growth + wellness

The Masquerade

May 25, 2011

“Masquerade! You can fool any friend who ever knew you!” – Phantom of the Opera

This weekend, I helped lead a domestic violence and healthy relationships workshop for a group of teenage girls. The first activity we had the girls do was write down what traits make a woman strong and what traits make a woman weak. The things they said make a woman weak included low self of steam esteem, lack of self-love, thinking she’s too fat/skinny or not pretty, letting a man treat her disrespectfully. The things they said make a woman strong included having high self esteem, loves herself, is comfortable in her own skin, holds her head high. The list for what made a strong woman stuck out to me because her characteristics matched my own.

This got me to thinking: Can you tell a strong woman just by looking at her? At what point does a strong woman become weak?  Is there ever a point where a woman’s strength can become her weakness? Can a woman be both strong and weak at the same time?

Many times women, black women especially, take being a “strong woman” as feeling the need to be everything for everybody, without buckling under the pressure. As superwoman, she meets the expectations to maintain and sustain  her career, her family, and her home simultaneously. She picks up the slack when others fall short, and she fills the void when others vacate responsibility. And when some one or some thing throws a monkey wrench in her superwoman path? She dodges it and presses on. Even if she can’t do it all, she tries her damnedest to succeed. Because if not her, than who?

Recently, I’ve been dealing with family tragedies, heartbreak, failed/halted experiments, pressure to publish, and anxiety to graduate. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. I’ve tried to keep myself from thinking too much about it or feeling it too deeply. I laugh the pain away on twitter, I work the worry away at work (when I can manage to focus), I sweat the sorrow away at the gym, and whatever is left I package into a blog post. A friend I hadn’t spoken to in awhile said to me, “you’re a stronger woman than most.” Am I? Is that what he sees? How can I be strong if deep down I feel so weak?

If you peel back a few of these outer layers, you’d see that I”m busting at the seams. Like a blouse that no longer fits, I’m holding it together just enough to appear normal. I keep a straight face to prevent having an emotional break down in public. I avoid crying because I fear I won’t be able to stop. I just want things to go on as usual, so I behave as if things are as usual. With a tuck of this sadness here and a tuck of that worry there, no one should know the wiser. I don’t even think I’ve been disguising my inner turmoil on purpose. It just… happened.

Despite choosing not to be outwardly transparent about the personal struggles of my life, I believe that I am strong. Though my emotional despair can make me feel weak at times, my emotional self is not a weakness. Ultimately, emotional states are dynamic and temporary. Though I find myself in a difficult place, struggling to keep it all together all the time, I am determined to move forward and to get to a better place. And thank God I have the strength to do so…

What do you think makes a strong woman? Do all strong women look alike? Does a strong woman have to have it all together all the time? Can a strong woman be vulnerable? Is it possible for a weak woman to pass for a strong woman?

Exposed,
~Gem

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13 Comments

  • Reply max May 25, 2011 at 6:24 am

    I love this post. I think I’m kind of like you in that I’m extremely adept at hiding the fact that I’m going through things. I laugh it off, I write about it it, I tweet cryptic things, but it’s rare that I’ll admit to anyone (including myself) that I’m in pain. As a result, I’m often commended for being strong.

    On the one hand, I think the ability to push through life and handle your business even when you’re going through it is what it means to be strong. But on the other hand it feels false to me. I always think to myself “you wouldn’t say I was strong if you knew what really goes on inside me”.

    In a way I think that it’s much easier to hide our pain and move through life like everything is normal than it is to admit that something has hurt us and allow ourselves to curl up into a ball of pain. Like I mentioned in my post today, I find it extremely difficult to admit that I need help and I think that is a kind of weakness. Sometimes I think that what being strong really means is being able to tell the truth about yourself all the time, even if you think it makes you look weak.

    • Reply gemmieboo May 25, 2011 at 11:07 am

      But on the other hand it feels false to me. I always think to myself “you wouldn’t say I was strong if you knew what really goes on inside me”..

