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Published Date: January 11, 2016

Published Date: January 11, 2016

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The Unbearable Heaviness of Being A Strong Woman

For all the women who are both impossibly strong and deeply human.

I’ve been a strong woman for a long time now. Many of you know what that means.

We think that to be strong women, we must pour out endlessly, we must spend of ourselves, sometimes until nothing is left. But many of us continue to do so, long past when our reserves have run dry, because we think we have something to prove. Because we don’t see that our strength is in our skin and not our armor, in our love and not our fear.

I used to wear armor. The cracks never showed, but they were there. In my early years as a Christian feminist, I wore my armor like a second skin. I inspected it for chinks every day, for any weaknesses or flaws. I kept it shiny, hard, and impenetrable, because it was what I thought I needed to do.

I let that cold metal shield me from those who thought that “woman” meant “weak.” Mostly, I wore my armor because I thought I had something to prove. I was afraid of my humanity.

But now, I’m realizing that I miss my skin.

I’m bone-weary of wearing armor, of the impossibility of never-ending strength. Sometimes, I want to hide from being strong, from the expectation that I never fail, that I have it all together, and that nothing and no one can shake me. From acting like the silencing doesn’t get to me. From pretending that I’m not tired, that I don’t ever get burned out in this fight. From always having something to prove to the world about my womanhood.

It’s exhausting to feel like your failures and vulnerabilities are your gender’s failures and vulnerabilities, like other women will be held accountable for the ways in which you are personally broken, incomplete, and uncertain. That’s how I felt when I first became a feminist—like I had to say goodbye to weakness, imperfection, and ultimately, humanity—if I was going to prove “them” wrong about “us.”

Above all things, be strong. I’ve been telling myself that for years.

The burden of strength is far from light. It’s so heavy sometimes that I crawl under my favorite plaid throw and just hide there. Out of sight of the world, I set aside the unbreakable woman and I let myself be the other woman, the confused one, the vulnerable one. The one who needs God like she needs good bread and cold water.

I’m both women, through and through. The strong woman with the fighting spirit and shameless independence. And the vulnerable one who wishes she could fall down without fear of the scoffers.

God made me strong, but God also never fails to point out my limits.

I am a strong woman. I fight hard. I speak loud. I walk even when there’s no end in sight. But my strength is not unending. I am not indestructible.

Why do I still feel like I have something to prove?

It’s a mark of privilege if you don’t feel like you represent an entire people group. A woman doesn’t have the luxury of only speaking and acting for herself on a micro level. She carries the reputation of half the sky on her shoulders.

The failures of a woman are not regarded as isolated incidents, but rather as evidence of a pattern across time and space. The inferiority of women. The incompleteness of women. The vulnerability of women.

Is it any wonder that women often feel like they must wear armor to survive? Like they have everything to prove? Like their strength must have no end?

I know I have felt that way—determined to keep my feet planted against the rushing tide, exhausted, wobbling, but unwilling to give even an inch. Unwilling to bend for fear I might break. Unwilling to let them see me waver.

I have nothing to prove.

I miss my skin, before I had to put on armor. When I was strong, but I could still be human. When I was brave, but free to make mistakes. When my femaleness wasn’t the fodder for a theological argument. When my womanhood wasn’t a natural flaw. When my value was an incontrovertible truth. When I had nothing to prove.

I have nothing to prove.

I am strong. I am. But strength and weakness are not always exclusive. Sometimes we are both. Sometimes we need to be.

This world is quick to pounce on weakness. Many of us have come to believe that this world was made for the strong. It wasn’t. Humanity is a vulnerable group. We are not like the angels. No, we are fragile little things, utterly and beautifully dependent on our God. And there is great value in that, for in both our strength and our weakness, we image God.

I have nothing to prove.

If we spend our lives cultivating the lie of never-ending strength, we live in fear of our humanity. We let patriarchy trap us behind armor, alone. We live our lives behind a cold, hard surface, certain that we do not need to be vulnerable with anyone—not even God. We accept that the only way to win this fight is to hide our imperfections and vulnerabilities.

We have nothing to prove.

Many of us believe that if we are strong enough, brave enough, unbreakable enough, we will finally be invited to break bread and drink wine with our brothers. But, it is not our strength that will wear them down. Only the Sprit can tear down the invisible walls in human hearts.

So women, be strong, absolutely, but I pray that you will not, like me, be so very afraid of your own weakness.

You have nothing to prove.

Women, our strength is not the impossible, inhuman kind. It is the kind that has limits. It is the kind that fails and breaks. It is beautifully and painfully human and that is why it still needs God.

You have nothing to prove.

To strong women:

My sister, the reputation of all women does not rest on your tired shoulders.

We can take off our armor and be strong in our own skin. We can have limits and still be great leaders. We can be vulnerable and still stand firm. We can be human and still be brave.

We have nothing to prove.

No critic or opponent can make you carry this burden. Your weakness in a moment does not mean that you, or women, are weak.

Your vulnerability does not mean that you or your cause have failed, it means that you succeeded in staying human. That you have learned the importance of taking off your armor.

Your breakability is not a reflection of your value or ability as a leader. You are wise enough to recognize your own weakness. You are brave enough to be vulnerable.

We answer to a God who never asks women to prove their value. So, starting today, let us take off our armor. May we live in our skin, in our strength and our weakness, in our beautiful humanity, and in the confidence that we have always been strong.

We have nothing more to prove.

This article is limited in that it does not address the different and enhanced pressure on women of color to be strong. It speaks only to my personal experience as a woman with the burden of strength. Stereotypes such as the “Strong Black Woman” are real and deserve serious consideration. For more information on this issue, I recommend checking out Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. A CBE review of this resource can be found here.

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