Danielle, 27, United States (Los Angeles, California)

Q: What is your story of strength?

I grew up in a really abusive situation. It eventually stopped when I learned I could fight back, but it ended pretty abruptly, so there was no real opportunity for emotional processing. There was never any reconciliation. We just sort of pretended it never happened and went on with our lives. I didn’t know how to process what had happened to me, especially because no one was talking about it. I therefore had a pretty one-dimensional view of strength, which was to keep going and suck it up. I just had to put up a stoic exterior, and as a result I developed a lot of unresolved anger and control issues.

This abuse and the repression of feelings eventually manifested in my physical health. Sometimes I would have seizures and just pass out. I had brain scans and evaluations and the doctors could only guess that these episodes were caused by stress and trauma. That’s the first time I went to a therapist. Even though I had started therapy, I still had the idea that strength was stoicism, and I just had to be this badass bitch who exhibited a good-for-the movies type of female strength. It wasn’t until adulthood that I had female friends who encouraged me to open up. They taught me that people who dealt with their emotions were a lot stronger than people who didn’t.

Once I got to college, I had other things going on in my life that were testing my limits (I was in a terrible relationship). I tried to stay strong in the way I knew how, by maintaining a hard exterior. All of this unresolved trauma eventually reached a tipping point, and it all blew up my senior year. I had a full blown mental breakdown – so bad that I had to reduce my course load and take summer courses to finish up with college in order to start graduate school on time. I had so much going on mentally and emotionally that all just came to a head as I was entering this massive life transition.

Fortunately, I then moved to a different phase in life. In grad school, I met people who just wanted good things for me and who finally made me want good things for myself. I was finally building a life for myself rather than living in the one that was built for me. I slowly and painfully learned that it’s a lot harder to be vulnerable and deal with your pain, but it takes a lot more strength to be vulnerable as well. Avoidance and compartmentalization not only require less strength, but they also lead to less fulfillment. I’m still working on that.

 

Q: What is a gender norm or expectation you wish didn’t exist?

All of them. But one of the things I really despised growing up is something I learned in church: the saying, “Men give love to get sex; women give sex to get love.” Basically, all men want to do is have sex and all women want to do is have a husband who provides, so they have to have sex to meet that need. It’s really stifling. It makes it seem like men don’t have emotions, and that women can’t have sex just to enjoy it. It 100% excuses and plays into rape culture. Sexual and emotional experiences are a human experience and trying to bucket that by gender is harmful to men and women. It has scarred me and put a lot of shame on me, a lot of which I internalized. I’ve made lot of really harmful decisions because I believed that for a long time.

 

Q: What advice would your adult self give your younger self?

First: Lying is stupid. As a young teenager I lied about a lot of trivial things, partially because it gave me some sense of control and allowed me to write my own narrative. It was just so easy to lie about or exaggerate little things. At that point, there were a lot of things that I felt happened to me. In that type of situation, there are many sick and unhealthy ways people will assert control over their own lives, and my way was lying. I wanted to control other people’s perceptions of my own life. Eventually I learned that, even when it’s uncomfortable to tell the truth, if you just say “I’m going to be completely honest” and tell the truth, people will respect that. That said, I still grapple with honesty in some ways. I have very different religious and spiritual values than I was raised with, and my views are different than the views that my family members currently have. Even now, it’s hard to balance complete honesty with healthy boundaries. It’s partly me trying to figure out how much of my true self I can share with my family without them loving me any less, but also knowing that my family doesn’t need to know everything about me. That’s one way I still struggle with lying – I don’t want to lie to them about who I am, so now I just stay away.

Second: Don’t take ownership of other peoples shit. I think a lot of people get really upset when they feel that something has been done to them by other people. I did. But I have found a lot of freedom and general lessening of anxiety in realizing that people’s reactions to me are often reflections of or reactions to their own lack of self worth, their insecurities, their skeletons in the closet. I have to own my own life, and I have to let other people own theirs.

 

Q: What is something you’re working on or trying to improve?

The biggest thing at the forefront of my life is just being very intentional with all aspects of my life. I just moved to Los Angeles from across the country in order to turn a long distance relationship into a no distance relationship. It’s great and fulfilling in many regards, but I don’t have a friendship network here so I’m trying to be conscious and intentional about my life outside of my relationship. I want to stay active now that I’m driving and not walking all over a city. I’m trying to be involved in the community around me. And I’m starting to think about how I might build my own family and what my relationships with my current/birth family is like. These are little things that I’m trying to pay attention to. I just want to be conscious and don’t want to be passive with those areas of my life.

 

Kayla Soren, 19, Louisville, Kentucky

What is your story of strength?

Growing up in Kentucky, it was easy to see the impact of environmental destruction. Strip mining destroyed my state’s mountains more and more every year. Seeing this, I always wanted to do something, but I had no idea where to begin. I felt insignificant in my ability to make a change. I knew that my biggest barrier toward being an activist was my fear of public speaking, even communication generally. I was scared of talking to my teachers, friends, and let alone the public about my opinions about how the world should be. I had these big dreams, like everyone does, of changing the world or making a difference, but I felt that I could not do anything if I couldn’t even talk to someone next to me.

When I went to high school, I decided to join the debate team–and it started off as one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was awful, and I lost almost every single debate my first semester, every weekend for an entire semester. But, I kept pushing. I told myself I wasn’t going to stop until I won a few rounds, just a few debates, to prove to myself that I could stand up for something. By the end of my freshman year I won a really small local Kentucky debate tournament.

That insignificant debate tournament really changed my life. While maybe it didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, to me it meant that I was validated. By the end of high school, I had one the state championship three years in a row, several national tournaments, and was the debate captain.  If I could make that difference in my own life by succeeding in something that was so hard to overcome, and turn one of my greatest weaknesses into one of my greatest strengths, I could try to do that for my own environmental activism as well.

I realized that one thing that bothered me about debate is that while a lot of people care, and a lot of people knew a lot of things, they never acted on anything. The biggest issue is that they never knew how to act, what to do, and I realized that wasn’t just in the debate community, it was everywhere. That is why I founded the International Student Environmental Coalition (ISEC), which provides a platform for any young person to get the tools and the skills and the empowerment to enable to create big societal change. We focus on is implementing ambitious ideas, so we want to go beyond a high school environmental club, to focus on national movements, and uniting national movements across the world.

ISEC is more than just an environmental youth organization–we really try to push the idea that, no matter what it is, you can try to do big things that seem hard and scary. I have also realized that cultural differences are really distinct. In the United States for example, it has been really hard to rally young people, and in Europe as well. That is because people there are in this mindset of being solely career oriented, and it is really hard to break this mindset, although you do see it being broken more and more in the US. But if you look to other countries where we (ISEC) have been most successful, whether in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, they care so much about doing something because their lives rely on it, and they have seen the importance of not being so selfish. That is really empowering, trying to bring that mindset to other parts of the world and create that mindset here at home.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman for me is hopeful. But I wasn’t always hopeful.