      EXACTLY! thats why i titled the post the way i did. ppl only see what we want them to see. would they feel differently if they knew what was really going on?

      I find it extremely difficult to admit that I need help and I think that is a kind of weakness. Sometimes I think that what being strong really means is being able to tell the truth about yourself all the time, even if you think it makes you look weak.

      yes!! excellent point!! damn max, it seems like we’re sharing a brain on this. i totally feel you on this.

      thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Reply Ivy St. May 25, 2011 at 9:14 am

    I too have struggled with defining what makes a woman strong and whether I am that woman. Because I define a woman as being strong by perseverance, I am that woman. We are going to meet obstacles daily, whether it be with love, family, work or school. It’s how we get through those obstacles that makes us the strong women we are. Of course some things will get us down and make us sad, but we move on. I know I spend some evenings in the dumps, but the next day is a new day for me. We don’t let things we can’t change or things that have failed hold us back and in some cases we use it as ammunition to motivate us on the next task. I think we all carry some sort of load, but the load doesn’t define us. It is how were carry it.
    I don’t want to sounds like breaking down makes a woman weak, because sometimes, breaking down is a part of the process. Sometimes we have to cry just to move forward. I know I do. In times of not feeling strong, it is always good to surround yourself with people who can help uplift you.

    On a side note, my bf and I were having the conversation the other day about what good qualities were used to describe black women. (The subsequent day Belle in Brooklyn wrote a whole post on it. I swear she had a mic on one of my cats.) The adjective he came up with was strong. :/ While strong is a good adjective is it really the way we want to be defined? Yes if the comparison is strong versus weak, but aren’t there more desirable qualities in a woman? I know this is a bit off topic, but it has been on my mind. Everywhere I look, I see “strong black woman.” Since I struggle to define strong, what does that really mean? And why is strong the only safe adjective used to describe us (mainly by other races and even within)?

    • Reply gemmieboo May 25, 2011 at 11:18 am

      We don’t let things we can’t change or things that have failed hold us back and in some cases we use it as ammunition to motivate us on the next task. I think we all carry some sort of load, but the load doesn’t define us.

      yess this is good!!! .

      because sometimes, breaking down is a part of the process

      right, as long as we’re building ourselves back up.

      Everywhere I look, I see “strong black woman.” Since I struggle to define strong, what does that really mean? And why is strong the only safe adjective used to describe us (mainly by other races and even within)?

      this is an interesting question. even asking the group of teenage girls to define a strong vs weak woman, i had trouble myself with the concept. but in the end, i think some of the defining qualities listed above make sense. but i think too often we as black women are expected to be strong which often times translates to us feeling like we can’t ever be seen as vulnerable or incapable of controlling our feelings. and thus the hardened, aggressive, and sometimes angry “strong” black woman emerges. i think the pressure and expectations of a strong black woman is more the issue than the quality itself.

  • Reply BC May 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I recently was feeling this way and am still coming out of it. I HAD to leave my environment and go on vacation. Every day was a struggle and I was randomly crying in people’s offices; not sleeping well and unintentionally snapping at people. I was sad, irritated, scared and anxious and didn’t know why. I realized that I was out of gas and couldn’t do it anymore. It was at that point, I wasn’t any good to anyone including myself. It was at this point, I determined that I was struggling with a bout of depression. Life’s circumstances had been hitting me one right after the other since December 2010 and I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on me. There were so many times, I just wanted to scream, cry, yell – everything that is the total opposite of how I should be “acting”.

    I realized throughout all of the situations, I had to be the “strong” one and I had no down time to deal with my own emotions. I needed time to contemplate and absorb/accept everything that was happening around me. Once I identified what was wrong, I “owned” it only enough to figure out that I needed to snap out of it. The best way for me to do so was to seperate/consecrate myself (not run away from) all of my life circumstances.

