WRITTEN BY JENNIE
My heart first belonged to the woods. I didn’t see myself more than a vessel to plunge into the creek alongside newts and duckweed or into the high branches of trees. When my grandmother bought a camcorder, I adopted it as my own. Secondly, my heart belonged to creating digital stories.
I still adore making digital stories, but my love for the woods went away many years ago. When I converted my childhood VHS tapes to digital format, I hadn’t thought about the difficult parts of childhood in a very long time. Everything changed when I turned ten years old, when kids started criticizing my clothes. Kids made fun of my dirty tennis shoes and tangled hair and holed-up sweatpants from getting snagged in blackberry bushes. I began paying attention to what I “should” look like, but those kids teased me anyway. They knew I didn’t know how to be like them.
When I watched these childhood videos a few weeks ago, I finally saw why I still struggle with being strong. I put a lot of effort into creating a mask in place of a genuine person. I’ve met many people who believe strong women don’t give a damn about what jerks think of them. Most of the time, I believe that too. Nonetheless, I ultimately believe it’s not a fair perspective. It’s almost like we admire the armor without knowing the welds. Being strong is a shiny spearhead, and while it’s admirable to be strong, being complimented on the tip of a larger journey feels dismissive of the hardship most of us would rather avoid. When you meet a strong woman, please don’t tell her that you respect her because she appears strong to you. Listen to the whole story first. Strength is a necessary tool for defeating some pretty shitty circumstances. Most strength is hidden, not easily seen.
And, you know what, I’m tired of throwing shade on myself for not being able to do what people think a strong woman should be able to do. Things I’ve come to believe I should be able to do. What is a strong woman, anyway? Is it the woman who doesn’t give a damn about what jerks think of her, who can kick the crap out of an attacker because she learned self defense, who takes half an hour to convince herself to get out of bed while severely depressed? Measuring strength in ticks and checks has directed my self-image more than most things. Every tick and check takes me closer or further away from someone else’s acceptance and, by affect, my own. It’s never enough.
Instead of seeing myself as a weak woman, I see myself as a child who wasn’t defended by her peers or adults, who wasn’t taught by example how to love and defend herself. And I think about my late best friend who absolutely loved me and taught me how to defend myself in middle school. I think about my late cousin who listened to me gush about the woods at ten years old, who challenged my hypocritical opinions of others when I became bitter thereafter. I think about my mother who failed to defend me during childhood, who eventually found a cause to fight for, who I admire now. I’m grateful to a former partner who taught me that personal growth comes from practicing new tools. I’m not a failure, he told me, and I’m not weak. I just need to practice new tools.
I think about myself, who's been on a long quest to deconstruct the mask of a fraud, who realized a pattern of destructive behavior, who went to therapy to learn new tools. I think about being a strong woman or a weak woman, and I don’t care anymore which one I am, or if I’m both, or neither. Seeing that little girl desperate for acceptance snapped a level of compassion in me that I didn’t have before. Compassion for myself. A desire to fight for her, for myself. A desire to teach her how to love and defend herself, myself. I don’t know if I would feel this way if I hadn’t seen the actual pain on that child’s face instead of whatever faded memory I have of it.
I get it now. I’m not angry at myself anymore. I’m no longer judgmental. I get it, and it’s okay. With that, I feel free to do the difficult and gentle work of taking back my life.