It is hard. I did not realize the struggles of being female until high school. I grew up blaming myself for a lack of self esteem or constant intimidation, but are never taught the contributing factors to those feelings, like being a woman. With women’s rights in all aspects now being increasingly integrated into our cultures, I am confident that more young girls today and in the future will learn what it means to identify as a woman. Finding communities, especially within environmentalism, and finding people within the mindset that they want to be progressive and do whatever it takes– that is hopeful.

I see women’s empowerment as providing hope for other movements as well. The women’s movement has really taken a comprehensive, all-in approach, and includes people from all different groups and areas, although admittedly still problematic in being largely white-centric, but they are trying to do a good job at bringing different groups together, and hopefully can become an example for a cross-cultural, cross-barrier movement.

What is a gender norm or expectation you wish didn’t exist?

The thing that bothers me the most is that when you see women in power–even though it is great they we are seeing more women in power–it is either people that look very masculine, or people that look absolutely stunning.

It is really hard to find that middle ground. Even though we are seeing more representation and that empowers other women, you still seem to have to fit that look if you want to go further.

Can you tell me about a time you disappointed yourself?

I tend to take on responsibility for everything, and there is a constant disappointment and constant guilt. It is hard to identify, I could name several instances of failure, but I think the biggest issue is this constant cycle of feeling like I am never doing enough.

If I do make a mistake, I also tend to take it very personally. I do everything I can to fix the mistake, but I think it is also ingrained in me that I have to never do that again, never make that mistake, which I think isn’t the point. Often failure is really important, and we try to sponsor ideas big enough to risk frequent failure in ISEC. That’s why I think the nonprofit has seen the unexpected immense growth that it is: embracing the potential to fail allows for the most impactful initiations. I am so thankful to have had so much failure in my life.

Emily, 30, United States (Beirut, Lebanon)

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What is your story of strength?

I would say a lot of it started with living with a military family. From as early as I can remember, I moved every two to three years of my life and that was normal for me. I didn’t realize until much later that it wasn’t normal for other people.It was a challenging childhood but also a beautiful childhood because I got to experience all kinds of cultures. I think I grew up with a sense that I was no different from most people in the world from a very early age, which I am very grateful for. It has also become a source of strength for me as I’ve gotten older.

When I was 11, that world completely fell apart because my father passed away from brain cancer, which was hugely traumatic. In a way, I am grateful for it as well because everyone has some tragedy in their life. In the grand scheme of things, I can look at the tragedy that I went though and think I still had an amazing father for 11 years. My mother is an insanely strong woman. She raised three children by herself through adolescence, which makes me feel claustrophobic just thinking about. In the grand scheme of things, I had a great early life even though I had this tragic thing happen to me. I have the feeling that I can handle anything now.

What is a gender norm or expectation that you wish didn’t exist in society?

I think about the concept of vulnerability a lot. It is often associated with womanhood in a very negative way. I think both men and women associate being public about your vulnerabilities or shortcomings with weakness and with femininity but in the negative connotation. I think femininity is awesome but being realistic about the patriarchal world we live in, a lot of the times it is associated with negative traits. You have this discourse of “hyper strength” and being strong all the time and never saying that you can’t do something, or something is beyond you, or that you’re struggling with something. Think about how powerful it is to hear someone talk about something they’ve struggled with in a public way. That revolutionizes the world but we don’t do it because we are socialized to think that doing so is weak and feminine. And I think that is a really subtle thing to break through.

There’s this great quote, Muriel Rukeyser said, “If a woman told the truth about her life, the whole world would split open.” I think that applies to everyone- not just women, not just men- if you told the truth about your life and we were all more honest with our vulnerabilities and shortcomings, that would change the world we live in.It is something I struggle with, actually. I identify as a strong person, with strong opinions. I know what I like and know that I want. So for me to say I am not sure about something is very hard and I can feel myself struggling against that gender norm even though I am aware that it is a toxic norm.

Can you tell me about a time you failed?

I’ve always had a very sarcastic sense of humor. For a long time, I hid my insecurities behind a biting sarcasm that was also very judgmental. That was something I did through high school and parts of college. I am very uncomfortable with the fact that I did that… that I felt comfortable judging people and making fun of people for how they look or how they dress. When I was in college I ran for and was elected President of our tour guide association. There was a girl in that association that I did not get along with. After I was elected as President, I made some very cutting remarks about her to mutual friends, and it got back to her. Not only did I fail as a person, not being kind to another human. I also failed as a woman, undercutting another woman. And I failed as a leader. While in a leadership position, I was not a leader. She confronted me about (to her credit and I am grateful she did). I had to eat crow and say you’re right and I’m sorry that wasn’t cool. I had to follow up with people and explain that it was inappropriate. It was incredibly humiliating. I learned a lot from that situation but I still feel embarrassed about it because I really really tanked on that one.

Other than your gender, what are the defining characteristics of who you are?

I think of myself as a storyteller. I am a historian by profession and am fascinated by stories and narrative. Joan Didion is one of my personal heroes. She says, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I deeply believe that. The stories that we tell ourselves are incredibly important. I am always interested in the stories people tell themselves about themselves and about the world around them- to me, there is nothing else. I am also a bit of a glutton. I love really good food and good wine and happy experiences. Well, perhaps not a glutton, but a maximalist. I am a big fan of maximalism in life.

Bina Hussein, 29, United States (Washington, DC)

 

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What is your story of strength?

I grew up in Amsterdam, and I was really bad at school. I was dyslexic, I wasn’t good at learning, so I always had to prove myself. A lot of of people did not believe in me, including my teachers, and I failed so many subjects, had to redo them, had to improve my grades to pass the year. Over and over again, I had to prove to people that I actually was smart, that I was able to achieve things, and I surprised a lot of people the moment I graduated with a masters degree.

Now, was I able to do that by myself? Definitely not. I think my biggest supporter was my dad. He was always fighting for me and pushing me to do better, there was a belief system there, he saw that I was capable of achieving things.The moment I graduated high school and started studying things I was interested in and cared about, I excelled, and I think it generated respect from family, friends, teachers, to see that you can achieve things if you set your mind to it.

That fact, that I have always had to prove to people that I was better than they thought I was, is my strength because I have always had to fight. I have always had to fight. That is a mentality that I have not been able to let go of, and started at such a young age that now it is a survival tactic. I don’t know how else to approach things other than to always be and do the best that I can, so that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is nothing I can’t do. And, it really equipped me for everything that came next in my life.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Women are the key to society. Women are the leaders in the family, the teachers of the children– they are what keeps everything together. Being a woman equals strength for me. It equals bravery. Because women are the gender that is at a disadvantage in life–on all fronts, whether professionally or within society more broadly–women have to be fighters. Whether you like it or not, the fact that you are a woman means you are a fighter.

