I was recently inspired by Bella DePaulo’s blog, Alone, Unattached and Other Wrong Terms for Single People[i]. This blog touched on some of the unhelpful names we give single people, names that imply singles are less-than the rest of society or missing something vital.
I can relate to this. When I was single, people referred to me as being ‘on the shelf’, inferring I was useless and only good for collecting dust. They probably did not mean to be offensive, but it came across as, ‘You’re doing something wrong, because otherwise you would be *off* the shelf’.
There are other unhelpful terms for singles as well. Terms like unhitched, uncoupled, unmarried (or its slightly more evil twin, never married). These names are all references to what is missing from the single person’s life. The ominous-sounding ‘separated’ and ‘divorced’ terms are even worse.
These names are references to what is missing from the single person’s life.
Even between men and women there are differing stereotypes. Single men are often referred to as ‘bachelors’, akin to Professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, who is portrayed as living happily in his contemplative solitude. Whereas single women are ‘spinsters’ or ‘crazy cat ladies’.
It occurs to me this problem of less-than naming applies to other groups in society. Take childless people, for example. (Let me just hop up onto my hobby-horse.) The very word indicates what is missing from the childless person’s life: children.
Alternate terms like childfree and DINKs (Double Income, No Kids) do not fare much better. They may look good at first glance, but there is an implication that childfree people and DINKs are living it up in selfish revelry.
Those with chronic illnesses, disabilities and mental health issues suffer greatly from negative terms. Words like ‘spastic’, ‘retarded’, ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’, ‘dole-bludger’ and ‘whinger’ get bandied about freely, regardless of whether or not they are true for that person.
These words get bandied about freely, regardless of whether or not they are true.
You would think, in today’s progressive society, we would have moved past such derogatory terms. Apparently not. *Sigh*
However, there is a solution. We can use our joint creativity to devise more helpful names. And we can start getting the word out.
We can use our joint creativity to devise more helpful names.
In recent years, singletons have begun referring to themselves as happily single, self-coupled or soloists. These terms turn the previous offenders on their heads. They convey the message that singles can actually be content without a romantic relationship. Shocking, I know.
Some childless people have found new ways of defining themselves. They are childless champions, raising the profile of childless issues. Melanie Notkin in her fabulous TED talk[ii] defines herself as a PANK (Professional Aunt, No Kids). She is involved in her nieces’ and nephews’ lives. Other childless women can follow her lead and become PANKs too.
And childless men can become PUNKs.
Childless people have found new ways of defining themselves.
Those with disabilities or other chronic conditions have campaigned heavily to change the social and political mindset from ‘disability’ to being ‘differently abled’. This may not resonate with everybody, but it is a step in a more positive direction.
And those with mental health issues can be referred to as ‘consumers’ or ‘those with lived experience’. It makes them the experts on their own lives. It gives them a voice, both in their treatment and in society at large.
This makes them the experts on their own lives.
The words we use definitely matter. Our language conveys meaning, beliefs, politics and support–or lack thereof. Let’s keep coming up with creative and strength-based names for ourselves. And let’s start using them.
If you are single or childless or living with a chronic condition, how do you refer to yourself? Do the words others use about you have an effect on you? How can we help re-shape society’s views of people like us? Share your story. Let’s have a countercultural conversation.