On Being a Woman – Tender and Fierce

Before I dive deep into the quirks of being a woman I must first assure you all of something. Though I wish I did not have to preface this post at all, I know the world to be misunderstanding and at times, cruel. So, before I write a long post empowering women, let me remind you I am happily married to a kind, loving, and gentle man. I will not insult his masculinity, his intelligence, or his place as a husband. I do not expect him to fit any sort of mold for a man. I expect him to be the God fearing man he promises to be every day – a faithful servant, a seeker of peace, a generous giver, and a devoted husband. I expect the same from myself – to be faithful, respectful, supportive, generous, and kind. With that being said hopefully you will know that as I write about women role models and share stories about high school I am not discrediting the male gender.

Some eighteen years ago, I was a small, tan little child running up and down the coasts of Portugal. We were there for a single year of language training. It was beautiful. In my room I had a carpet with roads and houses on it. I drove my little cars around the map, right next to the barbies who lived happily on patches of greenery. My sisters had chosen to live together, which they later told me was a plot to not let anyone live with me, and it was a bit lonely in my room. It soon filled up however, with my dreams and make believe games. There was no one I could not be, no hero who’s shoes I could not fill. At four, I was unstoppable. If you look at pictures from that year you will most likely see me wearing a dress up veil. That veil was worn for about a six solid months. I don’t know why, my best guess is that we had watched The Princess Bride too many times and I fancied myself a new Buttercup. Whatever prompted the veil, it wasn’t disputed. My parents were not particularly bothered that their daughter was wearing an embarrassing headdress. No, they were more concerned if I was being kind and compassionate to other children. There is unfortunate footage of my four year old fist punching another child, and I can assure you that incident received much more grief than any piece of dress up clothing I wore. My parents were not concerned whether I played with dolls or cars or reptiles or teacups.  When I begged for a doctor’s kit for my birthday another missionary bought it for me and I was overjoyed – I could be a doctor now. Some days I was a doctor, some days a pioneer, some days a scientist, some days I was just me, playing with some other kids. My parents never tried to reel in my imagination, they never stunted my dreams or tried to fit me into a box. I can never remember being asked “Why are you not like your sisters?” I can never remember my parents asking me why I was not someone else. Their love for me, knowing all my flaws and seeing first hand my sin, is what gives me the courage to share these posts.

Little girls eventually grow up. While we don’t always want to leave our make believe games behind, there is a time when whispering conversations to yourself is no longer acceptable. For me, that time came when I went to high school. I’ve mentioned before that high school is a gruesome place for even the most stoic of people. It is, though, absolute hell for dreamers. Unless you have Robin Williams teaching your English classes, you’re forced into cramped rows of wooden desks, a strict list of dos and don’ts, and an overwhelming amount of scrutiny. I did of course have friends in high school, but only one of my friends would appease my need to play make believe. I’m not sure why I had an insatiable imagination even then, but I know it fueled in me a belief that things, this earth, these people could be better. It’s not wise to be caught up in dreams, and forget reality (Thank you Dumbledore) but sometimes, they’re the only way of making it. So, with this sensitive belief that people will always be good and kind, I walk into high school. Brutal. Quickly I learn – not everyone is nice.

The next three years are a blur of speaking out in class and getting shut down, being called too quiet, too loud, too bossy, too enthusiastic, too dramatic, too weak. While dating is in general messy business, I think dating at boarding school is particularly destructive. Rather than healthy guidelines or mentors we were given rules. Girls who dated, or girls who were outspoken, girls who thought a little differently, girls who wore blue in November 2008 were all given stern talks and daily warnings. These years were filled with fleeting friendships ending abruptly. They were filled with the dread of going to class, and being surrounded by people by whom I wanted to be known. A particular nasty memory of being called naive and shallow in front of my entire class resurfaces daily. And while we know class superlatives are not definitive, I was absolutely horrified at being named the class flirt. It was a reminder that I had either not been true to myself, or was entirely misunderstood. I was not shy around boys, I felt I had every right to be included, as every other girl did. That superlative hung over me for two years after graduation. I was terrified to talk to boys at university, wondering if they would presume something or the girls would judge me. The superlative also bothered me for a different reason. During my third year of high school I was locked into a racquet ball court by two of my classmates. They were boys. One had a cast on his arm – he used it to hit me. I remember walking away, being called weak, and I remember reading that superlative, wondering ‘who in their right mind in this school thinks I enjoy being around these boys?’ By the fourth year of high school I remember shutting down during classes. I just stopped listening, stopped debating, stopped commenting. It was easier to be silent than disputed. It was easier to be apathetic than told I cry too easily. It was easier to be invisible than to defend myself.