You don’t have to be feminist, but there will be a point in your life when you are going to have to stick up for yourself, stand up for your rights, point out what is wrong with the situation, and say that is not right. That is what women are: we are strong, we are brave, we are fighters. But, we are always at a disadvantage in society, whether we like it or not.

I also think most males have no idea what it is like to be at a disadvantage in life. Many of them–although I won’t say every one of them, it depends on where you live, where you grew up, it is not the same in all cases–but in many cases, men are more privileged than women. They have an advantage when it comes to their education, to their careers, and they always seem to be one step ahead somehow, regardless of the fact that women may be better educated. To be women means your gender puts you at a disadvantage for no good reason.

That said, we should also give credit where credit is due. There have been many advances over the years, and even in this past year with what has happened around sexual harassment, more attention being paid to gender diversity, things are in the works. As long as awareness is being raised, we can continue fighting for what is our right to be equal–even if I doubt it will ever be achieved.

What is something you are trying to work on right now in your life?

Now that I am in a place where I feel more situated, I have started to work a lot more on diversity issues, on raising awareness where I can, whether at work or outside of work. I am now able to do that as I got to point where I am in a good place, I feel confident in what I am doing, and now it is time to stir things up a little and improve what and where I can.

This work on diversity, including a report I am writing on women in energy, is something that is just the beginning, to raise awareness of the role of women in a part of the world where women are certainly at a disadvantage, and it has helped me think more about my future and where I want to go next. I think doing more on empowerment and female leadership not just personally but as a career is something I am passionate about, something that is important, and something I am thinking more and more about.

How can women–and men–help other women?  

From an organizational perspective, once you are in place where you are comfortable you can do a lot more. Once you find out how an institution works, you can figure out how to bring change to an institution–that is one way women can help each other. You can also raise awareness among men by explaining that change is necessary, and why. This is also valuable, and an opportunity for women to play a role, steering men in a direction where they help and empower women–because like it or not, most places are run by men. So if you can change their mentality, or at least put enough pressure on them to change their decision making, this can help women. I think a lot of men in theory are supportive of women, but perhaps do not know how to be supportive or necessarily see the importance of it until they are confronted with it. Sometimes, women just need to push for it.

Individually, women can learn from each other, among each other. You do not have to work together, be in the same place, or live the same kind of life–sharing experiences goes a long way toward raising awareness and bringing change. Even when you share your thoughts and experiences, you end up with brainstorming sessions, good ideas, and that is one way to create change or help one another. In the end, all situations are unique. You cannot compare one organization with another, one individual with another–all organizations are unique, every person’s way of thinking is different, even between two women.

This does not mean you cannot support one another, but rather than you have to figure out and navigate how to do this in a way that is in accordance with each individuals’ beliefs. You have to figure out what people–men and women–care about, and figure out how to make this relevant to supporting women. And, from a leadership perspective, you need to know, man or woman, when to step back for the greater good, to give others an opportunity and a seat at the table.

 

Gina, 27, United States (Brooklyn, NY)

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What is your story of strength?

Looking back, my college years were a really transformative time for me. I think growing up through 12th grade I was so certain about what I wanted to do with my life. I had this ten year plan about wanting to be a doctor and studying biology. I knew I wanted to save the world and do all of these ambitious things. I was so set on it and it never really occurred to me that this wasn’t going to work out for me. So I went into college with that plan in mind and I was hit in the face my first year of college. My classes were extremely difficult and I found myself studying and studying and nothing was absorbing for me. A lot of times I felt stupid and dumb. And it felt like my peers around me were doing so much better than I was and I was like, “What am I doing wrong? What am I doing differently?”

It took awhile but by the end of my freshman year I realized this path wasn’t meant for me. I went on a volunteer trip where I was able to work and interact with children. That experience just sort of transformed me and made me realize this (studying to become a doctor) isn’t the path that I was meant to be on. In a lot of ways I was struggling with the idea that if I changed my major and changed my career path, I was giving up and taking the easy way out.

I realized that by changing my route I was shifting into the path that I was called to be on. Education is all encompassing and I knew, once I learned about the power of education, especially for women and girls, I knew this was what I was called to do. And that was how I ended up changing my major to English and Education. I think that was something really difficult for me that demonstrated strength. For so long I had this idea of who I wanted to be and also this idea of what I thought people around me wanted me to be. I thought if I changed my major I was not only disappointing my perceptions of myself, but also my family and the people around me who’ve I told this dream of myself to over and over again.

By the end of the year I made that difficult decision and I’ve been so much happier and more joyful because of it. Even though it was difficult for me to negotiate, looking back I really appreciate all the things I had to think about and all the support that I had. I think that is my story of strength.


What does being a woman mean to you?

When I think about this question, I immediately think about my mom and my sister. I think in so many ways they embody this idea of resilience. They were survivors of war. Starting with my mom, she actually lost her first born, my oldest brother, when he was eight due to pneumonia and because they didn’t have access to medicine and healthcare at that time. It was just before the Vietnam War had broke out in their village. My mom was a teacher too, she was a 5th grade teacher back in Vietnam. Once the fall of Saigon happened in 1975, she and her family had to leave everything behind. She was forced out of her career. She could only take a few belongings. She had to take my sister and flee to safety. I think my dad was in jail at that time, he was a prisoner of war.

I think about her when I think about what it means to be a woman to me because she has been able to bounce back from so much loss and grieving in her life. And I think about the kindness and the generosity that she exudes to everyone around her. Sometimes it makes me wonder, like wow, looking at her you wouldn’t know that she’s been through this. I think that’s what women do. We go through things, we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, we do what we have to do, and then we bounce back. We take the ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary and we move on from it.


Can you tell me about a time in which you struggled or disappointed yourself?

I think when this happened I wasn’t disappointed at the time. It wasn’t until I got older in college I realized I was really ashamed of myself for doing it. I grew up in a very predominantly white community and I went to a predominantly black school. I was constantly this outsider. I didn’t really fit in with the white community and I didn’t really fit in with the black community. I grew up for a long time feeling ashamed for being different. In elementary school I actually used to lie about being Vietnamese because no one really knew where it was or understood. I think their only familiarity with Asian countries was China or Korea or Japan… So I actually used to lie and say I was from Canada (I don’t really know why I chose Canada!).

For a long time I just kind of almost wished it away. I never wanted to talk about it, never wanted to acknowledge it. I wanted there to be a very clear boundary between my house and the second I stepped outside in the world. I kind of just wanted to not be Asian and not be viewed differently. For a long time I tried to deny my culture and tried to suppress it in any way that I could. I didn’t really hang out with any Asian kids because I almost felt that they were beneath me. I tried really hard to assimilate in so many ways, especially in high school.