    As a woman/human, the thing I wanted to do the most was just have someone listen to my problems without judging or trying to fix them. I wanted time to deal with my own emotions. Often times as black woman we are the ones who are supposed to ‘never let them see you sweat (cry, scream, or exhibit any other emotion).’ But at some point we have to deal with it, otherwise, we’ll turn into bitter/angry black women.

    My definition of strong is leading when necessary but also knowing when to be a follower. As black women, we do this very well; however, it’s important to remember we have to set asisde time for ourselves to deal with our true feelings/vulnerabilities.

    • Reply gemmieboo May 25, 2011 at 11:25 am

      I needed time to contemplate and absorb/accept everything that was happening around me. Once I identified what was wrong, I “owned” it only enough to figure out that I needed to snap out of it.

      i definitely think a woman’s ability to identify things that are wrong in her life, own it, and work to change them is what makes her strong. she cant control what happens to her but she can control how she handles the aftermath. its necessary for our sanity to get to the root of the problem.

      the thing I wanted to do the most was just have someone listen to my problems without judging or trying to fix them. I wanted time to deal with my own emotions

      i feel the same!!! just listen, just let me get it out. and if/when i need advice or help, i will ask for it.

      thank you so much reading and for sharing, BC!!!! its good to know people can feel me on this 🙂

  • Reply *Yolie* May 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    What do you think makes a strong woman? Do all strong women look alike? Does a strong woman have to have it all together all the time? Can a strong woman be vulnerable? Is it possible for a weak woman to pass for a strong woman?

    Gem, strength is what we find to continue on when we think that we can not go any further…

    To me there is no face or time limit on strength, just a a woman who was a victim of DV for years one days gets up the strength to get up and move on out! As we trudge through the ups and downs of this amazing journey called life, we are all strong, just some show strength before others, some utilize more than others. To me anyone that makes it out of this without taking their own lives are strong.

    As for someone with strength being vulnerable? of course, it is impossible to be one thing all the time! impossible and no one should aim for that… ying and yang…
    Like i said above everyone has moments of weakness and strength… and these turns come in their own time… i wish i had more time to write but i don’t….

    • Reply gemmieboo May 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      To me there is no face or time limit on strength

      i agree. the seasons of our lives change us day by day, moment to moment. and as you mention, we cant be everything all the time. our strength will manifest itself in different ways as we go through different circumstances.

      thank you for sharing 🙂

  • Reply MsEvaHoney May 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I hate that I love you for this post. I have had to be the “strong” one in a lot of situations. i am the oldest girl in a family of 5 kids that is southern to the core. That being said I am the substitute matriarch of my family.
    I started undergrad in 1999 and returned in the fall of 2000. In Oct of that year my dad called me at school and told me that my mom (who has always been a housewife) was sick and could not get out of bed and needed me to come home. I immediately dropped of school and went home to play pseudohousewife. I tended to my mom and two little sisters, went to school and had a full time job. My dad was a full time worker and a functional alcoholic. it was hard on me to be 20 years old doing all of that. After two years I could not take it anymore and went back to school in Nashville, but that life had took a toll on me and I was not the same person anymore. I started to find solace in food.

    I have always been the funny dependable sisterfriend but on the inside I was broken. I graduated college and found a decent job and decided to stay in Nashville where I had two financially and emotionally draining relationships. Again I found solace in food.

    In 2008 I was sexual assaulted after a date. I never reported and the only person i ever told was my best friend because i had major PTSD after that and was afraid to be alone in my own home and so I stayed with her two weeks. Food again.

    Fast forward to 2009. I had a mental breakdown and moved back to Denver. I planned on staying a year and then moving to Texas. My sister graduated from nursing school and could not find a job here. She was accepted into a new grad program at VAnderbilt. However she was a single mother of a 4 yr old (at the time). She could not take her with her because she did not know anyone to watch my niece, so I derailed my life again for my fam. I took temp custody of my niece and did the single parent thing for a year. Instead hanging out and doing single gal things, I was living in my parents basement, giving baths doing homework, weekend soccer and dance classes. i was so depressed and again turned to food.

