her ever again.
Words can heal.
I learned this at 12 years old, when instead of talking to my older sister, mother, or friends when things went wrong, I would sit in my room and scribble whatever I was feeling into a one subject, forest green notebook which eventually became a black notebook and many other subsequent bound journals since then. Formulating sentences, no matter how grammatically incorrect they were, made the feeling after an especially bad day not only bearable, but transformed the hurt I felt into power. I could write about the things that bothered me and I truly felt that after doing so, those things could no longer affect me and they could only continue to exist on that piece of paper.
Now, as a nineteen year old that barely remembers being called fat on the school bus, or being called a bitch via text message on my first ever cell phone, words are my greatest asset. I made the conscious yet terrifying decision to pay for four years of school to learn about words.
I’ve learned that words can evolve.
The evolution of what the word “bitch” means to me started when I realized what actions of mine resulted in the label: when I took a chance and made a big move during a soccer game that payed off, a girl on the other team would say it; when I made a rational point during a debate or argument; when I put my own personal needs and goals above someone else’s. In those moments I was a bitch.
What started off as a word I was called after confronting a friend in the sixth grade turned into my title when I was the only person to call out the popular girl in high school for manipulating her peers. That turned into the name I was called when I rejected a guy’s advances during a night out or when I refused to smile back to one on the street. Which turned into a phrase of encouragement, “don’t be a bitch” eventually no longer felt like an insult, it was a phrase that would get me to step outside my comfort zone for a short while — and most of the time it paid off. All of these experiences, while uniquely my own, are often eerily reflected in the experiences of other females as well.
To me, being a bitch means to be powerful and to be smart. To be called a bitch means my mere existence is so intimidating to someone they couldn’t think of a better insult. To be a bitch is to be independent and self-serving and outspoken. To be a bitch means to be wholeheartedly woman.
Now “bitch” is a greeting I give to my closest friends that they don’t think twice about. It’s the name of a feminist magazine I dream of sharing my ideas and words with. It’s a word I have heard so many times by people trying to make women feel guilty for their actions. A guilt that is so ingrained in us that when a word like bitch is linked to it we feel conditioned to be offended.
I also started to play close attention to what situations made me want to use the word as a label for someone else. Was it because of something they did to me? Or was it because I saw the negative parts of my own identity in them? For the longest time, “bitch” was my default when another woman made me feel threatened or less than, not realizing that female competition is the root of many of society’s sexist problems today.
My relationship with the word bitch is not universal and I don’t expect other people to share my feelings. There are social contexts in which I would never use the word toward others or invite the use of the word towards me. There is a mutual respect (or lack thereof) that I believe goes into each and every utterance of the word “bitch”. And although I’ve come to accept the label for what it is in my own eyes, I understand that others may not share my point of view and that’s okay. It’s not even about the word, it’s about recognizing that I, and all women, are justified in doing what we want, when we want, even if the product of our behavior leads to thoughtless name calling. If doing the same things a man can do makes us bitches, so be it.
I refuse to give in to the preconceived fear of this “b-word” because there are so many worse b-words a person can be: boring, bitter, broken. I’ll take bitch over any of those things any day.