Strength is something that is often lauded in our society. I’ve grown up reading quotes and hearing platitudes designed to encourage me to stand tall and act tough even in the midst of the most challenging situations.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Toughen up. Don’t let them see you cry. Take it like a man. Don’t be a sissy. Buckle up, soldier. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Is there any end to the catch phrases we throw at each other to inspire strength?
Growing up with two brothers certainly helped make me a tougher girl than I maybe would have been otherwise. When my brothers played hockey in our driveway, I was the one they put in the hockey net with only my Strawberry Shortcake snowsuit on to block the flying pucks. We used to lovingly rib each other about everything from school to sports, and we’d taunt each other by saying, “You can’t take it!” whenever one of us whined about something. I didn’t want to be a sissy. I wanted to be tough, like my brothers.
There’s nothing wrong with acting tough in the hockey rink or on the football field, and there’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in and not backing down when someone or something intimidates you. However, there’s a dangerous side to the expectation and goal of simply being strong. Somewhere along the line, the idea of “strength” in my own life morphed from simply standing on my own two feet to actually taking responsibility for other people’s actions.
My parents, teachers and peers prepared me well for life as a woman in America. I was taught always to dress appropriately by not showing too much skin or looking trashy. I was taught to be playful and flirtatious, but not TOO flirtatious, or I’d be considered a tease. I learned to avoid the bad crowd and stay away from the questionable neighborhoods and avoiding the parties where alcohol would be served. When I got old enough, I learned self-defense techniques and got some pepper spray for my keychain. I was told that “boys will be boys” and that it was my responsibility to say no and to stand up for myself – the message being that boys just couldn’t control themselves.
I was a good girl. I wanted to please my parents, my teachers and my friends. I followed their advice. I minded my own business and didn’t let them see me cry. And I got taken advantage of, anyway. Am I too weak? Would a stronger resolve or tougher demeanor have saved me from getting hurt?
I know much of our nation is in arms right now about a video tape that Donald Trump made a decade ago bragging about sexually harassing or even sexually assaulting women, but that tape doesn’t surprise me – not even a little bit. I know that “locker room talk” exists, and what’s more, I’ve always considered it normal. Not right, by any means, but normal. The men get together and talk about women’s bodies and when they are with a girl, they try to get as far as they can. It’s the female’s duty to stop them from getting too far … right? Isn’t that the message that we send when we teach women to dress appropriately and act like ladies?
Isn’t that what Donald Trump meant a few weeks ago when he said that it was up to a woman to find a new employer if she was sexually harassed at work? He said quite clearly that it’s the woman’s responsibility to resist sexual harassment, or else find a better working environment somewhere else. Donald’s son, Eric Trump, went even further and praised his sister Ivanka saying that she would be too strong to put up with sexual harassment – as if strength was enough to resist being at the receiving end of inappropriate or unwanted comments or gropes.
Why do we always put the burden of responsibility on the so-called weaker parties? We see it all the time, and it starts at a very young age. When I was a shy little girl and my brothers would pick on me, my mom told me to pretend it didn’t bother me. That they were only doing it to get a rise out of me, and if I whined or cried I’d be playing into their hands and they’d do it more often. It was up to me to stop the behavior – even though it wasn’t my behavior. I had to be strong, and that meant taking the higher road.
In my life, I’ve been taught that being bullied was my fault, because I cried and played into the bully’s hands. I was shown, if not overly told, that if I was sexually harassed, it was my fault for wearing something too short or being too much of a flirt. I learned to take care of myself so no one would ever hurt me, and in the process, I learned that it was my fault if someone hurt me.
That’s not fair. That’s not right. That’s not what I want to teach the next generation.
We have a choice. We can continue to put the burden of responsibility for mistreatment on those that are mistreated. We can keep praising the strong and the tough while teaching the weak to defend themselves against inevitable attacks. Or, we can switch the script. We can decide not to praise the bullies. We can reject the puffed-up chests of the “winners” that surround us and see through their facades to their ugly interiors. We can expect more of the people in our lives – the females and the males. We can hold our peers to a different standard.
We can be a stronger community, but we need to change our definition of strength. The old way isn’t working.
I’m not a victim. I’m not a weakling. I’m strong enough to demand that our standards of strength change. I don’t want to live in a world where bullies rule and everyone else cowers in fear. I want to live in a world where a person’s worth is determined not by their muscle but by their intelligence, creativity, and compassion. I want to live in that world, so it’s my responsibility to make it so.
I’m sick and tired of being held responsible for other people’s poor behavior. I am at fault just as much as the perpetrators, because I’ve played into it. I’ve accepted my hand, and I’ve played it, by assuming that other people can’t control themselves and it’s my job to protect myself. I’m done with letting people off the hook.
Donald Trump is a symbol of the entitlement that the strong and powerful have in our society. They think they can get away with anything, because we let them. We play right into their hands. That’s simply not good enough for me anymore.
Men, I’m holding you to a higher standard, starting now. Women, I’m holding you to higher standard, too. You don’t have to “rise above” and take the burden of respectable behavior off of other people. You can demand good behavior from everyone. You can stop blaming yourself for others’ mistakes.
Taking true responsibility for our actions doesn’t mean that we take on the burden of other’s behavior. We don’t have to rise above anyone else. We can rise together.