Decades ago, when a young girl would come home in tears, after braving schoolyard taunts, her parents would often pull her into their arms and quip, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” As recently as the ’80s, when I was a girl, “sticks and stones” was the most popular way of addressing bullying. It was a cute, temporary balm with a moderate success rate. Armed with her newly taught axiom, a girl might puff out her chest with confidence and deflect whatever teasing came her way. It was also possible that, try as she might, she just couldn’t convince herself that the words she was hearing day in and day out weren’t having a debilitating effect on her esteem.

With the advent of the internet and the rise of incessant online commentary, words have become irretrievable in ways they weren’t all those decades ago. It’s one thing for 20 kids on a playground to overhear an insult; it’s another entirely for 200 billion people to share, retweet, upload, and email that insult within two days’ time. The viral nature of today’s insults make them near-impossible to just shrug off. Instead, they metastasize into even larger, more complex insults that have ways of cropping back up just when you think everyone’s forgotten them.

In her Washington Post op-ed yesterday, Sally Jenkins somehow managed to make this point–that online, viral taunting and criticism erode girls’ confidence–while also trotting out the tired “sticks and stones” meme. The title of her piece, “Gabby Douglas needs to avoid letting others set the narrative for her,” suggests that Douglas, at 16, has the ability to deflect the hundreds of thousands of retweeted and shared news briefs on her appearance, her mother’s bankruptcy, and her “loss of focus.” Jenkins claims:

“Clearly, someone should have shut her down and taken away her electronics. It took just four days to suck all the vibrancy out of Douglas. First, she awoke after the achievement of a lifetime to a ludicrous, racially loaded conversation about the neatness of her coif, started by a bunch of Twitter critics…. We moved from there to a revelation that her mother, Natalie Hawkins, was forced to file for bankruptcy this year, and that she is somewhat estranged from her father, an Air Force staff sergeant who served in the Middle East, over child support issues. ”

But would that have been enough? And would that have protected her mother, who still would’ve been fielding all the intrusive questions her daughter was blocking? It’s naive to think that, by avoiding Twitter or shutting down internet access entirely, Douglas wouldn’t have become aware of Hairgate or the coverage of her parents’ financial problems. It’s naive to think anything she did would’ve insulated her from all the speculating, judgmental, critical words that have proliferated since she got to London. Reporters have been actively soliciting her opinions on these stories–essentially repeating taunts and digs–the whole time she’s been there.

It’s also naive to think that the sticks and stones approach would help her–or anyone else who’s experiencing written attacks online. Take hurdler Lolo Jones, who tearfully explained to a reporter the damaging effects of pervasive criticism: “It’s hard to be positive all the time when so many people doubt your abilities.”

The “sticks and stones”/”dirt off your shoulders”/”hi, haters” approach isn’t working any better for Jones at 29 as people like Sally Jenkins (unrealistically) expect it to work for Gabby Douglas. We need to broach the subject of words and their power differently. Rather than placing the onus on the critiqued (and harassed) to ignore what’s being said about them, we need to allow for them to just as frank and direct about the effect of these incessant criticisms on their esteem and their performance.

We owe it to the girls in our lives to just let the “sticks and stones” thing die out with our generation. Hopefully, they’ll spend far less time playing to the culture’s expectation that they “toughen up” and “just ignore them” and more time taking people to task for the damage they’re causing.

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  • Hurt people hurt people. People that insult others are just doing it in a misguided attempt to make themselves feel superior.

    Gabby Douglas specifically: I do think it is reasonable to think that she could have avoided all/the vast majority of media while in London. When I heard she had given an interview to the NY post, I thought “Why is she giving interviews? Isn’t she still competing?” Just like she avoided watching her competitors, she could have avoided the media. As far as news outlets airing her dirty laundry: Um, that’s what the media does.

    Of course, people shouldn’t say mean things to other people. But you can’t control other people, you can only control yourself. You can try to persuade others to be nicer, but ultimately you have to figure out a way to handle the negativity that comes your way.

  • MommieDearest

    Great article. I think it’s sad that the onus always falls on the bullied to avoid their bullies. People bully others (verbally, emotionally, physically) because they can. And they know they can get away with it. Bullies are not going to stop bullying of their own free will, and the bullied should not have to change their routine just so they can live and function in peace. What must happen is that bullies need to be held accountable for their actions and punished accordingly. Swiftly. That is the only language they understand.

  • Echo

    When I was younger, from time to time I was teased or mistreated by girls in my class, who were my “friends”. It was awful–I’d go to school and find out so and so and such and such weren’t talking to me (after all had been fine and lovely the day before, no beef), and the ring leader would have most if not all of the other kids in class in on the snub. Now, let me go ahead and admit that I had participated in this bullish*t before, but it suddenly felt all kinds of different when it was my turn to be ignored for the day! And it happened to me more frequently than it did others in the class. So finally my mom sat me down and we had a long talk about how some girls are mean and hateful to other girls because the “mean girls” perceive the object of their taunts to be smarter, prettier, more popular, whatever. It mattered not that I was none of those things compared to the girl who treated me to this kind of “friendship”, and when at last I decided to confront her about it I no longer desired her acquaintance and had forged new friendships that weren’t as stressful. My mom was instrumental in helping me find the words–sometimes not necessarily age-appropriate, HAHA!–to stand up for myself. I think it’s essential that girls and women establish strong friendships with one another, but just as important that young girls in particular know when to walk away from girlfriends who are hurtful and cruel to them.

  • Kenzy

    thank you so much for this article its been a busy day for me so i just now got to see Lolo crying over that NY times article and I thought..OMG here were are they actually even made it to the olympics and already we (we im not sure if its black america, all of america, mainstream media or all of the above) are almost deliberately trying to tear down any black woman athlete that has gotten a little shine. I find it no coincidence that the two most visible black female athletes have been ripped apart by the same people who were saying Go Gabby and Go Lolo. What is even sadder to me is that I also find it no coincidence that BOTH lost in their events after the media and society ripped them apart. Maybe because I was teased horribly as a child but I have NEVER believed that sticks and stones crap.. Words are powerful words hold meaning and words HURT…..BAD… After reading about Lolo im just disgusted with everyone on that front…can the people criticizing even make it to the olympics…NO..and now watch as they have torn down these two women to the point that they lost and i guarantee there will be more articles about how horrible they lost further tying in to them being totally justified in their sick minds for tearing them down in the first place now acknowledging their fault in it.

  • Bebe

    I really do b believe that words have no greater power than we ascribe them. However, I doubt that think that when someone intentionally hurts their feelings and destroys their pride and joy in the acknowledgement of ‘self.’ If you let thye good people speak of you get in your head, then you’ll let the bad they speak get in your heart. Shut ’em down.