One of the first things I associated with strong women growing up, was the way they pushed there glasses back onto their heads. That, and the way their “grown-up” shoes clacked on the floor when they walked. (I love grown-up shoes!) Maybe, I didn’t realize that glasses on top of the head was the superhero signal that strong women wore, but I believe the first time I saw it happen, that time that left an palpable mark, was in elementary school.
Ramona Shannon. She was my principal at the elementary school I attended in Birmingham, Alabama. I remember her glasses as if she was sitting across from me today. I remember knowing that she was walking through the hallways of our school because of the sounds her shoes made on the tiled floor. I remember how I would cry every day in the third grade for my mom/to go home. Eventually, my teacher had been instructed to put me in the hallway. Sobbing, I would end up being rocked by the school secretary. Smelling of her perfume, I would eventually be walked back to class by Mrs. Shannon. I remember her telling me that I had beautiful eyelashes. I remember how I grew there from the girl crying in the hallway to the one running for SGA Vice President, becoming co-captain of the Academic Bowl, winning the school spelling bee, and my last year being presented with the Principal’s Award for my growth as a student and for overcoming. I can still here the sound of her voice as she called my name.
Needless to say, when kids my age thought getting glasses was nerdy, I thought they were the coolest. I wore my cousin’s, I wore my best friends in middle school, and now, well, I where my own because I messed my eyes up being “cool” in everyone else’s glasses. I have always had a love affair with strong women without even realizing it. It was an admiration that caused me much pain in my late teens, early twenties when I grabbed onto them too tight and a gut twisting lesson that taught me so much about others and myself.
When I went away to college, I broke into pieces that I didn’t quite know how to put back into a whole. I had once been taught that if you see people that you admire or that do what you want to do, to learn from them, ask them to mentor you, and to set goals with habits that would help you be more like that yourself. It took me a long time to stand on my own and to learn who I was as a woman with strength. Being able to push your glasses back onto your head, it’s kind of like being able to where one of those cardboard hats and move your tassle to the other side. The road to get there is steep at times. When I was sick with depression, an eating disorder, and during the time I self-harmed I grabbed on to women I saw as strong because I thought the could keep me safe when the world I was living in was spiraling. Especially, because I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I was scared of myself.
It was during one of the darkest times I’ve ever experienced, that I had to let go as some of those women who become huge idols in my life and some even had to be ripped away from me by people in authority. One of these women, who wore glasses on her head, and at times forgot they were there … she explained to me that I was gravitating toward these strong women because I wanted to be close to these things that I admired that I couldn’t see yet within myself. Yet, they were there. It was a painful season of growth. I learned on a real level about my own identity, how dependence on people will always let you down, and how my true strength was in God. I learned where my strength came from and how to walk in it.
I said to a friend, last weekend, that I believed that the beginning of each decade has been a time of growth for me. I crumbled in my early twenties. It was a falling apart that helped me to stand firm in God and to realize the unique way he’d made me and the gifts that he’d given me as an individual. It didn’t happen overnight this graduation of glasses pulled back to rest on my head, but what a blessing it is the day you look back and reflect on all you’ve learned. The beginning of my thirties have been another dark and painful season, however, because of what I went through before I am able to be excited about a season of learning and growth … maybe that next level, where you get to put the glasses on your head and then forget about them.
It took me a long time to be able to separate the woman I admired from the myths I had created about them. When, I look back, I think about all the pressure my admiration caused. I also, see their flaws. I’ve learned what real strength looks like and I think these women are even more beautiful. I realize the women I admired for their strength had their own struggles with marriage, death in their families during those times, stressful jobs, probably family drama, and yet, somehow they made time for me. It is vulnerability, perseverance, and being raw in the flaws you have as a woman that make you strong. It is sharing your story without a mask, it is the puffy eyes behind the makeup, and the power in letting yourself be.
A strong lady, that has been in my life for quite some time, said to me recently that when we embrace the things about ourselves that maybe aren’t all shiny or things we might not like best about ourselves, things others might see as imperfections, that we are being healthy. It is when we resist them that it becomes unhealthy.
I’m glad as I’ve gotten older that I’ve learned to embrace who I am and to see strong women as they are (it’s a process), without projecting some type of fairytale on them. I think that we have to continue to refresh this lesson even as we get old. It is easy when you’re going through as difficult or exhausting season in your life to compare yourself to someone you see as strong, especially people on TV or in magazines. We look into the mirrors of writers we adore, women that run nonprofits that we admire, or even that have already reached where we want to be someday.
I think that you have to sit back and remember everyone is struggling, everyone has that thing in the mirror that they don’t like, everyone is looking to someone else at times and thinking they have it all together. Celebrities are real people. Every strong woman is flawed. The beauty in strength is the embracing, walking in and through the difficult, and being transparent.
It’s this strong women truth that I learned. This secret that had light shined on it so that I could see the flaws. It’s the myths that I learned to untangle that has helped me be able to walk in my own strength, even if on days that doesn’t look very strong. I am seeking to be supportive of women that I’ve met and may never meet, that just aren’t the stories we right on them. They are so much more powerful when they tell the stories themselves.
This week I got to lean back from a particular obsession and practice the skills I learned going from the girl clinging to strong women to the woman who sometimes pushes her glasses back onto her head without even realizing it. (See Part Two of Strong Women)
Put yourself at the top of the list of strong women you admire. – Kaye F.