It wasn’t until college when I started hanging out with other Vietnamese American and Asian American students that I started to feel ashamed about how I had treated my culture. I started realizing what my family had sacrificed and that made me reevaluate how I viewed my heritage and the importance of understanding my history. That’s when I started feeling proud of my culture. Being around other proud Asian Americans kind of strengthened me. I had a lot of Asian American women around me at this time as well. I think they made me feel empowered and emboldened to share my stories a lot more.

Looking back I think it’s kind of funny that I tried so hard to be different and that’s something that I now value. I think that’s a perspective now a lot of people value when I’m in the conversation. I feel like the Asian American voice is left out — it’s not really acknowledged in history books or in literature. I remember it wasn’t even until college that I read a book with an Asian American character or Asian American author. So that really opened my eyes to so many things.


How can women better support each other?

I think for women to continue supporting each other it’s important to realize that our freedom and our liberation is all tied to each others’. I think a lot about what Audre Lorde says, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” I think about that a lot. I think about the responsibility that women have to help each other once we have made it it or have been successful. I think it’s really important for women to continue giving back and supporting other women as much as we can.

I think we have a tendency to compare ourselves — or at least I do, it took me a long time to get over the insecurity of feeling threatened by other women’s successes. Now it’s kind of shifting into that place where I can be happy for other women. It’s like, “Wow, she’s made it and is a really strong, resilient woman that I can look up to.”

I think being accepting of ourselves and celebrating the successes of other women will continue to move us forward.

Kate, 29, United States (Washington, DC)

 

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What is your story of strength?

 

A lot of my strength came through processing my parents’ divorce. I was so little when they split up, so I don’t even have a memory of them being together. It wasn’t an amicable breakup. My brother and I were split up between my parents, but when you’re little you don’t realize what that stuff means. I would just think, “oh, it’s Tuesday, I’m with Mom” and it didn’t really matter, but as I got older I realized how difficult it was on me that I had two separate families and that my brother and I were split up. It’s a different way of growing up… there are two of everything, your parents don’t get along, your dad honks the horn when he picks you up at 5:00, and for a while that was just the way it worked and I had no knowledge that it could be any different. The divorce happened when I was six, and as I got older there started to be quite a bit of dysfunction on my dad’s side, from drug abuse to other forms of dysfunction. I knew it really affected my little sister, who lived with my dad and step mom, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the toll it took on me, being around all of that. Being around my dad’s side of the family and seeing my sister suffer through that instability was really difficult for me. On a personal level, the relationship with my dad has always been hard. It was like having two separate families that were polar opposites, my mom’s side being mostly stable and my dad’s side was just not.

The divorce is the thing I’ve learned the most from in my entire life and what I’ve  really had to draw my strength from. In the face of struggle and abuse and dysfunction and confusion, you just have to make sense of the situation as best as you can. I feel like I matured at such a young age because I had to reconcile that world my dad was living in. I’ve seen two total opposite sides of marriage and of parenting: the stable side and the really tumultuous side. In the midst of all of that craziness I think I ended up pretty stable, thanks in large part to my mom’s side of the family that was a really constant source of love, but it took me a long time to realize that the instability on the other side of the family is not normal and that I don’t have to live that way.

It has helped me grow as a person because it gives me a sense of empathy for others going through their own personal situations, whether it be with family, abuse, addiction, or just generally compromising situations. I understand what it feels like, what the effects of that trauma are, and the ripple effect it can have on families. It also really affected my self-confidence and that of my siblings, as well as the way I approach my own relationships. After getting out of my last relationship, I look back and realize I was such a pleaser. I was always concerned about him, wanting to make him happy, and we basically isolated ourselves from everyone else, and that’s kind of how my dad is with my step mom. But I think the more I learn about myself and my relationships I’m picking up on those things that may have affected me and becoming more aware.

 

Can you tell me about a time in which you struggled or disappointed yourself?

Definitely when I ended the longest relationship I’ve ever had, with a guy named Drew. I started dating him when I was 23. He was a Green Beret in the Army, and I met him when he was home for a short period. We hit it off and did the long distance thing off and on for a couple years over the course of three deployments. We would write each other letters and it was almost a “Dear John” type of situation in which we could just let down our guards and open up through our writing to one another. We had such a deep love, but all the while he was either overseas or in the process of figuring out where he’d be next. He eventually got stationed in the Nashville, Tennessee area, and after a lot of conversation I made the decision to move out to Tennessee to be with him.

So, the time came and I loaded up my car and as my mom and I pulled out of the driveway I had a panic attack. We had to pull over and it took me a while to get over it but we kept driving. We finally made it there, and when we pulled up and I saw him I had another panic attack. My mom was telling me to get out of the car, but something inside me just couldn’t. I was paralyzed in my own skin. I finally collected myself and got out of the car and tried to make light of it and pretend everything was OK, but truthfully I knew something was wrong. I really did love him, but I think I just wasn’t ready to make that jump to leave my life, my career, my family and friends, and to live this new life in which he was deployed on and off and everything would be different. I don’t think I was ready to give up all that I had to give up to be there. But, at the time, I couldn’t figure out why I was freaking out so much, I just knew something was off.

I ended up staying out there for about six weeks. During that time I tried to get a job, trained for a half marathon, was cooking for him every night with candles and wine and the whole thing… I was trying to do things that were pleasing to him while also keeping my own identity. I was just so, so sad, to the point where I stopped talking to friends and family because I knew if I talked to them they would know something was wrong. I felt like I had committed to that move and to that life, and I was doing it for him while he was risking his own life and making the greatest sacrifice of all. I tried my hardest, it just didn’t work out.

The disappointment came because I felt so selfish and guilty for leaving. In hindsight I know it was the right decision for me to leave, but at the time I was so disappointed in myself. When I left he was curled up, sobbing on the bathroom floor, totally broken, and it broke me to be breaking him. I would think of everything that these guys go through being Green Berets… I would hear about the violent, sad, and scary details of his life overseas, and I felt so guilty for leaving him. For months when I got home I was depressed. I knew it was the right decision but I just had this cloud of guilt around me. I would go to therapy and cry and ask myself how I could ever do that to him. I was only there for six weeks, did I even give it enough time or effort? Did I give up? Am I a shitty person? Can I ever make a relationship work if I can’t make this work? It made me question everything and I just felt like I failed.

To date, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it’s also one of my proudest moments, being able to get through that dark period. I matured a ton emotionally from that experience. I wasn’t very secure and didn’t have a strong sense of self the way I think I do now, after having that experience and having to pick up every piece of my life. If I didn’t do what I did, I’d be living a life that wasn’t for me.

