I was raised by a single mother, and my household was home to several more women from the immediate and extended family. There were no men. Every one of us, in our own way, were the bring-home-the-bacon gals. My definition of a woman was formed based on my hardworking mother: a strong, proud and self-sustaining woman ready to conquer the world.
My mom worked the hardest and the least I could do to support her was be just as strong as her. I didn’t want to show weakness or vulnerability because the world would undoubtedly chew me up and swallow me whole. Instead of showing weakness outwardly, I would write short stories and poetry, draw and paint to channel the vulnerable and sad musings of my teenage soul into an outlet that was ready to receive them. But a funny thing happened – the habit stuck. The habit of constantly being a strong, independent, self-reliant kind of girl.
Not until my mid-twenties did I realize that to live like this is unsustainable. But how to display emotion without being emotional? For a woman, ’emotional’ is very much a derogatory term. Yet if I show no emotion at all, I would be perceived as a heartless bitch (yes, that word has been used to describe me, as well as many of my female friends). If I express dissatisfaction and voice it, I am whiny and complaining. If I stay quiet I am a complacent doormat. If I am ambitious and propose a new development at my company, I am out to get my colleagues and steal their jobs. But as I watch my male coworker do the exact same thing, he is applauded for his ingenuity and enthusiasm. As a woman, I am constantly being labeled with adjectives that stick to me like glue yet their description couldn’t be further from reflecting the real me.
The amount of contradictions that comes with being a woman is so overwhelming, I get lost in all the shoulds, shouldn’ts, have-to’s and musts. To survive the onslaught of sticky labels as a teen, I designed a series of perfect masks to wear in various social circumstances. But as a woman growing and learning through the years, I have gotten lost in which one to put on at what time. If I am with gossipy coworkers in the lunch room, should I whip out the ‘gossip girl’ mask? What if I am heartbroken over family affairs and have to come to work and put in my eight hours? Time to put on ‘my life is perfect’ mask despite feeling hollow inside? What if I am a witness to an inappropriate joke? Do I put on the ‘how dare you’ mask or the ‘oh, that was a little funny’ mask? How to balance integrity and social custom? And why do I even need to?
I want to be the real, raw me. I want to act according to my set of principles and guidelines. I want to determine my own course of action. I want to feel okay being weak and vulnerable and not be immediately packaged up and stuffed in a box with a giant, Sharpie-outlined label on it. I want to be able to cry openly and not be wary of people seeing me. I want to be more than what you might have labeled me upon meeting me. I want to be good and bad, funny and dry, charming and weird, happy and sad and everything in between.
Because no one can be categorized by just one label. No one’s story is written on one page. We all have pages and pages of biographies that contain experiences, thoughts and actions that defy a set standard. You can’t erase them, you can only add to them. You can take the pages and the masks and mold them together into something beautiful.
And that’s what I started doing here. The image at the top of this post is my attempt to catch the real, raw me. Me and the pages of my story; me and my masks, resting on a dusty shelf after being worn for a while; me and my body as it bends to adjust to pains and aches or extends to display joy and confidence. This is me being emotional, telling myself and the world it is okay to do so.
These photographs would look different if I had taken them yesterday. They would look different if I take them tomorrow. Because I am a living, breathing organism, with fluctuating moods, thoughts and emotions. I am not constant, and neither are you. And it’s okay for the world to know that.
Let’s throw out the Sharpies and the masking tape. Put away the mental boxes and attempt to take the person in front of us for exactly who they are. Let’s make up our own definition of what it means to be a woman.