I remember my senior spring rowing season for three things.

  1. The Title IX 40th anniversary commemorative photo:

IX

2. Almost getting kicked out of the NCAA for a non-reason

3. Purchasing a shirt.

The shirt was a black racerback top with a Harley Davidson logo and the words “FAT GIRL” emblazoned on the front. It was the lightest shirt I owned—a breathtaking 0.15 pounds—which I knew because I spent a non–trivial portion of my life stepping onto the scale, stepping off, taking off my shirt, stepping on, noting the difference, stepping off, putting the shirt back on, repeat.

I knew that the team scale measured me to be, on average, 0.4 pounds heavier than my own scale, and so I had to know whether I would hit my targets while clothed. The super-light “fat girl” shirt eliminated the need for me to sometimes take off my shirt and step onto the team scale in a sports bra, at which point the assistant coach would lean down to peer at my tattoo and comment in a nasally voice “Is that a peregrine falcon?” (It isn’t).

The shirt, though, had an additional advantage: it made the head coach uncomfortable. He kept trying to pawn off this notion on me that he wanted me to lose weight “for my health,” as opposed to the actual reason that he thought me losing 10 lbs would make the boat go faster. He acted as if I were unhealthy and it was his job to save me.

In buying that shirt and wearing it to weigh-in, I claimed my identity as the “heavy coxswain,” which I would always be to him no matter what I weighed. And once that happened, calling me names no longer gave him confidence: to do it made him nervous. And I noticed.

And I wondered if I had handled insults all wrong all my life.

I wondered, more generally, if there’s any utility in reclaiming the names that we get called, rather than ignoring them. The former seems to rob the name-callers of power in a way that the latter just doesn’t. And maybe, in the process, we become more whole, too.

Earlier this year, someone called me a Luddite because I refused to use Tinder. Maybe it was an offhand comment, but it kept me awake that night.

Those are the names I’m talking about: the insidious ones that get to you. The ones that poke at your softest spots because you wonder whether they could be, maybe, just a little bit true.

And so, what if I allow myself to entertain that possibility? That is, what if I ask myself something like this: Ok, let’s say that this is partially true. So what? Is there something that I can to make it untrue? And if there is, do I WANT to make it untrue?

If somebody calls me a Luddite, maybe I should consider whether I dismiss technology to avoid my fear or failure to understand. Maybe I want to rethink my position. Maybe, just maybe, becoming a programmer allowed me to understand technology better, fear it less, and appreciate it more. Not precisely because someone called me a Luddite, but because at some point I realized that I carried a faint aura of Luddism that I did not feel at home with.

But maybe there are other things about me that I do feel at home with—even if other people make nasty comments. Maybe I don’t want to change the thing about myself that they’re insulting. Or maybe I, you know, can’t, or I’m already in the process of changing the thing and it’s just a slow process. In those cases, maybe I ought to look for a way to reclaim the name they’re calling me. Because “ignoring it” or “letting it roll off” just plain doesn’t work in the real world. And because, in the meantime, it carries a kernel of truth, but that doesn’t mean I have to hate myself for it or let other people wield it against me.

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