 

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman to me is just being so damn strong. I know it’s cliche, but SO much of the burden falls on women in terms of relationships, friendships, household responsibilities, bearing children… all of these things just naturally fall on us. But on the other side of that, my favorite stories of women are ones in which a woman pushes herself beyond what she ever thought she could do. I just ran a marathon and I NEVER thought I could do that. It’s cool as shit to do that and to see other women doing it, whether it’s their first or their 15th, whether they have zero children or five children. Women are just so strong and have incredible strength of mind to be able to manage all that they manage and to still push themselves to that level, whether it’s running a marathon or some other personal victory. That’s what being a woman is to me. Being strong in mind and heart and knowing your strengths but also being aware of how you can improve and be stronger to better your own life. I so admire my friends who become mothers when they never thought they could, who sacrifice for their partners, who pick their kids up and do homework with them every day… women show strength in so many different ways, and I think that’s really special that we can choose how to harness our own strength in different ways.

One quick example… my mom and her best friend Barb both have daughters named Kate. One time they got in a silly but pretty big fight about what they wanted for their daughters in the future. My mom said, “what if my daughter wants to have children and then start a career?” and Barb said, “well what if she wants to start her career and then have children?” It’s such a silly thing to fight about, honestly, but I’ll always remember that story because it’s so true that women really do have to make those decisions in a way that men generally don’t. So many women forego their own professional passions to raise a family, and the opposite is true, too, and that burden of consideration really does fall mostly on women. And now with social media you have to be making these decisions and doing all of these things WHILE being sexy and fashionable and so, so happy, and it’s a harsh world for women in that regard because you’re going to be judged or ridiculed no matter what choice you make. No matter what you’re going to be violating someone’s expectations, so it’s really all about finding our own individual strengths and harnessing them in a way that is true and genuine.

 

How can women better support each other?

Be the woman who cheers for other women. If you have a friend who forgoes her career aspirations to raise a family, don’t judge her, just ask her to enlighten you about what led her to that decision. Maybe you can learn something. My friends who are moms are making decisions and managing responsibilities I can’t even fathom handling, and I’ve learned so much from them. And on the other side, don’t judge or ridicule women for choosing their careers. There’s something to take away from every woman’s story, and we have to champion those parts of women, even the ones we don’t understand individually. If we can just ask to be let in and to learn about what life is like for women who lead their lives differently, rather than making assumptions or staying in our own safe spaces, I really think we can unite as a gender and as a human species to better support one another.

Alefiyah, 30, United States, (Chicago, IL)

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What is your story of strength?

Life has a way of testing our patience and persistence. Throughout my life, I knew that I wanted to be my own boss and have a business. Although I am still in the process of establishing my ASL Photography business, starting it tested me in many ways. I learned so much about others, and well as myself. It was a huge risk, and I realized that not everyone was supporting me in my journey. As much as it hurt me, a part of me knew that I had to continue with my business because it was what I enjoyed. I experienced a lot of rejection, and I am still struggling with creating a client base. But, having a business taught me that the best things in life take time to become successful, and that all of the challenges that I am experiencing now will lead to better things later. Inshallah.

 

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman means many things to me, and no two women will have the same definition. I started a blog called Unsung Echoes where I ask women (and men) the same question, and it is beautiful to read their stories and personal experiences. To me, being a woman means to be respected as an individual. Women are constantly told to meet society’s expectations of how they should be, and they are compared to other women. We are never valued for being ourselves, and for our achievements. As a woman, I want to be accepted for who I am without being told that I am not good enough. I do not want to blamed or made to feel guilty because my individuality makes others feel uncomfortable. Being a woman is tough as it is, and I want to be appreciated for the work that I have done, and am doing to reach my goals.

 

Can you tell me about a time you disappointed yourself?

Everything that happens, and everyone who we meet teaches us a lesson. As challenging as life can be, I am disappointed in myself during those times when I did not defend myself when I was being disrespected by others. I tolerated their behavior when it should not have been tolerated at all. Sometimes, we have to be our own heroes and save our self-respect regardless of the situation. I am also disappointed in myself during those moments when I did not defend others when they were being oppressed or insulted. We live in a world that has become less compassionate and more divided. People are selfish and materialistic, and the only way to create change is to be that change.

 

How can women better support each other?

Women are naturally strong and nurturing individuals. We are capable of accomplishing great things when given the opportunity to do so, and I think that women can support each other by teaching others from their own experiences. Women entrepreneurs can help other blooming women entrepreneurs about marketing strategies, or business ideas. Women who are in more male dominated fields can encourage other women to become engineers, accountants, financial analysts or computer scientists. As women, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others, and have the confidence to know that we achieve great things too. We also need to realize that we can not be everything to everyone all of the time, and that it is not selfish to take care ourselves when it is necessary. Nothing is more important than our mental, emotional and physical health. If we are not happy with who we are, then nothing else matters.

Amelia, 30, United States (Oakland, CA)

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What is your story of strength?

My strength is empathic bravery. It was a role that I filled in my family. Everyone had a lot of emotions, but not always the tools to analyze those emotions.

Emotions were these eruptions and met with a reaction but not a lot of processing. I became more curious than afraid of emotions. That is a strength that has guided me in a lot of ways. I don’t shy away from things that are uncomfortable or the things that are hard to think about, but I put myself in the emotional experience. That is one story of strength that has guided me towards my career and how I interact with people on a daily basis.

In my own experiences of being a kid, I was teased a lot by my siblings and felt isolated. I had low self-esteem and negative feelings about myself. Emotions were something that I naturally choose to go into and explore. I was curious about myself and my own emotions and the role that people had on those feelings. I started looking for things that did not confirm these external narratives about who I was.

Through my own understanding of how my siblings treated me, I could think about how they were feeling about themselves because I noticed similarities. Everyone was bullying each other – their response in return was to bully. It was all coming from their own feelings of insecurity and hurt they were projecting onto each other. The outcome of that doesn’t really go anyway.

When someone gets mad, they respond by making someone else mad. But really it is because they are hurt. Is that the best way of going about it? Instead of responding to my hurt, I started responding to their hurt as I took from their angry outburst. Through being more curious about their treatment of me, we could get to a place of ownership where they could own their thoughts and feelings. This helped me and my family make sense of our emotions. I learned to be willing to stand in something uncomfortable that scared me.

Later, studying abroad in India came at a time when I was in a shitty relationship that was unhealthy. I lost myself. It was volatile, abusive. When I was in India, it was this moment for me when we broke up and I was ready. I had to choose myself again. I used that focus and energy to zoom in on myself.

India was when I started to learn how to meditate, learned about my culture, became more connected to my Indian roots. It was a life changing experience. It pulled me out of something – I don’t know who I would have become in that relationship.

That time gave me a sense of self-efficacy, helped me regain my self-esteem, and allowed me the space to be proud of myself and where I am from. It helped me know I could cultivate all of these things in my life and be more attuned to myself. I got to revamped myself in that sense.

