“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” G. D. Anderson, founder of the Cova Project.
Strength looks different at different times. Sometimes strength looks like walking into an unfamiliar place, where you only know a few people. Sometimes strength is working through the insecurity and the questioning of your purpose (What am I doing here??), to see what’s on the other side. It’s almost always worth it.
I had the privilege of attending an event recently dedicated to International Women’s Day, a gathering of fantastic and Driven Women. I’d only met a few of them, and some of them I only knew from Zoom calls. To be honest, I was a little unsure of myself at first. (Do I even belong here? I’m not an entrepreneur or a business leader.) I’d brought a friend with me, and I felt responsible for both of us enjoying the afternoon.
My friend Marie planned this day to honor women she saw who “break the bias” across what many perceive as “gender norms”, in social justice, and in professional arenas. She honored women who started their own businesses, women who have pursued multiple careers; all were leaders and visionaries and working to define their lives and/or careers on their own terms. It was an afternoon of energizing conversations, women supporting women. Women making connections and sharing insight and information, and learning from each other.
Sometimes people come into your life and you don’t know why at first. Sometimes strength is making the effort to connect, then the reason becomes apparent
Many people call Marie “the connector” ; she makes the time and builds relationships. She listens to people. She hosts events and brings people together, invites people in, and she means it. She does the work and inspires others to do the same. She has a true laugh and a genuine heart.
So in the spirit of connection, I introduced my friend to some women I’d met once or twice, and before I knew it, we were deep in conversation with several of them. We were so focused, we almost missed the featured speaker.
Our keynote speaker began, “We all bring biases with us wherever we go. We immediately categorize people upon seeing them: man, woman, old, young, black, white. Just by looking at someone we put them into a category, we make a judgement. With just one look.”
I realized then that I had made a snap judgement when I arrived at the event; because I was in a room with people I didn’t know very well, I was afraid I wasn’t going to enjoy myself. I felt that I might spend a large part of the afternoon feeling uncomfortable because I might not have much in common and we might not find much to talk about.
Sometimes strength looks like taking a risk, starting a conversation, making a new friend.
Following that discussion she asked us, “How many of you looked in the mirror this morning and saw something you wished you could change?” (This question stuck with me for the rest of the day.)
A lot of hands went up.
“Who is telling us this?” she asked. “Where are we getting this message from?”
The messages we receive, direct and indirect, are constant, subliminal, covert, obvious and all around us. We are constantly exposed to idealized images of female beauty on TV, in magazines, on social media that make exceptional good looks seem normal, real, attainable. That anything short of perfection seems abnormal and ugly; introducing the very real and unconscious bias that we carry with us, that “what is beautiful is good.” That there is something we should change or correct or fix or make better about ourselves, just by looking in a mirror. We should not be happy or even satisfied when we look in the mirror. And that it was perfectly normal and natural to want to change the way we look. Everyone was doing it.
I remember this as a teen, as a college student, as a younger mom. It was like a bonding thing among the girlfriends. We could all find at least one thing to gripe about. I wish my _____ were bigger. I wish my ______were smaller. Fill in the blank with… anything, everything.
We found commonality there. Why was it easier to find commonality in the things we wish we could change, rather than trying to find it in things we liked about ourselves? That seemed uncomfortable. Unacceptable.
I guess it’s hard to learn to be comfortable in your own skin when you don’t learn how to do it. But I can’t fault those around me because they didn’t learn it either, from those around them. And so on, we carry a generational bad habit without even realizing it.
And then I became a mom, of two daughters and one son. While I tried to be very careful not to talk about my body in terms of things I didn’t like, I didn’t say or demonstrate that I loved my body either.
I don’t even know how well I demonstrated loving my own self. I thought if I just avoided negative talk, that would be enough.
I don’t know if it was enough.
At this event, a wonderfully funny and dynamic woman shared a story with me and my friend. She was talking about how she’d celebrated her 80th birthday last fall. On more than a few occasions people had said to her, “I bet you were beautiful when you were younger!”
She looked right at us and said she tells them, “Well I like to think I’m beautiful now!”
I smiled and laughed because I loved this so much. Why don’t we say or feel that? Why don’t we encourage each other to say and feel that?
Why do we perpetuate the myth that we cannot love ourselves just as we are, through either our words or our actions? It’s not selfish or self-centered.
Sometimes strength is looking in the mirror and saying “I am beautiful.” Believing in yourself takes work and practice, and a lot of times it’s hard. But it is powerful.
I looked around the room and took in all the conversations that were happening around me. I realized that beyond being women, we actually have a lot in common. We are caregivers, nurturers, worriers. We are Queen Bees and worker bees. We are teachers and students, listeners and advocates. We are organizers and do-ers of hard things. We are visionaries and dreamers.
We were all there because we believe in supporting each other, in lifting each other up, in recognizing that because we are women, we carry a lot with us. We carry the weight of our worries with us, as mothers, as daughters, as community members, as friends. We bring strength in our own way. We bring a mother’s hope and heartache, we bring a leader’s ambition and motivation, we bring a sister’s empathy and a daughter’s admiration and loyalty.
Just by gathering there that day, we recognize the value, the need to hold space for each other. When we believe in each other and ourselves, we can turn challenges into purpose. We can face adversity with grace and strength. We can get shit done.
It is empowering to be in the company of women like this. I have come to realize how important it is to surround yourself with people who are positive, with people who celebrate you for who you are, and who you can become. Women who stand up and say “We’ve got to support and encourage each other- because when one of us wins, we all win”. Women who aren’t afraid to compliment each other sincerely, a compliment that means I SEE you; I SEE the work that you’re doing and I admire and respect and applaud that.
Seek the women who can challenge you in the best of ways, who make you feel empowered to use your voice. Women like this will widen the circle of joined hands to not only welcome you, but to make space specifically for you.
My friend Marie adds, “Specifically for you, because you are unique and bring with you your gifts, your talents, hopes and desires for your life. Driven (gatherings) helps lift you up. I have joined hands with hundreds of women from youth to the retiree.” I can picture her saying this to each and every woman she’s met.
And I believe we are all the better for that.