When I was younger, I was convinced I was weak.
“They all hate me,” I would say, twirling my legs around the kitchen chair as I ate an after-school snack. “I don’t want to go back to school, Mom. They never let up. They never stop bullying.”
And every day, my mother, as concerned as she was, would tell me these things. “Don’t let them see you care. Don’t let them get to you. You are likeable. You are strong. You are worth something.”
To this day, I sometimes get caught in how weak I can seem to others. As an activist, I often just don’t have the energy or the patience to deal with the many ignorant people in the world. Weak, I think. As a nanny, some children can try my patience to the point that I really know I didn’t do my best work today. Weak – they deserved better from me.
Sometimes as a friend, online and off, I can make mistakes. I can lose my temper. I can display shows of weakness that make me despair. I’m not strong if I can’t be a person of integrity. I’m not strong if I can’t meet every challenge head-on, in the best way possible. And sometimes I cry. That, to me, is the ultimate weakness for myself. Crying? Really, Hawksworth?
The thing is, feminine strength is more than a superhero ability to keep your patience at all times. It’s more than never making a mistake, than being a perfect ally. I am not perfect, because I am human. But where my strength comes in is a willingness to make things better. To try to be more understanding. And there are days even then that I don’t have the energy or the inclination to do that. Maybe that is weakness, but it’s also being strong for myself. You don’t owe everyone an explanation. You don’t have to engage with those who want to hurt you.
Weakness is part of being strong. You don’t know what you can really withstand until you have the chance to break down. And when I was a child, bullied in school, I refused to break down and be cowed by children who wanted to hurt me. I broke down at home, but the point is, I broke down so that I could have more strength for the next day. I was given the choice to change schools. I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean that girls who do are in any way weaker than I am. Strength comes in different forms, and means different things to each individual.
I find strength to be a flexible thing. I am not afraid to tell oppressors off as an activist. Sometimes, I am afraid of the fallout of my words, however. Sometimes, I am afraid that my words will cause death and rape threats, being hurled at me from angry men online. Sometimes, I am afraid my words will cause me to become unemployable, or will annoy people I care about. And in that, my strength comes in learning who my audience is and how best to deliver my message. Sometimes, anger is appropriate. Sometimes, saying nothing at all and letting others speak is.
There’s a lot of talk about resilience, as if being resilient makes you de facto a stronger person. The thing is, people who are not traditionally resilient can still be strong. It takes strength to ask for help. It takes strength to know when you’ve had enough. And with children, girls as well as boys, it’s important for them to know their limits and to be able to express those limits and be listened to. To give way to someone weaker than you is strong. To accept that people are human and deserve compassion is perhaps the strongest thing there is.
Feminine strength is defined by the way we succeed in a world that’s set up to make us fail. Whether it’s being loud and proud, insisting on change, or simply being the person that’s there to listen and raise up those that traditionally don’t get a chance to speak, we all show different forms of strength.
I am weak because I am strong. And it’s okay to be both.