Learning from that, in terms of strength, you are as strong as you invest in yourself. No one is going to save you.

 

What does being a woman mean to you?

Women are the center of the family. I say that as a woman and one of four girls in my family and a lot matriarchs. When I was doing my genogram, it had this long theme of all the women in my family being the transmitters of culture, the holders of family.

Family didn’t exist until women made the space for it. Even now, the men in my family go to the center where all the women are to feel a part of the family. No one goes to see the boys to feel a part of the family; where the women are, is where family is.

A lot of that is also socialization – I think men are arrested in their social emotional development thanks to sexism. Often, women are the ones that teach those things that many girlfriends have taught their boyfriends – how to express themselves, etc. Many men only feel safe expressing their emotions to women. That says a lot about women. It says a lot of how society raises men.

Women have a lot of patience and strength. We are the teachers of life. We hold everything together. We get the short end of the stick because our society doens’t value those qualities but it wouldn’t function without them. It would function better if men joined in instead of existing in the secret confines of their relationships.

 

Can you tell me about a time when you failed or disappointed yourself?

I made a lot of poor relationship choices when I was younger. In those moments, I wasn’t able to choose what was right for me. Instead, I chose people that didn’t serve me or make me better, listened to those voices in my head that told me I deserved something when I really don’t.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in relationships. I have sacrificed my well being for the illusion of love and a false sense of security. In those things, I wasted a lot of time. I learned lessons that I feel like I didn’t have to learn…but maybe I did. Now I know what I won’t tolerate or accept.

I do feel bad – when I look back on myself and how I felt in some relationships, I feel bad for myself that I let myself be there in that space. I feel like I fail to love myself the way I really need to. Even not honoring my meditation practice, smoking… those are my failures constantly.

There is something hard about giving myself what I deserve.

 

How can women better support each other?

By having more patience with each other – truly understanding that we all want what is good for ourselves and we are all trying. Remembering each other’s humanity.

There is a lot of bullshit placed on women. We navigate it and defend ourselves in so many different ways. Even the people we feel like we can judge because they don’t have the same values as us or are different than us, know that they are doing their best. See that part of them.

As women, we are on the downside of power in so many ways. We are all up against that. When we disparage another woman or beat her down because she is not being who we want her to be or she has been socialized in a different way, know that she’s doing her best given her circumstances.

Respect everyone on their journey and accept people where they are…not where they are going, what you want from them or who you want them to be. Understanding, this is where you are and this is who you are in this moment.

Sam, over 40, UK (Hertfordshire)

What is your story of strength?

I have always been a bigger, curvier woman and at a young age, people would make comments about it. I won’t lie… people can be cruel and the first thing they go for is physical attributes so they would make comments about my appearance. Unfortunately, it would even come from friends and family sometimes. For years, I went on believing I was fat and ugly. My strength came finally came when I had a particular comment from someone. We had gone out for a drink and then he told me to leave before him, as in, for us not to be seen together. At first I didn’t understand, and I asked him why? He said something like “its not that I’m embarrassed to be seen with you…” and that’s when the switch came to me: I’m not here to please everyone. I am me and it’s as plain and simple as that.

I decided to stop thinking about what people think of me and embrace myself. If people don’t like me and the way I look then that is their choice. As long as I am happy in myself, then I know that I am in a good place. Women do get upset when people make comments about their looks and yes it would get me down. I tried dieting and it wasn’t working or I ended up in the opposite direction when you comfort eat and then you gain weight. I have never in my life judged anyone on the way they looked, I will talk to anyone and everyone so when that comment was made, the light switch came on and I realized I am not here to please everybody, the first person to please is myself.

I also used to be very shy and I am a very homely person. That strength continued a few years ago when I got a job opportunity in Dubai. A lot of people thought that I wouldn’t do it because of the fact I am so close to my family and friends in the UK. I think the old me wouldn’t have done it but these opportunities don’t come very often. I thought in the end, that if I can be offered an opportunity that people from all around the world were competing for, for me not to even try would have been a disaster. When that switch happened, everything in my attitude changed and I took the role here. It was hard, even now it is hard because I am so far from my family but I am blessed to have found friends here. There are times when I feel a dip but I am amazed that I did it. I had to prove it to myself. Women should believe in themselves more. I knew I was good at what I do and so I needed to prove to myself that I could actually take this new challenge. It’s hard but luckily, I have a good support system and speak with my family regularly. I may not have been able to do this 20 years ago when we didn’t have access to social media/Skype as waiting for a letter in the mail might of left me devastated. Everything happens for a reason and at the right time and so this continued to provide me strength in what I do and belief in myself.

Till now however, I still have had to deal with a lot of situations with people saying hurtful things about my size. One day, I was out with friends for a brunch. They were a new group of friends and someone came up to me and said; “you are so pretty, but for your size and what you look like, you cannot be happy with yourself.” I responded that I was happy and he replied, “you can’t be, how can you be? The way you look.”

I can look in the mirror and smile everyday. Some women whether bigger or smaller than me cannot do that. That is where the self-love comes in. I didn’t always have this but now I do. Sometimes people don’t realize how they can hurt people by saying such things. Happiness has to come from inside you. Only recently, I also received a comment from an Instagram follower that he thinks black women are beautiful but all his friends seem to think black women are unattractive because of the colour of their skin. Another strong statement and another thing, unfortunately that I have to deal with.

What does being a woman mean to me?

I think we have gone through years of being treated as inferior to men but we have also come a long way from when I was younger and it was assumed that women could only be secretaries and receptionists. We have grown as women to be whatever we want to be whether it is a secretary or receptionist or whether it is a lawyer or solicitor, we can even be priests. I see a lot on social media that women feel they have to wear fewer clothes, be provocative, be sexual etc. in order to get acceptance. That should not be the case for women. We need to embrace who we are and show our strengths and show our intelligence. Yes, we do have that element in us but it’s not what being a woman is about. We are strong women and should be getting into roles in the community that we couldn’t get into before. So I think being a woman is being that strength, to be everything we want to be and to be treated as equal to men.

Can you tell me about a time when you failed or disappointed yourself?

It goes back to the way I looked and how I handled people’s comments. I began not eating properly. It’s not something I am proud of. A lot of women go through it…the whole not eating or eating a lot and then vomiting. It’s not a good thing to do. It ends up becoming your whole life until you work out to accept yourself. People will always, always make comments. Unfortunately, there are cruel people in this world that will always talk about how you look. I have changed the way I felt about things. I am now a person that will not get upset about what people say but now try to change the perception. I am a dancer but when you compare me with other people who typically dance, you would not say I am a typical dancer.  But I can dance and I will prove that and I will encourage women who are curvier to dance. If it is something they enjoy, they shouldn’t be embarrassed to perform or dance, I refuse now to not do things I enjoy because of the way I look. At the end of the day, who is anyone to say what I should look like? It’s the same to say with the clothes we wear. I am very much of the belief that we should wear what we want if it makes us feel good and comfortable.

