We all thrive in safe, peaceful environments where affection and generosity is reciprocal and in abundance. In these nurturing spaces it is easiest to be the happiest, funniest, sparkliest versions of ourselves. I wish for everyone to have access to these, to have access to love. But we cannot always exist in these spaces and nobody is perfect. Professionally and personally, we all have to face moments where gentleness and empathy are not the whole answer. Where something more is required of us, something stronger, harder and very powerful. Where we must speak out and disagree, communicate challenging things in whatever way we can. It is fair to demand respect, to call out bad behaviour, to assert our needs. It is crucial that we do this, even it makes us less likeable, even if we are afraid. We must speak the truths that are burning inside us, hurting us, even when it feels nicer to hold our tongue, safer to look away, sweeter to be sympathetic to the point of passivity. You know when you have to do, when something inside you is screaming “No way! That is Not OK”.
I have had moments were I have struggled to do this, periods of hesitation or inaction where I have been too soft, too polite, laughed it off, buried it inside me. A lot of people may have the same difficulties with this, but it can be harder for women because it goes against the ideal of how we are supposed to behave. An ideal of womanhood built on history and films, on cultural norms and ideologies that run far deeper than our individual journeys. We don’t want to be a burden, be seen as aggressive or rude, to complain, be uncaring or, the ultimate trump card, to be called “too emotional”. An incredible friend sent me an email reflecting on the myth of sacrifice as the greatest nobility, an act often made by women for everybody else. This ideal needs to be denounced as to suppress any person’s emotional or physical needs has damaging effects on everyone. It is not a reasonable expectation, it is not the same as love or as mutually beneficial, reciprocated compromise where the goodness that follows means there was no sacrifice.
We have all been destabilised by thoughtless or difficult interactions. We know that our hair, our curves, our clothes and our level of ‘femininity’ do not negate our intelligence or our right for respect, but often judgement from others has already occurred unconsciously and started to get under our skin. We might have been walking along full of fabulous, sexy energy when one lazy heckle made us doubt ourselves. We might have been hurt by a guy who chatted all evening to our male friends about politics and art, but whose only engagement with us was to tease us about our appearance. We might have felt awkward when someone unexpectedly tried to kiss us at a party and then was taken aback when we did not want to, because “surely we knew where this was going.” We might look away when we observe that words from a male colleague are received with so much more recognition than our own, even when we know what we are saying is correct. Maybe someone we respect is treating women very unfairly and we cannot find a reason big enough to justify their actions. Maybe we were groped, flashed at, or masturbated at on public transport and we ran away in horror.
The scenarios are, unfortunately, plentiful. And all too often the result is still this: We say nothing even though we know we would feel better if we pointed it out. We say nothing because we suppose it is not really a big deal, or because we are afraid of being too boring, pessimistic or impolite. Because we think we have left it too late. Because we think it would contradict our earlier understanding. Because we question ourselves before questioning others. Because we have been taught to cross the road away from danger rather than to ask why that danger exists. Because often it is the normalisation of the inequality or bad behaviour, the confidence with which it is executed, that means we make excuses for others or hide away from our own discomfort. So we keep our frustrations inside us, thorns that niggle away and eventually stop us from sleeping.
We need to be ready to catch ourselves when this happens, to transcend unhelpful judgement or fear, and keep on speaking out and kicking ass. And women everywhere are doing just this. Women of all ages and backgrounds are being brave, resolute and true to themselves and to others. I celebrate you all for your sassy awesomeness, for oozing magnificent, no-nonsense confidence. Please continue to stand up for yourself and others, argue back when you have to, cry if you want to, reveal yourselves as the complex and fully rounded human beings that you are in the way that suits your needs most. If we all keep going, the world will have no choice but to accept this and make space for us. Perhaps we feel compelled to speak up in ways that men have always been permitted to, but still can be seen as shocking coming from a woman. Perhaps we convey our dissatisfaction and our pain with more emotion than is socially acceptable. But do not apologise for your tears, they are the honest, physical expression of your feelings. And obviously, the more men who get it, the more men who can really listen and genuinely make room for us, who understand sometimes it is hard and painful, who can join in the party, the better it will be. And some of them do get it, and even more are trying to.
