Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

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Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.

Why I Cut My Hair

Women tend to have a strange relationship with their hair.

We’ve all heard the jokes about women going into the hairdresser’s and asking for a trim, and then being horrified when a bit more is cut off than they intended. And as much as it is a joke, it is also a sign of the strong attachment that women have to their long locks.

And trust me, I’ve been there – I get the fear that comes with having long hair. The conviction that your long hair is somehow tied in with your beauty. The belief that cutting it just a little too much will change everything about your appearance because hair can effect everything about your face. I remember feeling that way, back before I cut my hair short.

Perhaps the reason that so many women experience this attachment to their hair is because society itself tends to have a strange relationship with their hair. The majority of beautiful women that you see in the media, from fictional characters to actresses to singers, have long, beautiful locks. There are many men who are rather vocal about their opinion that they “like women with long hair” or think that “women with long hair are more beautiful.” Even from an early age, any girl growing up watching Disney princess movies will see that not only do ten out of eleven official princesses have long hair, but their hair is a focal point, something that symbolizes their personality and what they are going through. Pocahontas is seen with her beautiful, long black hair flowing gracefully around her face. Ariel’s vibrant red hair makes her different and more eye-catching than any other women in her movie; it sets her apart from her seven sisters. And when Mulan cuts her hair, it is only so that she can pass as a man.

A woman’s long hair is connected to her femininity and her beauty, and it is through this message that women are dissuaded from cutting their hair, resulting in this aforementioned strange relationship that women have with their hair. Meanwhile, short hair is connected to masculinity and mental breakdowns – for example, the way in which the media responded to Britney Spears shaving off her long, blonde, beautiful hair.

But personally speaking, although I experienced this attachment to my hair, I also sort of coveted short hair from a young age. I remember reading a series of teen books when I was young that had on its cover a woman with a bright green pixie cut, and I decided that I wanted to look like her when I grew up. I loved Sinead O’Connor’s shaved head, P!nk’s blonde faux hawk. The only thing that kept me from pursuing this look was society’s claim that I needed long hair to be pretty and feminine.

And then, when I was eighteen years old, after I graduated high school and left town to begin university in the city, I decided to chop my locks.

It was a decision that I made to reflect the change in my life, but cutting my hair became sort of an addiction over time. I started with a bob, but I moved through pixie cuts, faux hawks, Mohawks, shaved sides. I discovered that I looked good with short hair and I wanted to try it all out, to see if what all I could get away with. For the most part, the responses that I got were all positive as well. Some people didn’t like my hair, telling me that it really changed my whole appearance and made me look less soft, less beautiful, but they were a vast minority. Now, it isn’t rare for people to even stop me in the street or at the mall to tell me that they love my hair – and I do too. I was never very good at styling my hair when it was long, but now I need to put in half the effort to make it look twice as good.

And it seems that, ever since I cut my hair, more and more women in the media have been doing it too. When I was growing up, my inspirations were reduced primarily to the ones I have already named, but since then, we have seen Katy Perry cut her hair, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, etc., etc. Long hair is no longer the only option for looking beautiful, and people are beginning to realize that.

But although I initially cut my hair because I thought it looked beautiful, there was something else about it that I didn’t quite expect but discovered fairly quickly; just how freeing it feels.

When you have short hair, it isn’t because you’re trying to conform to any beauty standard. You don’t even have it because you care if other people think you’re pretty. You have short hair because you want short hair, because you like it. Short hair is about you, not anyone else.

And to return to my discussion of Disney princesses and how they represent short hair, there is actually one princess who accurately represents what short hair is like: Rapunzel. Throughout the whole film, her hair is long because someone else covets it, because someone else wants her hair to be long. Near the end of the film, however, her hair is cut, and through the action, she is freed from the oppressive influence of that person in her life. She no longer needs to live for them; she can be free, make decisions for herself, do what she wishes. And maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that cutting your hair makes you any freer than a woman who keeps her long hair (and nor am I trying to say that any woman who has long hair is at all a prisoner), but it does represent how short hair can make you feel.

Short hair is fun. Short hair is free. And short hair does not at all make you any less beautiful or feminine.