Words Can Also Hurt Me


Sexism is everywhere. It’s on our television screens, in our magazine advertisements, in our newspapers. It’s in our classroom settings, on public transit, and in our everyday conversations with peers, friends, or family. To understand how oppression manifests in everyday life, it is vital to focus on and unpack seemingly harmless phrases that we hear or say daily, and why they are undeniably harmful and effectively perpetuate oppressive gender roles. It’s not simply about being “politically correct,” it’s about being respectful.

Many reading this piece may believe I’m nitpicking. There are more concrete, macro-issues we should be putting our energy into: the wage gap, lack of political representation, etc., they might argue. Of course sexism is systemic, but it’s also cultural and interpersonal. And we must tackle all social realms in order to fundamentally and fully eradicate gender inequity.

  1. “Man up.” How many times have you heard “woman up?” I’ll go out on a limb here and say probably never. Maybe once—possibly ironically or as an insult. This is because “man” is automatically associated with strength and maintaining control, while “woman” is related to weakness and submissiveness. 
  2. “Boys will be boys.” This oft-used phrase excuses dangerous behaviors in boys, which they then internalize as normal and natural because “boys will be boys” communicates that whatever “boys” do is somehow natural and intrinsic instead of constructed and socialized.
  3. “Who wears the pants in the relationship?” Aka—who’s in control? Pants are coded as masculine, which as prefaced above, equates to dominance.
  4. “Stop overreacting.” If I had a nickel for every time I was told to chill out for feeling justifiably angry/frustrated, I’d be a very rich woman. ‘Overreacting’ automatically means that a situation does not warrant any sort of adverse reaction. 
  5. “You’re being hysterical.” Hysteria was a fake AF disease that men invented which doesn’t actually exist. According to a bunch of men who did not have uteri, a woman experienced hysteria when her uterus travelled throughout her body, causing mood swings. Which, of course, is complete bullshit and false science. Now, similar to “overreacting,” the term is usually used to invalidate women’s emotions.


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” we’re told again and again throughout childhood. Although language can be used to shift discourse in order to create change, words also have the ability to inflict immeasurable pain. Language is directly linked to our conception of society—how we see others and ourselves, which is supported by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a theory detailing ways language serves a direct and strong role in shaping our world views. Words, clearly, are not simply words.

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the power of language—its ability to shape the world. After taking several women’s and gender studies courses throughout my college career, I began to learn how language perpetuates and enables sexism. Because sexist language is used in everyday speech, I’ve now begun to be more critical and conscious of the words I say.

Not only does sexist language reinforce harmful gender roles, it also perpetuates a socially constructed binary that creates a gendered hierarchy, placing men at the top and women, trans individuals, and gender-nonconforming folks at the bottom. Phrases like the ones above reinforce rape culture, unhealthy relationships, and prevent us from living full, equitable lives.

We must let children, teens, and adults express themselves the way they want to. Being forced into constraining boxes is suffocating, and we need to breathe.

Sarah Muzzillo : Writer. Feminist. Student. Lover of Harry Potter, Gilmore Girls, and iced coffee.