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Richson: How harmful words linger

BY BRIANNE RICHSON | APRIL 04, 2014 5:00 AM

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In class, I was recently asked to think about the most harmful thing anyone ever said to me, a remark that really resonated with me in a negative way. This wasn’t a difficult exercise for me (shout out to the guy on my swim team in high school who once called me “beefy”), and probably wasn’t for most of my class, either. The reality is that as much as the strongest person is able to brush words off, negative words are often internalized whether we realize it or not.

I also recently came across a video clip on the Internet of an actor, Wil Wheaton, responding to a young girl’s inquiry about whether he had ever been called a “nerd” when he was a child, and if so, how he dealt with it. I have always found the generally negative connotation the word “nerd” has been given to be incredibly ironic; our society values success, and more often than not, success takes a certain degree of intelligence and insight.

But when it comes to displaying this necessary intelligence, over qualities of beauty, athleticism, or sociability, intelligence is not always applauded. Particularly in elementary and middle school, having the qualities of a “nerd” can mean relentless teasing. I know that I went from being excited about having to wear eyeglasses to being embarrassed that I would be made fun of, and the same story went from my younger brother, who began wearing contacts when he was barely 11 years old to maintain his sporty-jock persona.

Kids have no filter, which a lot of times makes them endearing but can also make them outwardly cruel in the most jaw-dropping sense of the word.

As Wheaton said it, “It’s never OK when a person makes fun of you for something that you didn’t choose,” and that a lot of school bullying stems from kids who “just love different things” than the so-called nerds. As eloquent as a lesson as this was to teach the precocious girl in the audience who asked Wheaton the initial question, it saddens me to disagree with Wheaton’s point that being teased for being different gets better when one is older.

There has been a significant amount of coverage lately regarding the feminist stance that the word “bossy” should be banned because of the long-term damage it can do to girls’ self-esteem. As someone who deals with the craft of language and word counts, it would go against my nature to advocate for this, but there is some merit to the idea that when someone attaches a label to us even in grade school, it turns into a voice in the corner of our minds that never quite goes away.

We are a manifestation of our interactions with the world around us, and sometimes this is not for the better. It is often not enough to embrace the qualities that another person makes fun of us for, because this indicates that there is something abnormal happening that must be acknowledged in the first place.

All we can do is wade through the labels and leave as many of them in our periphery as possible, and try to project as few of them onto others as possible, because we don’t know how permanently tainting those labels may be.


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