As a Women’s Studies instructor, I teach about what we call “body politics.” This is just a handy way to say that how we understand our own and each others’ bodies is shaped more by society than by our bodies or our health. One aspect of body politics is weight prejudice. For a great introduction to weight prejudice, check out Marilyn Wann’s Fat!So? website.
Recently, I started thinking about how teaching about weight prejudice is similar to talking about abortion stigma.
In both situations, words are important. If you’ve been following the ACP blog, you know that we often think about the power of words to either challenge stigma or reinforce it. And you know that sometimes the words that we expect will challenge stigma actually end up reinforcing it. I find this to be true, for example, for the word overweight. When we read about body politics, my students say overweight to avoid saying the word fat, because fat is stigmatized in our society. But when we think about it, fat is merely a descriptor (like short, tall, and thin) while overweight imposes a norm: if I am overweight, I am outside some normal weight that society has defined for me and against which it judges me. Still, students stumble over the word fat.
I encourage students to consider why we are uncomfortable using a word. It could be that our discomfort reveals the power of stigma. I find this to be true in conversations about abortion, too.
All of the words we use to name abortion-- termination, stopping, removing--carry with them a lot of baggage. That baggage comes from deliberate efforts to stigmatize our decisions about our bodies and our sexuality.
Language is both slippery and revealing. A word can have many possible meanings depending on where, when, and with whom it is used. And no word ever carries pure meaning separate from everything that surrounds it (other words, people, beliefs, traditions, policies, etc.). Saying the word fat in a class discussion about weight prejudice is very different from yelling it out a car window at someone who is walking down the street. Therefore, the most empowered and empowering thing we can do is try to make sure our words are as right as possible for the time and place in which we use them.
In short, there is no one perfect word that is going to make the stigma not stick. And even if a particular word works perfectly in one setting, it probably will not work as well in another.
Instead of reaching for that perfect word, I try to be as careful as I can to understand the community and culture in which I am communicating and to use language that will be clear and understandable to the audience I am speaking with. The work of countering stigma is done not at the level of the single word but at the level of sentences (explaining what we mean with love and care) and at the level of societal change (engaging in social justice work to increase equality and reduce discrimination).
Just this morning, I heard an interview on NPR with Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist who is co-founder of Life After Hate, an anti-racist organization dedicated to promoting “compassion and forgiveness” for all people. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked him what words he has for someone who does not consider themselves to be hateful but who supports politicians or policies that promote racist principles. Picciolini said the coolest thing. He said, “You know, I tend to like to listen to people more than I speak because when I listen, they always inadvertently give me the clues on what . . . deviated their path down a certain way.” Arguing a position, he said, does not help anything. Instead, he listens to find out what is important to that person, and then he tries to help them see how compassion and care can promote what is important to them.
In other words, he uses his words with care, working at the level of sentences to move toward societal change.
It often feels like it would be a lot easier to challenge abortion stigma if we could just find a perfect word that can help us reduce or avoid it. However, I just don't believe that perfect word exists. I watch how often anti-abortion messaging has taken something that we hold very dear (like, for example, the concept of "choice") and turned it to their ends (for example, anti-abortion bumper stickers that use the word choice against us). This tells me that almost every word can be used to stigmatize and to promote compassion.
Perhaps our best strengths, then, are our nimbleness and our responsiveness, our ability to consider where, when, and with whom we are speaking, and to demonstrate great care with all the different words we use.