    Fast forward to 2011. My sister came home and got her baby back and i have a great job and shit*y relationships. What i have realized is that I so desperately wanted some to be strong for me and take care of me that I fall head over heels for anyone that gives me a hint of that. Since i was finding solace in food I balooned and gained 130 lbs since 1999. I am now diabetic, have HBP and debilitaing cluster headaches that make the right side of my droop for days at a time.

    I have decided to have gastric bypass as a first step to putting myself back together. So being strong for me right now is being able to say that I matter too. There are so many women, not just black, that try to be “strong” for everyone else and we forget ourselves. This is why i am so passionate about mental health. I know what it feels like to think you are losing your mind.
    Thank you Gemmie for addressing this and letting me share.

    • Reply gemmieboo May 25, 2011 at 3:36 pm

      oh Ms Eva my dear, i dont even know where to begin…

      first, thank you so much for sharing. i imagine it cant be easy to share your story with strangers but im so glad you did. because perhaps some one will read it and find the strength to carry on because you have set an example.

      second, know that you even amongst strangers, you are loved. you are an amazing woman and ive enjoyed getting to know you through VSB and twitter. you are so caring and thoughtful, despite all that life has thrown at you. and THAT makes you strong in my eyes.

      third, i pray for your healing. your emotional and psychological healing. the healing that will come after your surgery. and the healing of forgiveness that you bestow on others who have contributed to your struggle. may God grand you peace and serenity, joy and happiness.

      and lastly, i pray that God sends you a mate that will love you unconditionally and appreciate the wonderful woman you are and match all that you have to offer. He’s just waiting for the right time to bring you together 🙂

      love you girl!!!! *big hugs*

  • Reply Wu Young, Agent of M.E. May 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Here’s a Y Chromo perspective:

    What do you think makes a strong woman? –Simple fortitude when trouble is in her life. How she responds to the stressors is another key portion to who and what a strong woman is.

    Do all strong women look alike? — Maybe in the way they carry themselves but I’ve been surprised by some “delicate flower” types before. You just never know sometimes.

    Does a strong woman have to have it all together all the time? — Hells no! Strong women are human. Only so much can be thrust upon them. Besides a strong woman who doesn’t have someone or let’s someone in on her stress or the weight she’s carrying around won’t be strong much longer. Rocks ware out.

    Can a strong woman be vulnerable?– I would think so. See my above answer.

    Is it possible for a weak woman to pass for a strong woman? — It happens every day. Men and women pop off about what they are or aren’t all the time but their actions tell the tale. The mother of one of my friend said this once (paraphrased) “A lot of these young ladies carry themselves with their chest sticking out like boys and brag about being strong. They need to ask themselves if they are strong women or women of strength?” I didn’t understand what she meant but she was like it takes a whole lot more than a good show to hold a family together sometimes.

    Hope this made sense. You’ve got to let it all out some how Gemmie.

  • Reply tdlove May 31, 2011 at 5:10 am

    I think it takes a lot strength to allow yourself to be vulnerable and seek help when it is needed. It’s natural, even instinct for black women to hold our heads high and soldier on as if nothing can tear us down. To show the world that we are gorgeous, smart, all of that and a bag of chips.

    But what if you really don’t feel that way, all day and everyday? What if you are nervous, scared, lonely, tired, fed-up, frustrated? Look in the mirror and say: WTH?? What does that say about you to admit it? Are you really the weakest link or are you human..

    It takes the ultimate level of strength to trust in another person and to share your deepest feelings and concerns. One thing that I struggle with, as a Christian..and human, is when my Pastor, the Bible, and well-intentioned Christians say to me: Cast your cares on to Jesus.. That is the hardest thing to do. To be strong, yet vulnerable enough to unburden yourself and pray and TRUST in what you can’t see or feel or verify with fact that is true.

    FAITH in something beyond yourself is the ultimate level of strength and it can move mountains.

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