I was a loud child, sparking conversation wherever I went, the first to raise her hand in class, and always eager to share some badly written poem about my “deep” reflections on the world. But when I look at my modern self, always reluctant to expose “too much” of herself, that child feels like a fabric of my own imagination. I still want to be heard, talk to strangers on buses, and share my (hopefully) better-written poems, but that loud voice I was born with is nowhere to be found. And so I wonder, how could someone full of trust and openness wilt into a self-sheltering introvert? And more importantly, would I have still lost the loudness of my voice if it weren’t a female one?
Growing up I found myself surrounded by models of strong women, strong but not powerful. Strong enough to raise children but not enough to let them go entirely because quite often these children were the only validation for their own existence. Strong enough to hold within them the anguish of others, just not enough to face their own. Strong enough to live their life in silence, choking on their own words, bones slowly crushing under the weight of the world, but never strong enough to stand straight and shed it off, to scream when it hurt and ask for help when the weight was unbearable. These women, I was told repeatedly, are strong women.
“Smart women say little and smile their way out of problems,” my mother’s words echo in my mind, as I chew on my tongue post some feisty confrontation. I always failed her in that domain; I was never “smart” enough and too often too loud for my own good. Now don’t get me wrong, she was quite the feminist for her time and place, a strong woman, descending from a line of even stronger women. And the more stories I heard about what my female ancestors had endured, while quietly observing my mother’s share of strength demonstration, the more I longed to be “stupid”, “reckless” and above all, “weak”.
But the older I get the more I realise just how many of these qualities I have adopted, unknowingly, or perhaps, unwillingly. As my body grew bigger, my voice grew smaller, and suddenly it wasn’t appropriate to talk to strangers anymore. It was appropriate, however, to let them stare with entitlement at this new body of mine while I tried to smile my way out of it. And so the cookie crumbled until I had become the definition of “female strength”, just the right amount of loud with a sprinkle of “I hope my tone is not making you uncomfortable”, and more recently “I hope my art is not making you uncomfortable”.
It’s always a surprise when friends or family choose the word strong to describe me. I don’t get it. To me, a strong person is one who would cause a roar to ward off unwelcome stares. A strong person would not tolerate being compared to a tyranny simply for assuming a leadership position in a time of need. A strong person says, does, wears, creates and writes without fear. A strong person is not measured by the ability to endure, but by the ability to express without hesitation. And in that account, I fail miserably.
Last year around this time I was working on an internal campaign for a billion dollar company whose female employees were so anxious of expressing themselves that they couldn’t even accept the much-deserved praise for the hard work they’ve been doing. “We don’t want the men at the company to feel threatened by us,” said the nervous young executive facing me, after I had just finished presenting my work. “But it’s your day, it’s your event, feeling empowered has nothing to do with challenging your male colleagues. But if they do feel challenged then doesn’t it mean that you’re doing something right?” She smiled at me, politely, and I knew right away that I was talking to a “smart” woman. And being one myself, the debate ended right then and there, and more “appropriate” work was created.
But I don’t want to be a smart woman anymore; I want this ridiculous lineage to perish with me, if not within me. I don’t want to be an example of “female strength”, but simply strength, the human kind. Because telling a woman that her strength is measured by her endurance is like clipping the wings of a bird. And teaching her that out-smarting someone is done by stepping aside and avoiding confrontation at all cost is like saying that her interference will be the only thing held accountable for the outcome. And if being loud and open, asking for help when you need to and screaming in the face of whoever makes you feel like you’re doing something you don’t want to do are not the qualities of a “smart” woman, then I’d be much happier living my life as an imbecile.