My husband, who is American, first introduced me to the word “negging.” Although I hadn’t come across it before setting foot in America, I soon came to realize it was a concept that knew few cultural bounds. The Urban Dictionary (UD) defines negging as “[when] you use remarks to tap into female insecurity; shake their confidence…neg is a negative remark wrapped in a back-handed compliment.” In the West, as I have learned, negging tends to target a woman’s physical attributes, often as a pick up line. Thus, as the UD again illustrates: “You are nearly as tall as me. I like tall girls (LIFT). Are those heels 4 or 5 inches (DROP)?”
I’m from India and thought I’d provide an example of negging to illustrate its varied and glorious forms. Back when I was growing up, dating wasn’t socially acceptable in my culture – it often had to be done on the sly which probably explains why negging as a pick up line wasn’t the smartest choice. But we South Asians had and continue to have our own cultural equivalents of underhand methods specifically designed to erode a woman’s sense of self.
A friend of mine, let’s call her Mita, once described a favorite game of her ex-husband’s – Do-you-know-the-meaning-of-this? Apparently he would throw a word at her and ask if she knew what it meant. “Ambrosia?” Mita would excitedly – and naively – venture a few wrong guesses at which point he would gleefully proceed to correct her: “Food of the gods.” This game continued a few times until she caught on to the fact that the whole point of the exercise was not to enrich his lexical abilities, but to humiliate her; he would watch her face earnestly trying to come up with an answer, only to eventually put her in place by declaring the winner. Why did it take Mita a few tries to really understand that this was just one of his sick mind games? Why did she not call him on it the second time? But more importantly, what exactly was he thinking?
The first two questions are related to so many other curious ones: why did she not walk out on him when he beat her the first time? Did she enable her tormentor by “acquiescing” to the violence? Was she equally complicit in the unfolding of her own destruction? The question of why women stay in abusive relationships is a complicated one. While most would automatically go into defensive mode when confronted with a stranger’s harsh words, it is not the same when it comes from someone you know and love, and who, you believe, loves you back. There are many factors that go into justifying unacceptable and abusive behavior – he/she didn’t mean it, it was a one-time thing, or just plain denial; it never happened. When you love someone, as a parent, child, sibling or spouse, your whole worldview towards that person changes, and the rule book is tossed out, only to be replaced by simple faith in him/ her.
It’s the second question that is of more interest to me. Just what was going on with him when he initiated the game? Now, Mita’s husband like Mita herself was an intelligent man – an engineer, which in India to a woman also means “you-are-indebted-to-him-forever” for thus elevating your own station in life. But obviously there was some area in which he was feeling inadequate. Why else would he have to assert his ego in so childish a manner? The answer lies in the most basic Principle of Patriarchy – Control.
The best way of showing a woman her place is to have a metaphoric firm hand over her, the effects of which can be just as, if not more devastating, than literally raising a hand on someone. In attempting to humiliate her by what he saw as letting her make a fool of herself, he was not only putting her down, he was also guaranteeing that every time she was unsure of herself, she would have to be “corrected.” But more than anything, he was in subtle ways telling her that he would always be there when she failed – which would be often; that he would provide her with all the right answers to life.
In fact, Mita used to narrate how he would often triumphantly say, “You disagree with me now, but eventually you’ll end up agreeing with me. Just you see.” Did he not pause to think that perhaps she felt like she always had to end up agreeing with him? Did he not notice that eventually she always gave in, leaving the situation to his “wise ways?” This form of control is among the most devious because you can’t see it sneaking up behind you. Before you know it, you are devoid of confidence, with no faith in yourself, but always “reassured” that your husband will catch you before you fall, to put a positive spin on it. Or to use Mita’s husband’s less subtle declaration – he was only trying to “improve” her.
Control comes in many forms – forceful and hard-hitting, shaming, guilting, punishing. All are unacceptable, but the most dangerous is when it creeps up upon you – as repeated negging can do; when you can’t “see” it; when you don’t have physical scars to prove abuse; when no one believes you. But perhaps the most damaging is when you are left utterly devoid of self-esteem, broken to the point that the most important person in your life doesn’t believe in you anymore: your Self.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.