How can woman better support each other?

We need to encourage each other more. I remember only a few years back when my niece was dancing. She knows I have a dance background; I have done ballet, ballroom, rock-in-roll, hip-hop and so fourth. She was in a Latin and ballroom competition and she asked me for some advice. One of the other mothers overheard me giving her some tips and she said, “oh you sound like you know what you are doing”, I responded, ”well yes, I used to dance before.” The first she did, and I recall very clearly, was she looked me up and down and said “oh.. really…you used to dance!” the old me would have been upset about that. The woman that I am today decided I was going to prove a point. There were a few adult classes that occurred that some of the same mothers went to so I decided to attend just to show her that I can dance and it doesn’t matter how you look. We are very critical of one another. As women, sadly we have this stereotype of being bitchy. We need to stop doing that. We need to encourage women to do what they want to do. People get shy performing, so we should encourage them, if its what they enjoy. Don’t ridicule them because they don’t look like you. That shouldn’t matter. It’s the same thing in the work place; if a woman gets a promotion, congratulate her! We need to build on this and encourage each other more.

Jennifer, 36, Laois, Ireland

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What is your story of strength?

Without a doubt, the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to go through was IVF. My husband and I got married when I was 29 and I always knew we wanted to have children but it never crossed my mind I’d have problems having children. I think it’s something you take for granted as a right. It wasn’t on my radar to try immediately when we got married. We wanted to enjoy our lives and each other and being married. About three years later, nothing had happened and was at the doctor for something unrelated and while I’m here I should ask. We’d been trying – or at least not not trying for three years. It dawned on me that it should’ve happened by now. The doctor said try not to think about it –and gave us the old advice–  relax and it’ll happen. Come back if you want if it persists.

We started doing the tests to see if everything was ok. That was in 2012 and they found out that I didn’t ovulate on my own so they put me on a hormone drug that affects your sleep, your moods. I’d be at work and get hot flashes. I was on it for 6 months and it was really challenging and it had a major impact on me and my approach to the fertility issues. I started going online and looking for advice.

I heard about this drug, Clomid and took it for one or two or three months. Six months in and it wasn’t working for me. All of these little failures started to build up in my mind…..

Every time the wall got higher and higher and seemed impossible to be able to get over. So I went back to the consultant and they sent me for slightly more invasive tests. They found out that one of my fallopian tubes was blocked. Coupled with that and no ovulation on your own, they told me that your best chance of having a child is through IVF. After all those tests and everything I still thought it would just happen. I still thought they’d tell me I was fine. It was a shock all over again.If you’re told you’re fine, off you go and keep trying then it is almost worse. Eventually, thankfully, we knew there was a problem, at least we could make a plan and do something.

In walked this man who looked like he’d been dragged from something much more interesting.He opened his little flip chart and went…yeah yeah yeah you’re going to need IVF. Any other questions? I had 20 million questions but I couldn’t think of on! Gavin (my husband) looked at me and we were both shocked. My heart sank to my feet, I thought this is us- IVF . The wall got higher again. For a week or two I was numb with the news.

Maybe that sounds dramatic. But I just never considered that that could be us. From that moment on it consumed my life and every thought. What do we do? How much is it going to cost? It was a huge shock that took a while to sink in. And the odds. When you understand the possibility that it might never happen. And if it doesn’t, will it be okay? Will our marriage be ok? It was always part of our life plan- to get married and have kids and live happily ever after.

…. We both knew what we both wanted. If you have a dream or a goal that you assume will happen and it is taken away, it is the most difficult. But after about a month of crying I started to get excited.

I’m not particularly religious and I don’t believe in magic miracles, but rather that life leaves you little signs dotted about. About two weeks later there was something in the newspaper about a couple who did IVF with a new technology that dramatically increased the odds of getting to a successful pregnancy. And I thought that’s the clinic for us- we need to go through. I thought, you’re literally putting all your eggs in one basket.

We made an appointment and went through everything that’s involved. I asked what the odds are. The odds of taking home a baby is about 30%. I said, that’s crazy! She looked at me as if I was crazy. I said are you telling me we go through all of this, it’s only 30%. I thought oh, dear god, how do people do this. I started to feel more positive. IT was a 30% greater chance then we had the day before.

I got to a point at my lowest point, I found it difficult to be around pregnant women or celebrations because those celebrations were part of something I thought would always happen and then it was taken away. (Story continued below)

Can you  talk about a time when you struggled or disappointed yourself?

Your mind makes you think, if there are no issues with my husband, then it’s my fault. If he had married someone else he’d already have kids right now. And all these negative thoughts flood in. It’s a constant battle to let the negative thoughts go.

How much stress impacts you is often underestimated. With IVF they make a special plan for you. The first time is kind of a test run to see how your body reacts to things. There are no guarantees. It’s a constant waiting for things- for appointments, for the drugs, for cycles, etc. I’m the kind of person who says okay let’s go do it. I wanted to do it now and not wait 3-4 months. But I was constantly stressed. It wrecks your body.

My husband felt a bit useless at this point. So he brought me home a present the first night of injections because he felt a bit useless as I poked myself with needles to take the drugs prescribed by the clinic. You have to go in every couple of days. We were going in and things looked great. The fourth day they were less positive and then she told us it isn’t working. My body wasn’t responding. That was my lowest moment. We’ve had so many setbacks and failures and the answer I thought maybe could work. It was impacting my whole life. I wasn’t doing well at work anymore,  I wasn’t functioning in my relationships.

It consumes your whole life. I can’t emphasize how consuming it is, it takes over everything. Thankfully Gavin and I both knew we had to keep talking to each other. It’s a tough thing for a couple to go through but it made us stronger. So I decided to take a break. That was the best thing we did. We enjoyed life again, we went to Christmas parties. It was like coming home again. I forgot there was more to life than that. And it reassured me that if all this stuff didn’t work it reminded me that I would be happy if it never happened.

2014 I started thinking about it again. I was afraid to start all over again. The second time around I split it into little challenges and it made it more manageable for me to approach it the second time around. 12 eggs were viable this time around. So we waited again. We kept getting over little hurdles. But I’d over-responded to the drugs. I had developed something called over-stimulation syndrome. I was like the kid out of Willy Wonky – the blueberry that keeps growing. So they tried again.

