“Don’t hit like a pussy. Put your hips behind it.”
I look up from my punching bag. The man speaking to me is not my teacher, and I don’t know who he is. He looks at me pointedly and then punches my heavy bag hard, his large arms demonstrating the proper technique. The chains on the bag shake.
I watch him out of the corner of my eye because I do want to know how to properly hit someone with my full strength. But at the same time, I’m uncomfortable, and that word, pussy, momentarily magnifies my sense of powerlessness. I drop my gloved hands to my sides. I feel like the heavy bag still shaking on its chains.
Before I had my daughter, I’d not spent much time thinking about the connection between my own body and the word “pussy” — at least not as a belittling term, a way to insult a man’s masculinity, or to suggest a woman’s powerlessness. But giving birth to my daughter made me hyper aware of such slights.
In my case, I actually pushed a small human person through said female anatomy. And after that, it isn’t broken — my pussy, I mean.
I could probably do all of it again many, many times if I so desired. Not to brag or anything, but my pussy is sort of amazing, thank you very much. All pussies are because, listen, I defy anyone to find a part of the human body, male or female, that is quite as tough as a pussy, save for the uterus.
No, really, think about it.
Yet while the origins are somewhat entangled culturally and linguistically, the word “pussy” generally references female genitalia — internal and external — and when used in a belittling way, pussy suggests weakness.
The rhetorical device is synecdoche: A part (in this case, the pussy) stands in for the whole (in this case, woman). If the part is used to denote powerlessness, weakness, or ineptitude, it implies that by extension the whole is these things as well, and vice versa. Now let’s not confuse anatomy with gender, because the vagina does not make the woman; there are women without them and men with them. But the use of the word “pussy” in a derogatory way is intended to diminish all women, regardless of what is in their pants, and anyone who happens to have a vagina in their pants.
I feel comfortable saying that giving birth is one of the more challenging things that a pussy can do — although I keep hearing things about women “voting with their vaginas,” and that sounds pretty challenging as well, but I digress. The process of delivering a child into the world is truly not for the faint of heart. It is an awe-inspiring feat of strength, endurance, faith, bravery, and love.
Personally, I have never felt as strong as I did when my daughter was being born. It was the one time in my life that I did something that was clearly completely and utterly impossible, but for sheer force of will and, you know, biological science. Meanwhile, that same day, all around the world there were more than 300,000 women doing the exact same completely ridiculous feat, and most of them were also using their vaginas to do so.
I would never equate reproductive status with womanhood, because just no. Nor would I ever diminish the ways of becoming a mother that don’t involve pushing a human person through a vagina. So let’s put birth aside for a moment, because pussies are intended to do all kinds of things — primarily whatever their owners choose to do with them. And, you see, none of the other things a pussy can do are for the faint of heart. None of these things are about powerlessness. So many of the things pussies can do are about blood, pain, passion, love, pleasure…and strength.
Arguably, it is the exceptional and mystifying strength of the female anatomy that makes it the focus of constant attempts to diminish, distort, legislate, and appropriate this power — whether it is through the portrayals of crazed women in labor begging for drugs or discussions of what parts of women’s bodies are decent to expose and under what circumstances (essentially, male visual pleasure = good. Feeding babies = bad) — or attempts to limit access to birth control and safe abortions.
Or whether it is found in the reality that women are regularly abused by the men who claim to love them. Or that our made up concepts of female sexual purity are something that women still loose their lives over — both figuratively and literally. Or that young women are still being taught that it is their job to avoid sexual violence, while young men are not being regularly taught to understand sexual consent.
Women’s power is contested over and over, and holding onto it requires so much strength. Somehow, for me, all this crystalizes around that seemingly little insult: Pussy. Don’t be a pussy.
Now, I am not going to be petty here and insult the male anatomy, because I am a fan of the penis. I mean, it is no vagina, but it is pretty awesome too (and I’d hate to frighten any of them). Instead, I am going to say that all our bodies are amazing, miraculous things. All our bodies do astounding things and are due their credit.
I don’t need to diminish anyone else in order to feel as if I can claim my own strength.
But I refuse to not claim my own strength.
So I turn back to my punching bag, shaking off the man’s words. And I raise my gloves, hitting the bag with focus. My long hair sticks to the sweat on my chest and back as I repeat the pattern with my fists: One, two, slip, two, body, body. I feel one of my fingernails break in my glove, but I keep swinging.
I tell myself, over and over: Swing harder. Hit. Hit like a pussy.