Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Unsung Strengths

These days, a trend seems to have cropped up on the world wide web. A trend of self-bolstering, self-praise, and shoulder-straightening. It demands that people stop criticizing themselves, accept their flaws as beauty, and stop apologizing. With a hair-flick and a cocked eyebrow, it says things like #sorrynotsorry, #shinestrong, and #youareenough. These bicep-flexing blurbs seek to empower and embolden women in particular and fly in the face of our bizarre, perfection-driven society. After all, haven't we all had enough of a world that praises thigh gaps, labels curves as fat, and ridicules the soft mother figure?

Yet, at the same time,there's something about these advertisements and trends that gives me pause. For a while, I couldn't put my finger on what bothered me, but I gave it some thought today and realized what it is that makes my brow furrow every time I read or watch one of these seemingly-inspirational posts. My older sister, a working mother of two smiley, blonde-headed boys, helped me come to this realization.

In response to the "love your stretch marks" and "love your body" challenges circulating social media, my sister did the online equivalent of sighing and throwing up her hands in exasperation. While acknowledging that these challenges and calls-to-arms perform a good deed by empowering and praising motherhood, my sister dared to say something different. She put her hands on her hips and said "You know what, I don't like my stretch marks." When I first read her social media declaration, I thought "oh no! love yourself! you're beautiful and perfect!" Like I was some do-good fairy swooping from the sky to sprinkle her with magical strength-and-beauty dust. But then, I read on.

While acknowledging that she didn't like her post-baby figure, she made a very important and valid point: a woman is allowed to make judgments about her own body and, if she wants, take steps to change what she sees. Yes, disliking or unhealthily criticizing yourself is never a good thing. Looking down on yourself, on your story and identity, is never healthy. But self-criticism has its benefits. If you don't like what you see, change it! Your body is exactly that: yours. Dare I say it-- you don't have to love every aspect of it. Seeing room for improvement and taking strides to better yourself doesn't make you less of a woman. In fact, having the strength to say "I want to and will make a change" is perhaps even more empowering than the "embrace yourself for what you are right now" philosophies.

So, now I circle back to my original dilemma. To what was bothering me about these trending  posts, campaigns, and challenges.

It's not always healthy to praise your faults. Self-improvement is not an unworthy goal. Seeking to better yourself does not mean that you loathe yourself or are ashamed of your past. It's okay to look at yourself and think "this is not enough. I can do better." It's okay to strive for something beyond yourself, to reach out and upward.

Sometimes it's okay to say "I'm sorry." Sometimes, it's okay to be gentle and quiet. There's something to be said for humility and discretion: for the person who stoops to help, who puts others first, who is unassuming and unobserved. In our quest to better ourselves, we wouldn't want to forsake the unsung strengths--quietness, meekness, humility--for the sake of shouting our presence and worth from the rooftops.

While confidence and purpose are admirable and necessary, I hope I never become blind to my own need. It's through our lack that we learn and grow. Our need is what drives us to our knees, and there, in that exposed perspective, we receive a clearer vision. It's from our knees that we can be lifted up, whether it be through a God, a friend, a relative, or a stranger. But if we're always strong in ourselves, loving ourselves as we are, right now in this moment, we'll never be in that humbled, exposed place. We won't experience growth. More importantly, we won't experience one of the most intimate gestures of life: a hand held out.

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