11. On Being a Strong Woman and Accepting Your Softness

I come from a line of strong women. A line of women who looked patriarchal societal norms square in the face and simply said, “Move.” My grandmother drove fuel tanks around underneath fighter jets in the Second World War, much to the displeasure of her parents, who would have thought an admin role far more suitable for a young lady. My nan was a single mother working multiple jobs in the 1960s, when this way of living was not praised but frowned upon. My mother left school with no qualifications, but made her own income by qualifying as a swimming teacher after overcoming a fear of water, and later by qualifying as a Pilates teacher in her 50s. She once literally told the patriarchy to move when a man in a van insisted that she reverse to let him pass on a narrow lane. Her response was to turn off her engine, exit her vehicle and remind him that it was her right of way. He moved. 

Consciously or unconsciously, I have emulated these women my entire life. I have my grandmother’s “Why not?” attitude, my nan’s resilience and independence, and my mother’s drive to succeed. Some of it comes from being the last of four children, and specifically the only daughter. There is a part of me that feels compelled to step into my mother’s shoes – to be the fort-holder, the keeper, the provider of that particular feminine strength without which we would crumble. As the youngest child by seven years, I had to develop a sense of independence and resilience. My three teenage brothers rarely had any interest in playing games with their six-year-old sister, so I learned to amuse myself. The age gaps also meant that my siblings were dealing with more serious problems and consequences while I was still muddling through my primary school woes. My parents, understandably, had bigger fish to fry than my sardine-sized childhood dramas, so I learned to sort things out for myself.

As an adult, this translates into me being the organiser, the reminder, the fixer-of-things-because-nobody-else-is-going-to-do-it. It is a role I fulfil subconsciously and at times, reluctantly. I feel a pressure to always be on top of things, to always be able to stand steady and weather the storm – to be, well, strong. The pressure is, in part, self-inflicted. I was always drawn to what Netflix now (patronisingly) calls ‘Films & TV With A Strong Female Lead’ long before this was a search category. I liked loud women, brash women, creative women, angry women, taking-care-of-everything women, running-the-show women and working-three-jobs women. I formulated an image of womanhood that is, in reality, completely exhausting and almost impossible to maintain. And yet, I continue to try.

It’s strange. When I was younger, even as recently as a few years ago, I thought that being this headstrong, iron-pumping, black-Doc-Martens-wearing kind of woman was an assertion of strength, an act of rebellion against the patriarchy. And it was, in a way – but I wasn’t doing it because I necessarily wanted to. I wasn’t doing it for me. Being blonde, petite and quietly-spoken – while carrying an enormous amount of privilege – has often caused people (men) to make sweeping assumptions about my character. That I’m unintelligent, don’t have any opinions and can’t talk about serious subjects. That I don’t like the great outdoors, can’t do a press-up and can’t play the drums. Which I can. When I was in my first band I used to get feedback (from men) that I wasn’t hitting my drums hard enough, so I started whacking the shit out of them (the drums, not the men, unfortunately). People often used to tell me that they liked my drumming because I “didn’t play like a girl” or I “actually hit hard”, which as a sixteen-year-old, I took as a compliment. (How hard you hit the drums in fact has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with carpal tunnel and RSI. Sure, it’s a style of playing that might look more eye-catching on stage, but it does not necessarily make you a superior drummer to someone who doesn’t batter her skins). 

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy playing the drums. Or boxing, or having a nose ring, or scowling at ladsladslads from afar, or any other number of Kat Stratford-esque things I did and still do now. I loved drumming in bands, but I shouldn’t have needed to play so ferociously in order to feel like a respected musician. There are times for hammering away on the snare and crushing the cymbals – but not constantly. It never felt quite right to me; it wasn’t my personal style. I love boxing and lifting weights, but I shouldn’t feel the need to engage in typically male-dominated activities solely to prove that I am a strong, resilient, can-do kind of woman. What about ballet? I have danced my entire life; I know how demanding it is. More to the point, why should I feel the need to constantly prove my strength – whatever that actually means – anyway? 

I know part of this need – this obsession, almost – is unique to me and my upbringing. I was raised by a mother who never gave up, never complained, always had solutions and suggestions at the ready and kept everything going come hell or highwater. I feel that I am letting her down if I falter. And there was always a bit of “anything you can do, I can do better” going on between my brothers and I – as there usually is with all siblings. The initial reason I picked up drumsticks in the first place was because one of my brothers played and I didn’t see why I couldn’t too. But now more than ever, I feel the pressure to be strong – to be this kind of unwavering, independent icon of womanhood – coming from all directions. “Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” Social media is rife with it. We like and share images of those who are hustling and bustling, waking up at five AM, killing it at work and nailing a workout. I feel torn. I want to praise and encourage these achievers, to work hard and achieve more myself. But I also worry that this is neither helpful nor healthy. That talking about “strength” in this way alienates those who cannot or do not want to hustle. Why should we feel that we are worth more when we are achieving, when we are doing it all on our own – when we are, in other words, strong?

This idea of “strength” is impossible to maintain. I would certainly like to give the impression that I am always strong and never in need of any assistance, but it’s not true. I am often neither hustling nor bustling. I cannot seem to do anything finance or property-related (or getting-the-spider-out-of-my-bedroom-related) without asking my Dad for help first. I’d like you to think that I am perfectly fine and dandy living my independent life, but sometimes when someone at work asks me how I am, I want to pound my fists on my desk and howl because I miss my boyfriend and the long distance makes my chest ache. I make jokes about not wanting a lot of social interaction, but I am always the first one to follow up on unanswered messages and to-be-confirmed friend dates, because it is my veiled way of saying, “Hello? Are you still there for me?” 

I know it’s fine to ask for help. I know it’s fine to miss people and to cry and to make a mess and to not always be able to solve everyone else’s problems and your own. But I am still learning this. I am still learning how to accept my softness. Still learning that it does not make me less – that it is the colour and texture that makes me who I am. That I do not have to keep proving myself or achieving more and more. That strength means whatever I feel it means and I can express it in my own way. I listened to an interview with Hayley Williams recently and she said it took her years to realise that she didn’t have to – and didn’t actually want to – dress or act like the guys in the scene. That it was okay to stand out and wear colourful make-up. And it is. It is okay to do things in your own way, to rewrite definitions of strength, to feel it some days and not others. We do not have to stand firm all the time. The world needs movement. I just need to remember that. 

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