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Why Language Matters: Facing HIV Stigma in Our Own Words

October 31, 2017

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Empowering Women Through Language

The more awareness we bring to the importance of language, the more change we see. One of the first places to start is the language we hear in our own heads -- the things we tell ourselves daily that define who we are within ourselves. Sometimes, it is the story we tell ourselves that we are not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or beautiful enough. That we deserve everything challenging that has happened to us because, somehow, we are damaged goods. This is often called negative self-talk.

There are two types of stigma: internal and external. External stigma comes from what we hear from our family, friends, healthcare providers, and others, and from what we read in the media. Internal stigma comes from self-judgment and the negative self-talk we hear in our heads. We hear these messages in our voice and the voices of our loved ones. The language used in these messages is developed by our experiences in life, with stigma and discrimination, with shame and guilt.

One way to address internalized stigma is to change the messages we say to ourselves. This helps to change how we see ourselves, and we begin to treat ourselves with more compassion. One way to do this is through mirror work and self-affirmations, and being careful about choosing the words we use to describe ourselves.

Mirror Work and Positive Affirmations

Affirmations are messages we tell ourselves. Negative self-talk is a kind of affirmation, but not a helpful one. Mirror work involves looking in the mirror and saying positive affirmations to ourselves -- messages like:

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  • "Thank you! That's wonderful!" when something good happens in your life
  • "This thing will pass, but I love you, and that is forever" when something bad happens
  • "Looking good!" as you look at your beautiful face staring back

Positive affirmations can fill our minds with thoughts that heal our negative self-image and build confidence and self-esteem.

Researchers have found that using positive affirmations and mirror work has helped many women improve their self-image, confidence, outlook on life, and ultimately their health and well-being.

Examining and Changing Our Self-Talk

A good way to start examining our own self-talk is to write down the thoughts and messages we tell ourselves. Write down the "internal script," the narrative you repeat in your head, and then review these messages by yourself or with friends. Take the time to examine the specific language and words you choose to describe yourself and your current situation.

Examples of Negative Self Talk

  • I am infected with a horrible disease and no one will love me
  • I deserve HIV and it's my fault
  • I can't do anything right; I am not good enough
  • I am an HIV-infected mother, daughter, woman

Once you've done that, then ask yourself:

  • Are these thoughts true?
  • Are these thoughts helpful?
  • Do the words and phrases tear me down, or do these internal messages empower and lift me up?

Then try replacing the old image with a new, more accurate image of yourself.

Examples of Positive Self-Talk

  • I am living with HIV and I am lovable
  • I can follow my goals and dreams and live an amazing life
  • I am a woman living with HIV and I can empower myself and others

Positive self-talk involves finding words and phrases that inspire us. It also involves using less stigmatizing words to describe ourselves and our experiences.


Changing Language, Making Change

In order to make big changes in society we must first take the little steps ourselves. When we, as people living with HIV, begin to change the language we use, others will take notice. It will take time, change always does, but it is the right time to change how we talk and write about people living with HIV.

-- Lovinglife101, "Language and HIV: 'People First'"

Beginning to think about and make changes to the language they use to talk and think about HIV has been an empowering experience for many women living with HIV. For some, this process has led to pointing out the stigmatizing language used by others in their community: family, friends, and healthcare providers. Others may take the step of reaching out to members of the media, by writing letters to the editor of a publication or using social media, when a newspaper or website uses inappropriate language. Some people join with campaigns that make changing stigmatizing language a part of their strategy. HIV advocates have even won changes to the stigmatizing language used by large institutions like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These are all powerful ways to be an advocate -- and they don't all involve being the loudest voice in a big crowd. Every time you question the use of a phrase that fuels stigma and ignorance -- even to yourself -- you contribute to building hope, and to changing our culture from one that disrespects women living with HIV, to one that uses language to support the power and dignity of all women.

[Note from TheBody.com: This article was originally published by The Well Project on Oct. 19, 2017. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with TheBody.com to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from TheBody.com or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
 

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