After a while, we were able to freeze the eggs and I had to prepare myself after more delays (but I was actually more relaxed). Eventually, when they put it on the screen you get to see the embryo and it comes out in a little tube. That’s my potential child in a tube! She showed us a video of our potential child being conceived. They put the embryo in. And you’re afraid to move. What if I sneeze? And those two weeks of waiting were the worst of my life. The waiting! Everyday you’d think I could be pregnant and then devastated because you don’t ‘feel’ pregnant. I was clinging to the possibility it’d work. The night before the test, Gavin slept like a log like it was a normal night. I lay awake all night. I went into do the test.  I was nearly sick at how nervous I was. It was scary. I left the room and made Gavin look. I was convinced it hadn’t work. Next thing I heard Gavin shout, Jen what does it mean there are two lines on it. He fished out the packet to check and he says no it worked. I cried for 30 minutes, all the overwhelming emotion of the months and months of trying.

But one of my big questions through all of this was–  why is fertility shameful? No other medical conditions are shameful. It made me want to talk about it more. I started a blog for other women, The Scenic Route, to create a community for women to help each other through this.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Strength. Absolute strength. What women are capable of is amazing. I learned a lot about myself and what I can do, how I deal with challenges and the strength and resilience of women. Women are completely underestimated.

How can women better support each other?

By accepting each other. I think we underestimate ourselves. Something I’ve seen since becoming a mother is how judgy we are. I really struggled with breast-feeding, for example, and I was really hampered in that by other women’s opinions of me. That is something we need to change.

Katie, 34, Washington DC

 

What is your story of strength?

I would say I am very strong, and there are some internal factors, and some external factors. The internal factor is that I have undergone two heart surgeries, and coasted through both of them. The last one was three years ago in February, I was living in Houston, and six months later I moved to Dilley, which is seventy miles south of San Antonio, and began running a legal team that helped women and children seeking asylum and possibly facing deportation.

That leads me to the external factor. All of us encounter human suffering in our lives in different ways, whether in our personal sphere, professional sphere, where we live, and I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds or thousands of women who have fled their countries and who did whatever it took to get their children out of harm’s way and come to the United States. Some people respond to this – to these stories of suffering, of flight and of strength – very emotionally, which is a very humane and understanding way of responding, but you have to kind of steel yourself and try to be strong for that person. I always remind myself that for many of these women, the room we were in–albeit a detention center–was possibly the first safe place they had been for weeks, days, years, possibly their entire lives, and that for many of them, this was the first time they were telling their stories. While I don’t pretend to know what other women have endured, I think it is safe to say that those women I encountered have gone through worse than most.

I guess that is why I like immigration: I hate bullies, and immigrants are, for the most part, the type of people I want living next door, teaching my kids, teaching me, contributing to my community and society. They have grit and strength and resilience, and a sense of adventure. If you think about the type of people that came to this country, that sense of adventure and not knowing what you were about to face, getting through it, and embracing it, it is that same spirit.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman means having to do a greater share of the work for less credit and less money. It means having to put up with double standards your entire life, in every single sphere or room you walk into. It means being held to a much higher standard–sometimes an impossible standard–than your male counterparts.

Being a woman means putting up with sexual harassment, and then blaming yourself for feeling like you did doing something wrong or brought it on yourself for the outfit you are wearing or what you said or where you are sitting.

But I also maintain that women are the superior sex– and I say that fully realizing it is sexist and I do not care. I imagine some women say ‘being a woman’ is about having the unique opportunity to bring life into the world, or it is beautiful because you have feminine qualities. None of this is bad, and I do not mean that in a condescending way at all, but I guess that is the point, that everyone has their own opinions and ideas, and that is what comes to mind for me.

Can you tell me about a time you disappointed yourself?

I feel like I disappoint myself every day, and perhaps due to a really bad case of the impostor syndrome. It is not necessarily obvious–I don’t have any problem advocating for myself professionally, I will sit at the front of the room, and will sit at the table along with my male counterparts –but the amount of work to be done right now and the crisis we have on our hands in the immigration sphere in this country is so overwhelming and heartbreaking all at once. I feel, perhaps in a kind of narcissistic way, that the weight of all that is on my shoulders. Thus, I feel that I am never doing enough, and in that sense I disappoint myself every day, because I know that if I do things the right way in my job, I can effect real change and make people’s lives better.

Beatriz, 44, United States (New York, NY)

Beatriz, 44, United States

What is your story of strength?

My story of strength started to develop around the age of seven. That’s when I remember that as a family and as a community we were struggling in many different areas. An area that sticks out to me the most is the area of mental health. At a very young age I became aware of the disparities prevailing and how it affected us. I started to notice, for example, that in the NYC public housing complex that I lived in, there were a lot of cases of single parenting, poor mental health, substance abuse, and poverty. Right across the street from us was Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts, so it was like a tale of two cities. That’s when I started realizing that our minds can either make us or break us. And that’s where my story of strength began.

I feel that mental health is something that isn’t addressed as often as it should be. For example, if we have a physical ailment and we’re ill, we go to the hospital to get checked by a doctor, however, when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, stressed and or depressed, we don’t take care of that, in fact as a society we tend to neglect our mental health.


What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman to me is the embodiment of the word strength. As women we are able to create and sustain life within our bodies, we’re able to keep families together, we’re able to nurture others, and we’re able to build community. Not that men can’t do it, but as women we have an instinctual nature that’s innate in us to build, nurture, take care of others, and unite. As a woman and a mother, I say that there are many things we’re capable of doing, but as strong as we are in being able to create, we’re strong enough to be able to destroy as well. That’s where we need to find a healthy balance and that’s where I feel being self-full comes into play. If we take the time to nurture ourselves, then what we give unto others will be even more powerful. And this is my mentality, as a woman and as a mother, what legacy am I going to leave behind for my daughter and one day (if that is what she wants) her children.


Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

A point in my life where I felt like I may have failed—I thought it was failure, but in actuality it was more of a blessing—was when I was around the age of 17. I left my house and felt like I needed independence…I was trying to run away from the problems I had at home. I decided I wanted to move out of the house and be in a relationship and I prioritized a relationship rather than my education. It took me a few years to go back and complete my undergraduate and Masters in Psychology.


How can women better support each other?

As powerful and independent we are as women, I think women can better support each other by uplifting our men. Because at the end of the day, while we can do it on our own, we’re stronger together. Optimally we will be stronger by supporting each other, by building up our sons, our brothers, our fathers, our uncles, our husbands. And I feel that if we as women can nurture our men more and uplift them that in turn will make us all more resilient.

I feel often times we waste energy in being pessimistic, in thinking we can’t accomplish things, and in thinking that obstacles are barriers. If we shift and redirect how we see life and how we view life and recognize that energy is all we need to manifest our full potential we will all be in a much better place, mind, body and soul . So to all of the women out there, and men, girls and boys, I would say we need to be careful how we use our energy, how we use our words, words are spells. The more we focus on our purpose in life, building community, and being supportive –rather than competitive and independent—the stronger we’ll be.