And clearly it is not a binary decision to either be caring or to be strong. The very notion of strength and how this should be manifested can be oversimplified and used to disregard the bravery of exposing vulnerability or compassion. Actually, strength and assertion grown out of care or a desire to understand can be the most powerful combination of all. Of course, the idea that women should be free to be fierce as well as tender is pretty easy to support for lots of people, the ideas expressed here are far from new. But I still believe this needs to be spoken about, repeated again and again with new words and fresh determination. Firstly, because not everyone is onboard yet. Not everybody gets it. Not everyone sees that repression due to gender inequality is a real thing, a horrible weight in the stomach of many societies that is detrimental to all, something that needs to be undone.
Secondly, it is vital to keep these ideas bubbling at the surface because reminders are still helpful for those already seemingly up to speed, because it is surprisingly easy for there to be a disconnect between our values and our actions. It can take time and effort for these to line up. For all sexes. Sometimes we might not even notice the disparity, until one day it becomes so glaringly obvious we cannot believe we did not see it before. And clearly, speaking up is not always easy. Even for the best of us there are moments where being our strongest, truest selves just feels too difficult. So how can we help ourselves? For me the key lies in reaching outwards, in connecting with those who speak to our hearts and sense of self. No woman or man is an island and there is no shame in drawing on the support and wisdom of others to feel better and figure stuff out.
Tune in with people who are thinking in all kinds of unexpected, insightful ways and putting it into words, music and art. Devour books that transform your pain into fascination, allow their words to educate and empower you. Read about other women’s’ adventures, other people’s journeys. Hunt out remarkable, thoughtful films that capture the essence of how it really is. Films about people whose lives are totally different from your own, whose struggle and bravery lifts you out of your own confusion. Listen to powerful, joyful, heartbreaking, sexy music that makes you want to move every fibre of your beautiful body. Turn it up and dance through your fear. Go to exhibitions were artists have splashed their anguish and their love on the walls as things of beauty. Seek out shows: challenging cabaret, intelligent comedy, meaningful theatre. Be in the literal space with people whose energies are big, colourful and full of passion.
Find your personal tribe and embrace them. Make a habit of sharing any strange or uncomfortable public or personal experiences with trusted, key friends whose values are in sync with your own. This past couple of years I have been very lucky to have travelled a great deal and been exposed to all kinds of new situations and fresh faces. But, of course, not every interaction can be positive. Weird moments are inevitable no matter where we are. During this time of exploration, I have taken immense pleasure in sharing my experiences and feelings with some important, astonishing people in my life, by speedy, virtual means, and by catching up whenever I’m back home, discussing and laughing over wine and love. These meaty, delectable conversations where we get to the heart of the matter are dynamic rivers in continual flow, there to engulf ourselves in whenever we need them. And these special bonds do more than make me feel good. They also make me far more likely to act in a way that is in keeping with what I believe is acceptable, and to do so with confidence. I know I am not alone. We dissect the big and small issues we are facing together. We wade in without judgement, reflect from different angles, make jokes, forgive our own mistakes and try to give advice we would give our own daughter. We get to be indignant on the other’s behalf. We share in and thereby diffuse each other’s pain. We gain perspective on our own predicaments, our own outrage. We test and develop our values. And it can be so much fun! We are making sense of this world in all its madness together. These people, they really get it. Maybe I don’t even need to check in with the real them because I already know what to do. But I feel their weight behind me, trusting and loving me. And this gives me extra courage.
My final tip is to keep hopeful and stay joyful. I choose to see the good in others first, to be optimistic not cynical about humanity. I have been very fortunate in so many ways so far in my life, and I am sure this makes things much easier for me than for many. The world can be beautiful through smiling eyes! But this optimism can be a bit dangerous. The world is also very unequal, and pain, fear, insecurity or lack of awareness can cause people to take all manner of negative actions that have wide reaching repercussions. Not everyone has our best interests at heart, not every person we meet is striving to be as fair or kind as they possibly can. There are too many external factors that are working against this, too many triggers that can cause people to do cruel and selfish things, to lack imagination. We must accept this reality, recover from our disappointment and be bold in calling out behaviour that is not ok on every level we encounter it. So stay positive and considerate, but do not be naive.
But do not punish yourself if you did trust too freely. Do not be angry with yourself for being too gracious, too accepting, for having high expectations, for feeling deeply and being human. Your instincts were probably right, it is the world that has not quite caught up yet. Keep believing in goodness. Be resilient and self-loving so negative experiences do not crush you. Your compassion, charm, wit and good nature, these are still your super powers. Grow from hard moments but do not allow them to poison your blood, to sour your smiles, to stifle your laugher.
You are so much more than them.