Today is International Women’s Day, which means that it’s likely we’ve all seen this quote a million times on our social media feeds:
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”
It’s an empowering quote—one that I’ve said myself more than once and shared often. But this year, something about it isn’t sitting right with me.
I don’t feel strong right now. I haven’t felt strong for long stretches of the last year. And there’s a part of me—a tired, broken, sad part of me—that sees this quote and feels like the only kind of woman worthy of being admired, celebrated, and seen is a “strong” woman.
What about the women who are struggling? What about the women who cry, the women who lose their patience, the women who have days when they can’t get out of bed because everything feels like it’s too much?
Most of us will be these women at some point in our lives because to be a woman is to be human, and to be human is to fail and falter and feel big, overwhelming, messy feelings sometimes. But all too often, when we feel those big, overwhelming, messy feelings or when we snap at a loved one or when we spend most of our waking hours in tears on a bad day, we don’t give ourselves the grace to not be okay—to not be strong.
Because somewhere along the way, in our quest to inspire and empower, “strong” became synonymous with “good” and “worthy.”
That’s not to say “strong” is a bad word or a bad thing to be. It’s great! We want women to be bold and celebrate their successes and be open about their strengths. We want girls to grow up being strong in their values, their opinions, and their sense of self.
But we also should want space in the conversation about empowering women to include messages of understanding, support, and empathy for women who are open and honest about their struggles, their setbacks, and their bad self-esteem days.
Because as women, we shouldn’t feel like we need to be strong to have value as a human being. We shouldn’t feel like we have to hide our flaws and our feelings because they make us less appealing—both to men and to other women. And we shouldn’t have to engage in a culture of performative strength that buries our truth as we pretend we’re fine even when we’re falling apart—because we’ve been told that no one wants to hear that kind of story.
That’s what made Meghan Markle’s admission about her suicidal thoughts to Oprah last night so powerful. By telling Oprah that she’d had moments of not wanting to be alive anymore during her time as a duchess and that she’d admitted to more than one person (including her husband) that she was afraid she was going to hurt herself and needed professional help, she did more than just further a dialogue about mental health. She let the world know that there’s no shame in struggling. No one is—or should be expected to be—strong all the time. Her openness and honesty highlighted the fact that she’s not a symbol of a “strong woman.” She’s a real woman.
And it’s more important to be real than it is to be strong.
It’s more important to be honest than it is to be a #GirlBoss.
It’s more important to be open than it is to be successful.
That’s why it’s been so revelatory in recent years to see stories of women on the big and small screen who have moments of strength but also moments of struggle. It’s why seeing Diana be selfish in Wonder Woman 1984 was so important and why seeing Rey be drawn to the darkness in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker was so interesting and why Wanda Maxmioff’s journey through overwhelming grief in WandaVision resonated with so many. (And it’s why I, personally, will always have a soft spot for Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans and all the anger and flaws contained underneath her wigs.)
We should celebrate strong women. But we should also acknowledge that no one can be a strong woman all the time.
We’re a year into a pandemic that has driven women (especially women of color) from the workforce in droves. We’re a year into a pandemic that’s left so many women grieving for so much while still having to carry on as if nothing is wrong. We’re a year into a pandemic that’s created a mental health crisis and left many feeling lonely, angry, and afraid.
We’re not okay.
We don’t always feel strong.
But that doesn’t mean our stories don’t matter. In fact, our stories of struggle, pain, and imperfection often matter just as much as our stories of triumph, success, and strength—because they make other women who are barely getting by feel less alone.
So on this International Women’s Day, here’s to strong women. But also here’s to the women who spent this morning in tears, the women who couldn’t muster up the energy to make breakfast, the women who lost their patience with their kids or coworkers, and the women who feel like they’ve lost the part of themselves that was brave and bold and strong.
You still matter. Your story still matters.
Here’s to women.