The Words That Stuck
You remember them.
You remember where you were and what you were doing. You remember the tone and you remember the exact phrasing. You remember the way you felt, even though it might have been years ago: that time someone said something that really cut into you.
It was somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years ago now, and I was a little kid, but I still recall the time a neighbor kid told me “you’re going to be a mustache lady when you grow up,” saying that I already had the beginnings of facial hair. I remember the humiliation and trying not to cry when I told my mom about it, and how she had me lie down so she could tweeze out the hair above my upper lip. Later there would be wax, and eyebrow grooming that left an accidental bareish patch on my brow, and a chemical hair remover that left burns and scabs above my lip.
Now, many years later, I don’t have anything that could qualify as a mustache. Like many women, I’ll employ the tweezers here and there, but I can joke comfortably about a “five o’clock shadow” that really isn’t something most people would even notice. The neighbor kid’s words don’t bother me, and people knowing them doesn’t bother me.
But at the time they were spoken, they were devastating, and I’ll always remember them. And even though they don’t hurt anymore, it’s possible that they still influence my life: would I still be tweezing if I’d never heard that?
Maybe they’re not about mustaches, but most of us have words in our past that cut us to the heart. In a culture that so highly prioritizes women’s appearances, comments about a young woman’s body can make a lasting, hurtful impact. Maybe people have said something about your weight, your feet, the way you wear your hair. Maybe it wasn’t about your looks at all, but your intelligence, the way you talk, your skill at something.
Whatever it was, you can almost certainly name something that stuck to you. You might even still be walking through your life in the shadow those words cast.
If you are, take this as a reminder that other people’s words don’t have to define you. Whatever someone else has said to you, you don’t have to live and die by it. Even if I had become a “mustache lady,” I wouldn’t have to keep the hurt and embarrassment of what was said to me. I could just wax it off and live my life. Your identity is not the things people have told you—don’t make it so. Don’t let hurtful words tell you who you are, or how valuable you are.
But even knowing that other people’s cutting words don’t have to be part of your self-definition, remember that your own words might be part of someone else’s self-image. Let the memory of the words that stuck with you change the way you speak to others. Remember to compliment more than you criticize, to stop and rethink before you say something that might hurt someone.
That’s what I really want to do. I want to contradict the critical voices and be positive, encouraging and helpful. Although I may not literally save any lives (although sometimes a word at the right time does just that), I might help change someone’s self-image. You could change someone’s self-image. Why not do it for the better?
The tongue holds enormous power, allowing us to speak words that contain life or death for others. Let’s be careful to speak for life until it sticks.