Again, I did have several wonderful friends at school. I am not discounting those friendships at all, but the nature of my high school did damage the spirit. Imagination withers when it is consistently told it’s too much. I believe someone more resilient than me may have walked into high school with the same dreamy determination and walked out just fine, but resilience wasn’t my strong point then.

So I arrived at university, distraught and confused. I knew who I had been as a child, but that girl was not adequate for this world. She was too weird, too emotional, too head strong. All of these were traits I had been told were not for a woman. I kept quiet during my first semester. The second semester introduced me to Honours, a class where I was surrounded by outspoken and quiet women alike, all intelligent, all diverse, and all willing to speak their mind. It was a terrifying breath of fresh air. Through these classes I met one of my closest friends (looking at you Lauren), and one of the first words she used to describe me was fierce. Fierce. Me. No. Over dramatic maybe. Overly passionate perhaps. Bossy yes. But fierce? Fierce was too empowering, too positive. Fierce made me think of a lioness, she prowls for prey, hunts and kills then returns to gently bathe her cubs. It took over a year of running with this friend, and her continuous use of the word, for me to eventually embrace it.

Yes, I am a woman, and yes I am fierce. I am not powerless or distraught. I am also not emotionless or all assuming. I cry frequently, because I feel fiercely. These were truths I had not questioned as a child, but had lost sight of as a young adult. It took ages for me to be okay with being the flawed, passionate, sensitive woman I am. I am no longer afraid to cry freely, to have a strong opinion, to be silly or weird. I am no longer afraid of being called ‘too girly’ when I dress up or ‘too tough’ when I work out. My identity is not in the labels given by others but in the freedom of Christ’s atonement. When I think about the chances I had to encourage other girls or women and didn’t I am ashamed with myself. We, as women, can either be a network of support or a force of destruction. I hope to invoke you to be kind to one another, as our friend Ellen persistently says. Men may always make inappropriate remarks and be unchallenged. Some of them mean every word, and some are just ignorant to how women feel. But we have no excuse. We know the daily struggle against doubts, insecurities, and fears specific to women. We know the constant pressure to fit into a certain picture – whether it’s the athletic girl, the pageant girl, the academic girl – whatever our label becomes we feel we’ve failed if we don’t maintain it. We know, and with our knowledge we should relentlessly encourage one another. Whether we march for women or not we must be kind. We who march must remember that we are taking steps for all women regardless of age, colour, religion, or position in life. We must remind one another that there is hope, strength, and dignity within every woman.

In ending I would like to share a story about a most remarkable woman, a true role model. It’s not Audrey Hepburn or Blake Lively or Michelle Obama. When we lived in Angola we had a housekeeper come to our compound twice a week. Her name was Bibianna. She came to help my mum clean the house, this was so mum had time to spend all day teaching her children. Bibianna was a mother, a wife, a worker. She had birthed 7 children. She and her husband had taken in their special needs family member to care for her. They had all lived through a devastating civil war yet remained faithful Christians and avid evangelists. You would think Bibianna would be callous, toughened by the bleak circumstances of Angola, but rather she was tender. I remember listening to her sing praise songs around the house. Often I would come inside for lunch to find my mum and Bibianna doing laundry together. Bibianna would be sharing a story about a tragedy in their family, or their neighborhood, or their church. She would be crying. My mum would be crying. These two grown women would be crying while working, then they would encourage each other, pray, and carry on with the day. It was an exemplary picture of friendship and vulnerability. Bibianna helped my mum start a bible study for teenage girls in our neighborhood. We would sit on the floor together, carefully stitching “Maranata” into cotton squares while Bibianna led us in songs of hope, songs of strength, songs of persevering after faith. All of these images bring back the comforts of being in our little cement home, but by far the favourite story took place in the midst of the Angolan jungle. Bibianna often went with my dad and other pastors to the interior. She made the long, grueling journey to translate for them and to lead women’s groups. One trip, the car lost a tire. It fell off the road into the gulch. Another missionary tried to pick it up but he could not. So, Bibianna went down and hauled the tire back up to the road. This incredible strength was not limited to her physcial ability – it was shown daily in her faith, her ferocity, her tenderness, and her hope in a country deprived of opportunity. I wish with all my heart I could visit her, to thank her for being a steadfast example of a woman for 12 years of my life.

Women, I plead with you, in times of opposition or discouragement – be true and tender with your words. Be fierce with your love, your compassion, your hope. Be ferocious in your faith. Be courageous in the face of adversity. Believe in your strength. Embrace your emotions, whether you’re a weeper or a stoic. Embrace your dreams, your imagination, your pursuits, your goals. We may not all be meant to be doctors, or writers, or comedians, or athletes or mothers – but we are all indeed meant to be kind, to be loving, to be strong, to be tender, to be fierce.

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