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I get really uncomfortable when people say things like “all women are strong” or “all women are beautiful”. Maybe it’s semantics and I’m overthinking it, it’s true that there are points in everyone’s life that require strength to overcome. But usually, when we describe someone as something, it’s because they possess that quality in abundance, moreso than other people. And we generally don’t mean to take away from anyone else by complimenting one person on one attribute. Saying one particular woman is strong doesn’t mean another particular person isn’t, but saying “all women are strong” kind of does. It means we’re all the same, and someone’s special quality is diminished by a claustrophobic kind of equality that comes at the expense of diversity.
My mom is strong. My mom was a emergency room nurse and she flew in helicopters to help people and later she was a firefighter. I don’t think I’m a particularly strong woman. There’s a quiet tenacity I have in the way I bear things, but it’s different. I haven’t been given the gift of wanting to be the woman who joins an all male fire department, that’s not my journey and I think the world will be a better place if we all do the thing we are put here to do.
And here’s the thing: I shouldn’t have to be strong. Why should I have to possess every single positive quality? Why aren’t the strengths that I actually have enough?
Saying “all women are strong” is a kind of erasure of our right to be allowed to be imperfect. Needing all women to be strong and beautiful doesn’t feel empowering to me, it feels like a trap. Fuck having to be perfect. I want to embrace the strengths and corresponding weaknesses I have in my personality, and I want other people to feel okay to do this as well.
There’s a character on a reality TV show I like. Her name is Jenna and she’s a dumb blonde, or at least she plays one on MTV. She’s beautiful and she’s been on a million seasons of The Challenge at this point and she is the only person on the show who doesn’t get in drunk screaming fights with everyone else which is why I love her. She has an ex on the show (Zach) who she loves and she cries about things like him hearing a rumor that she hooked up with someone when they weren’t even together.
This is what people like the least about Jenna. They think she is weak and not strong when she “doesn’t stand up for herself” by not getting in more fights. They think she is dumb for loving someone who wronged her. But Jesus Christ I relate to that so much. I’m never going to get in a screaming fight with someone (or, probably, even a voices slightly raised at dinner reality TV show kind of fight) and so I never relate to people on these shows, but I relate to her. She just loves the people she loves and she doesn’t need revenge over them because she’s been hurt (which is the way most relationships, real life and otherwise, tend to go).
If we follow Jenna’s actions to the extreme end of the spectrum, she might be a woman who loves someone who abuses her. She may forgive and make excuses when she should just leave. That’s the thing about positive personality attributes: they come at a cost. Every positive thing has a shadow side. I love that Jenna is warm and loving and loyal. Other people see someone who allows her pride to be hurt, who is weak and vulnerable and maybe even stupid.
Here’s another thing: we need each other. We need each other to be different.
It’s so easy to see this with parenting. It’s not very controversial to say it seems ideal for kids to be raised by two parents. We acknowledge that mothers and fathers generally bring something different (and valuable) to the table. In days of yore, when we met someone in a same sex relationship, we’d ask “who wears the pants?” There are ways we inherently understand the need to have different types of personalities complement and balance each other instead of asking that everyone’s personality is the same.
In a restaurant, not everyone is the chef. In a company, not everyone is the CEO (and given what we know about the quality of life CEOs have, thank god for that). We need someone to count the money and someone to create the art. We are a community of people and the fact that we are diverse is a blessing. It means we can lean on each other. The gift of community is that we don’t have to be uniform. We don’t have to do everything on our own, our gifts serve the collective and our weaknesses are balanced by it.
I don’t want to have to be strong when I think the ways I am weak are a price I pay for the other valuable assets I bring to my community. I am good at making people feel loved. I don’t care if it makes me too vulnerable sometimes. I’m okay with that. When people tell me all women are strong, there is a way I hear “it’s not okay for you not to be strong.” There is a way that this devalues characteristics that have long been associated with women.
I just want to feel like it is okay for me to be the person I am and not someone else. And I want you to feel like it is okay for you to be you, too.