I woke this morning to a string of messages from a friend of mine who recently got approval to start her dissertation research. Without giving away too much, she’s looking at gender discrepancies in a profession dominated by men, exploring why it is that women don’t enter this particular field. The last message she sent really resonated with me and I wanted to write about it because it is so true. Ladies, listen up, this one is for you. This post is for all the beautiful, unique, and powerful women and girls who haven’t quite found their footing – who haven’t recognized that they can be, at any point and in any situation, a force to be reckoned with.
(**guys, you’re not excluded. I am focusing on the ladies here, but I hope you, too, will find value in this post).
This was the last message that my friend sent:
Men already know what women can do, for f—s sake, they watch women give birth, in general kick ass all day … It’s the women who need to be recognized, and believe in themselves. Women who believe in themselves are fucking unstoppable.
To be fair, that statement could be revised as “anyone who believes in themselves is unstoppable,” but in my experience (and certainly, as the research indicates), women tend to believe in themselves significantly less than men do. So why is it so important for women and girls to feel good about themselves? Because self-esteem, quite literally, affects everything in life, from tenacity, ability to overcome challenges, to self-perceptions of intelligence.
The downward march.
For girls, this self-esteem drop usually hits hard in middle school, and I think a lot of girls never fully recover from it. Middle school was torturous for me – it was when I first began starving myself and over-exercising, on a quest for rail-thin perfection. It was then that I [incorrectly] learned that my value as a girl was in my beauty, my thinness, and the acceptance I could obtain from men. My low self-esteem was fully the result of this obsession with my appearance. No matter what, I never felt beautiful enough, and since that is where all stock in myself was housed, my self-esteem sucked. It didn’t matter that I was a straight-A student, or that I was in gifted, advanced placement classes, dual enrollment, a pretty decent athlete, etc. I knew I was intelligent and athletic, but I believed so fervently that intelligence, for women, was second to their looks.
If there is one thing I wish 35-year-old Jessica could tell 15-year-old Jessica, it would be this: “Your worth as a human does not lie in how closely you fit someone else’s mold of beauty.”
So, for me, I didn’t start to recognize my true strength until I loosened my grip on that false sense of self. For other women and girls, the sense of low self-esteem is not so strongly tied to poor body image, but poor self-concept when it comes to their abilities to get shit done. They don’t think they’re smart enough, or they don’t have a sense of independence. I have been a lone wolf all of my life, and although I was almost always in relationships (until the last couple years, when I decided to really focus on my own growth), I always had an innate sense of independence. For that, I am grateful. Even when I struggled with my self-esteem or sense of worth, I never really questioned my ability to accomplish whatever I set my mind to.
I am continually baffled by women who believe they can’t do anything without a man in their life to help them – whether it’s to earn a sweet income to support the lifestyle they want, travel and see the world, buy a car or house, start a business, etc. Ladies, it’s not 1900 anymore, you don’t need to put life on hold while you wait for the perfect man to swoop into your life. And if you already have a Prince Charming, that doesn’t mean he’s got to hold your hand anytime you need to use the little girl’s room. Most women are far more capable and powerful than they realize. My friend’s sentiment was spot-on: Women who believe in themselves truly are unstoppable.
I love that idea of being unstoppable, of viewing yourself as a force to be reckoned with. And to be clear, I think there’s a difference between being relentless in the pursuit of your dreams, and stomping on top of others to get there – the latter isn’t necessary. Instead of standing on top of the mountain of bodies you took out in the pursuit of your goals, know that you can just as easily reach down and grab others’ hands, and pull them up with you as you journey to your dreams. That’s what it should be about, anyways. There is much more satisfaction in lifting others up than there is in being number one, or winning, or whatever other dog eat dog mantra that society chants at you. But before you can lift someone else up, before you can (as Thoreau said) “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!” – you must believe in yourself. Ladies, you’ve got to see it in yourself before anyone else can. You have to be able to create a vision and pursue it with confidence, regardless of whether anyone else is in your corner. You have to know you’ve got the power within you to be unstoppable – that the only one who will ever truly get in your way and cause you to quit (or prevent you from starting in the first place) is you.
You don’t need to “act like a man”
As women, we need to lift one another up. Give one another a boost. Pull each other up over the barricades. And to do that, we have to first have a sense of self-assuredness in every area of our lives – to know that whatever it is, whatever the goal, or challenge, that we have everything we need to achieve the desired outcome. Not having a Y chromosome does not mean we are lacking in any way, but that our strengths are often different from those that men possess. Thus, certainly, we don’t ever need to act like a man to accomplish the things we set out to. You don’t need to “man up” or “grow a pair” to take on a challenge. You don’t need to raise your voice or intimidate others. There’s a tendency, especially in business, for women to (perhaps unwittingly) to take on masculine behaviors to climb the corporate ladder. During business negotiations with men, I think a lot of women feel compelled to mimic male behaviors, but ladies, if only you understood the power of femininity, you would never again feel like you had to “act like a man” to get ahead. Indeed, being a woman is one of your greatest assets. A confident, independent woman cannot be stopped. She will encounter challenges, as everyone does, but they will not stop her. She knows her worth, she recognizes her innate power, she embraces who she is and does not feel the need to act in any way that is not 100% authentic to who she is. She is genuine, she loves herself. She embraces who she is and strides toward her dreams as the fierce lioness she is. She doesn’t need anyone’s permission to pursue her goals, and she doesn’t close the door on ideas and dreams that seem too big to bite off. For her, nothing is too big.
Whatever it is that you haven’t pursued because it felt too big, because you didn’t have the confidence to go after it – those are the things you must do. Break through your self-imposed barriers and prove something to yourself. You’re not a woman in a man’s world – the world doesn’t belong to men, no matter what social or cultural messages you find yourself slapped with. You’re a woman, a powerful, capable woman, and when you recognize that and find the confidence to be brazen, to whip out your machete and blaze new trails for yourself, you will realize just how unstoppable you really are. Take some risks, be okay with feeling vulnerable, take a trip outside of your comfort zone.
A word on naysayers
Not everyone will support your dreams, and that’s fine because you don’t need the support of naysayers. Some of the biggest critics I’ve had were people who I expected the most support from. Not everyone will share your vision or encourage you to pursue it, but it’s your vision, not theirs. Whatever you do, do NOT let someone else’s opinion become your reality. Your life is yours to create – not anyone else’s.
The pursuit of YOUR dreams
Your goals don’t have to be to become an Olympic athlete or CEO of Google. And you shouldn’t measure your success, or the worthiness of your goals and dreams, by anyone else’s yardstick. Ultimately, your goals should end with you being happy, right? Whether that means starting a nonprofit to end world hunger or being an amazing stay-at-home mom, your dreams are yours. Worry not about whether anyone else gauges your goals and dreams as worthy -they aren’t for anyone to judge but you. Own your dreams for yourself, claim them proudly, and if someone wants to naysay or judge you for them, they can kick rocks.
It’s your life, and you won’t get to do it over. Be bold while you can.