03.23.19 // Cry, It'll Make You Stronger.
I used to think that being a strong woman meant being a woman who could resist temptation.
We’re taught that physically strong women, ones with muscles, ones that play sports; basically ones that held the “masculine” traits, were strange. They were somehow, wrong.
I grew up internalizing a simple message, the “good girls”, the ones that got ahead/were accepted/proper - they ones that resisted temptation.
Resisted the “temptation” to eat.
Resisted the “improper” urge to have sex, because a woman who enjoys sex must be crazy.
Resisted the “temptation” for self-care and instead spend excess hours at the gym.
Resisted pursuing their career goals for their family or partner, the “obvious” decision.
Resisted showing her emotions, resisted getting hysterical with her partner - the ideal image of female strength.
And this has nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up around strong females, the women that I’ve been lucky to have in my life are the strongest people I know. The issue was that I wasn’t taught to recognize vulnerability, taking care of your needs, and going after what you want as necessarily strong; but selfish, lazy, or weak.
Strength, especially what it means to be a strong female, has a toxic message. The traits that we’re told will get us ahead, being overly compliant, agreeable, pleasant, not speaking your true emotion - are the traits that are actually designed to keep us back.
I was at Dalhousie for my first year of University in 2014. I lasted three weeks before I called my mom and told her I needed to come home, I spent the last summer in day patient for my eating disorder, and it was only getting worse. I was humiliated. For so long, I saw all my habits (what I now know were full on eating disorder behaviours) as “good”; I meticulously controlled every piece of food that went in my mouth, I went for hour long runs and never sat still, I was nice to everyone to a point where I never stopped to think about what I needed to keep going.
The second I got home I told my parents I was going to be strong, I pushed all the feelings I had about leaving Dalhousie away and went to find a job. I worked at a busy brunch restaurant bussing, I continued to restrict my food, I kindly smiled and shook it off when my co-worker told me I was so strong for “resisting” the donuts that were freshly made every morning.
I finally felt strong when I went to rehab that fall, but at first, it was that toxic kind of strength. I was convinced I could “push through” and get out in a couple of weeks (I got my first two-hour pass 4 weeks in, so ya, not exactly the timeline I thought). I didn’t tell anyone that I was in inpatient, I didn’t tell anyone I even left school. That way, I thought, people wouldn’t think I was weak, because I no one would know.
Sometime in my first week there, I remember the nurses telling me what weight I needed to get to before I would be at the “maintenance” stage. I remember them telling me that I should go on medication for my OCD and anxiety. I remember them telling me that the program would actually take about 4 months to complete. I remember my nurse telling me that I wasn’t allowed to go on walks, go on outdoor breaks except for the 15 minute supervised breaks on the weekend for the first couple weeks so my body could recover.
I was terrified. I broke down and cried. I sat miserably in supervision after meals, reluctantly said how I was feeling at daily check-ins, and still thought I could somehow “be strong enough” to get through the program fast, without having to feel anything.
I finally felt strong when I admitted that the disease took over my life. I saw other women, and men, in the unit confronting their biggest fears not just daily, but every hour. Some people think that going to treatment is like going to this fun spa where you relax and talk about your feelings all day, not at all. Every single day people are brave enough to go against every single biological and psychological instinct they have because they have that voice that says they deserve better. I saw people find strength by tearing down every single coping mechanism they had built up. I saw people leaving their families (children, wives, husbands) for months, spend holidays and birthdays in the hospital, opened up to people about things they had never told their best friends; all because they had that strength to recognize they deserve better than the lies they had been telling themselves.
Strength is built by rebelling against the idea of what it means to be strong.
I broke down, I accepted help, and I started telling people that I didn’t just leave for a fun gap year, but that I was sick and I needed help. I’ve kept accepting help since then, and am still fighting to remind myself what it means to be strong everyday by looking at these amazing people in my life.
The strength that I saw in my eating disorder journey was through all kinds of people, male and females. Toxic masculinity is no doubt a prevalent issue today, and it’s something that men and women need to be aware of. But with females, I think this is a sneaky ideal of strength that keeps budding its way into society.
I see strength in women every single day; from the ones that rebel against what it means to be the ‘perfect girl’, to the ones that wear ‘nasty woman’ as a badge of honour. I see it in the people that reach out to me and say they’re struggling, because those are the people that have the strength to not accept the shit that their brain is putting them through. I see it through tears, through people becoming allies instead of enemies, for people standing up for what they believe even if it means getting viewed as a bitch.
We equate strength for females not with physical feats but with the ability to resist temptation. I equate strength for females, and for all people, with the ability to ask for help, to go after what you want, to let go of your ego and accept that you may not have all the answers. The way we’re taught to be strong needs to change and the only way to do that is by speaking out, standing up, and celebrating all the people who redefine strength through their actions every single day.