Jan 31, 2011

Posted by in Articles, Health & Wellness, Self-Care | 0 Comments

Four Letter Words

Four Letter Words

When did “old” become a four-letter word? Is there a hidden and silent “x” sandwiched between the “o” and the “l” or, perhaps the “l” and the “d”? And how about “fat”? Perhaps, while I wasn’t looking, Ms. Miriam Webster decided to conceal a “j” after the final letter. I could understand her wanting to do such a thing. After all, our language is lacking in “j’s” and one might feel sorry for that lonely letter.

The problem arises not so much in the proper spelling of the words, nor the pronunciation, but in the fact that these simple three-letter words are now saddled with the same negative connotations that we find in many other four-letter words. The difference being that we are taught from early childhood that four-letter words are too rude to say in public, while “fat” and “old” are not only spoken aloud, but seem to conjure up shrieks of contempt.

As a case in point, please allow me to tell you about an incident that happened between me, my four-year-old granddaughter and her mother. We were off to the American Girl Doll Café in New York City one day last summer when I announced to young Emily that I was going to buy a doll for myself. I had my eye on one named Molly who, according to her “story,” was born the same year I was. Emily looked at me quite taken aback and announced, “You can’t, Grams. You can’t buy a doll.” When I asked her why not, she immediately replied, “You’re old”.

I cannot adequately describe the look of horror on her mother’s face as she was about to lecture Emily on the inappropriateness of calling her grandmother old. That’s when I rushed into the fray and halted their conversation. After all, Emily was four and I was fifty-eight years older (you do the math). In her eyes I was old. And she was correct. The problem was not that she used that word; the problem was that there was no problem at all, and to chastise her for using that straightforward three letter word was tantamount to turning it into a four-letter word. What I chose to do was halt the conversation between mother and child and interject that, well, yes, she was quite correct. “However”, I continued, “Grams can still buy a doll and love that doll just as much as Emily would love the doll I bought for her that day.”

And that was that. Emily was young. I am old. And old can buy a doll. And all of sudden, “old” wasn’t a four-letter word.

How about “fat”? For some strange reason our culture has turned that into a four-letter word while “thin” is held in the highest esteem. I am not referring to health issues here, but the presumption that folks who carry extra weight on their frames are inferior to the lighter members of our society. This has become such an issue that to refer to someone as “fat” is the equivalent of calling him or her, well, one of those words I have been taught to not speak in public.

Picture yourself entering a restaurant in advance of your luncheon companion. You might be obliged to describe her to the maitre d’ and, even though she might be someone who is one hundred pounds overweight you will use every other adjective in the dictionary to help your waiter spot your friend when she arrives. You will tell him that she is five feet seven and a half inches tall; has mousy brown mid-length, curly hair; has blue eyes and sports tortoise shell framed bi-focals. You will not, under any circumstances, use the word “fat.”

And what if you did? What if you dared to describe your friend as fat just as Emily was allowed to call me old? What if we all challenged the stereotype that the words “old” and “fat” are bad and wrong and immoral? I am old; Emily is young. You might be slim; your friend is fat. And all of those words are equally acceptable and carry no unnecessary condemnation.

There are many such adjectives – of all length – in our language. Let’s stop endowing them with negative connotations. Let’s stop turning them all into four-letter words. And to successfully do that, we need to start with our children. Emily, it’s alright to call me old because “old” is a wonderful thing to be. As for fat? Well, I suspect that Queen Latifah has heard that word more than a few times in her life. Fat is, indeed, one of the many words one would use to describe her physicality. And she is also beautiful.

It is our understanding and acceptance of our culture’s skewed perception of such age-related and body issues that will enable our children to grow into healthy adults; accepting their own bodies as well as those around them. The power to end such ageism and negativity lies within us. We need to start by honoring ourselves – at any age and any stage so our children will do the same.

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