There are certain words that get hurled at women that are overtly malicious in their intention — words that leave little room for interpretation because they are that derogatory. But if you peel back the top layer of misogynistic remarks, there's another layer sitting just below the surface. This subtext consists of all of the insidious words used to insult women. These are the words our culture chooses to make women smaller. They are the words used to subtly cut us down to size ... to diminish us and make us fit into a certain mold.
Such is the crux of microaggressions. A microaggression, by design, marginalizes someone or a group of people. It isn't as in-your-face hateful as a straight-up insult or slur; rather, it is a subtly offensive comment that creeps into your psyche and wreaks havoc. That's why it's so hard to recognize when someone is using a microaggression against you, because the weight of the remark typically doesn't sink in until much later. In fact, you may not be aware of the damage it has caused until another person points it out — and what's more, sometimes people use them without even realizing they are. These kinds of comments are insidious in the way they gradually break us down, like waves eroding the seashore — a quiet yet undulating assault on our self-worth.
Because these words are embedded in our culture, they can be hard to quantify. So here's a little help spotting them for what they are.
This is often passed off as an observation when, in reality, it's used to pass judgement. For example, it might be said of a woman, "Oh yes, Karen... she's very dramatic." And while the packaging of that remark seems innocuous enough, it is rife with the insinuation that Karen is too something: too colorful, too loud, too sensitive, too much.
We all know this trope by now, right? The "high-maintenance woman" is the one with the flawless manicure, the one who wears makeup at the gym, and the one who can't leave the house without every hair in place. Interestingly, men use this term to deride women — yet, at the same time, often expect nothing less from women they date than this type of high-maintenance behavior.
Logic and emotions are not mutually exclusive, but it seems some people missed that memo. We know this because women are dubbed "irrational" when they try to bring feeling, emotion, or intuition into a conversation or situation.
Bossy has become a bit easier to identify, thanks to the "Ban Bossy" campaign led by Sheryl Sandberg. And let's not forget Queen Bey's infamous clap-back, "I'm not bossy; I'm the boss." Again, like ambitious, this is a term used in a flattering context when describing men but used as a pejorative when describing women filling the exact same roles.
Sometimes, people are annoying. Sometimes, you have a bad day at work. Sometimes, things stress you out. Notice a pattern? These are experiences everyone has — not just women. Expressing displeasure from time to time is perfectly normal and healthy and not an indicator a woman is PMS'ing or anything of the sort. As one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, says, "Flowers don't bloom all year long; why should we have to?"
How can ambition be a a bad thing, you say? The word itself is not the problem. Rather, it's the way in which it is used against women. When men are described as ambitious, this is a positive trait. They are driven! They are successful! But when a woman is described as ambitious, the connotation is that she is shrill or frigid or unfeminine.
Not only is this term insidious in a sexist sense, but it is also a microaggression in terms of mental health. So yeah, just nope. Nopety nope nope.
People (often straight, cisgender men) like to slip this into conversation casually, when it is anything but — if a woman doesn't return your interest or express interest in your, she is not being a tease. She just isn't interested in you, bruh. And calling a woman a tease, even "playfully," dangerously implies that a woman who doesn't return a man's advances is playing some intentional game of sexual cat-and-mouse.
I'm going to share with you something that will very likely infuriate you — in some dictionaries, frumpy is quite literally defined as "a girl or woman regarded as dull, plain, or unfashionable." Say hello to the gendered microaggression, everyone! 'Cause only women can be frumpy, apparently.
To be clear, the word emotional is defined as "of or relating to a person's emotions." So strictly by definition, we are all emotional. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US. It's wholly natural to have emotions, so stop telling us we are "getting too emotional" anytime we express them. No such thing, dudes.
Women have started reclaiming this word in an empowered way, but it is still often used as a pejorative when describing a woman who is outspoken or opinionated. And this is a bad thing why? Enough with the labels already.
OK, admittedly, this one is less micro-aggressive and more macro-aggressive. But still, it merits mentioning because it has become so commonplace that women have practically become accustomed to being described this way if we dare to disagree with someone (especially when that someone is part of the patriarchy). When have you ever heard a man described as b*tchy? Never? Food for thought, my friends.