“Strong is the new pretty.” May that please, please, please be true. Strength, like beauty, comes in so many different forms.
I grew up in an environment that fostered the idea that all women were in constant competition with each other. Not because someone ever told me; it was just, and somehow still is, this bizarre understood. Like the “you” in an imperative. The problem with that is we’re all on the same team. Not just as women, but as humans. It’s time we stop working against each other. It’s time we stop looking at each other with judgmental and competitive eyes.
I’ve spent so much of my life feeling inadequate because I’ve lived a comparative life. It’s driven me to unhealthy places. It’s driven us all to such scary and gross places. If it hasn’t done it to you, if you’ve managed to avoid the terrible concept of a comparative and competitive life, I commend you. It is one of my greatest ambitions to move so far from it that I can no longer recognize it. When I feel threatened or challenged by another woman, I want to stop and take stock. I want to say “this woman is so funny. She challenges me to be funnier. Not to be better than her. To be better than I was.” “This woman is so kind-hearted. She challenges me to love with the same eyes.”
“Girls get competitive, as though there’s only one spot in the world for everything — but that’s not true. We need to stick together and see there’s more to life than pleasing men. It’s important not to cut yourself off from female friendships. I think sometimes girls get scared of other girls, but you need each other.” -Zooey Deschanel
What follows will be mostly photos of women I know. Women I barely know. Women I have been living my life with for a decade. For decades. For a year. Women who know my soul. Women who know my name. I asked all of them in different ways and for different reasons. What’s interesting about asking women to send me a picture of them that makes them feel strong, is how many of them said, “I don’t feel strong” or “I’m not strong, but I guess this will do the job.” But every single one of them has built into me so much strength. They’ve shown me strength. They’ve lived strength. They’ve survived. They’ve fought. They fight. They fight. They push me to be stronger. Not in competition. My only competition is me. You’re only competition is you.
Jess. Jess wanted to make sure the photo she gave me included the baby girl growing inside of her. With good reason. She helps raise two other kids, and I’ve watched her constant support. Constant quiet support. That’s what amazes me about Jess. She has so much to say, but only takes the time to do it when she knows it won’t fall on deaf ears. The quietness of Jess is deafening. Don’t let it deceive you. She’s a wonder.
This is Amy and her fourth child, Dixie. Honestly, I hardly know Amy, but what I know is that she is strong. Her grandmother and mine are the best of friends. It seems only fitting our paths have crossed. When I asked Amy for a photo she told me, “This was after Dixie. So, after my 4th, med free labor. Her’s was definitely the hardest labor too. But I still didn’t give up, and was able to make it through without an epidural.” What I know of Amy is that she has endured so much heartache, and some heartaches never leave us, but she loves and lives still.
This is Rebekah. I met Bekah in college. I wish so much that I’d gotten to know her better when we were at school together, but what Bekah showed me, and continues to show me from a distance, is that going after what you want, working towards your goals is beautiful. Bekah’s determination is a strength I want to strive for. ” Here I am in my power-pinup gold audition dress. Primped and pumped up to give a great audition. I can do no wrong!”
This babe is Amber. My Bler. Amber lives in New York, and I never see her. I haven’t seen her for four years. We’re bad at contacting each other, but things never change. From the moment I met Amber she pushed me to stop caring what other people wanted from me, except her. But to sincerely do what I wanted. To do what you want. Be yourself. Be free. Sit in your room with one of your best friends naked and just watch TV. Not for sexual reasons. Not for weird reasons. I don’t love my body, but Amber taught me ten years ago to stop being embarrassed by it.
Hannah. When I met her people still called her Mayo. People mixed us up. She’s only a few hours away, but it feels like a million miles. Hannah pushes herself for herself. She’s raising a son and a daughter to be themselves. A son who’s taken ballet. A daughter who loves pink and glitter and princesses, even though Hannah can’t understand it. A 6 and an 8-year-old who read better than I do. Hannah is a triathlete. Hannah often becomes my strength when I’ve lost it all. When I feel like I’m losing it, Hannah is there to remind me I’m not, to remind me I’m strong.
Brett. We were sworn enemies when we met. People told us we were so alike that we’d be best friends. We hated ourselves, so we hated each other. Now I can’t imagine life without Brett. She too is hundreds of miles away, but is always there when I need her. Brett is a poet. And once she tried to make me one. I knew when we started writing together she’d be a poet. I still believe with so much of my heart that she will help reshape the definition of poetry, reshape how people view it. Brett has never been anything less than Brett, apologetically.
I met Dana in college too. What I love about Dana’s strength is that it is this barrage of kindness and love and grace. Dana has time and time again shown strength with a mighty fist of kisses and patience. Even when Dana is in pain, when she’s been wounded in ways that would leave other people desolate, she finds strength. She will always tell you, loudly and kindly, that her strength comes from the Lord. And it is beautiful.
This is my pal Alex on her wedding day. This day was so important to her, and it was not met with as much celebration as it should have been. What I love about Alex’s strength is how beautifully she stands for the people in her life. A few years ago, I was a mess. I had chewed my nails down so far that I was just chewing off skin. Alex sent me a package filled with kindness, including Muppet bandaids. But that’s the strength of Alex, part of the strength of Alex. The part that pushes me. She recognizes the needs of others. Immediately. And acts.
Kelly has been through a lot. And while I hardly know her, what I do know is Kelly has found the strength to step away from people and things that harm her. To step away from a bad situation. Because it is so hard to step away from that hurt. I’ll never understand why, but I’ve lived in it for so long that I know it to be true. Strength is a step back.
Ashlee‘s incomprehensible generosity, hospitality, and nurturing spirit are so beyond my comprehension. I’ve been the beneficiary of all three countless times. Hell, right now I’m writing this on a computer of such proof. Ashlee’s strength challenges me to love stronger, love with an open door.
i met Emily my senior year of high school. We were in a musical revue that no one was cut from. The connection was magical, but in the years that followed we didn’t see each other much. We still don’t, but we’ve lived similar journeys the last few years. She won’t admit or maybe even see it. Many of these women don’t see their strength. Emily’s desire to survive, her strength to live, to power through dark times, has been of such value and encouragement to me. Emily pushing through the darkness constantly challenges me to do the same.
This is my sweet Erica. We may have met through the internet, fallen in love through twitter, but now I know. I know so well the strength of Erica. When we internet met I was challenged by the strength of her will and her confidence. Erica does not take shit from anyone. Nor should she. Her words, her poetry is so ethereal and light a beautiful, delicate strength. In the last year I’ve watched Erica work through so much in her life. I’ve stood with her through some darkness, and watching her come out of that darkness and stand now in such a good place. To live through it. Her strength to keep living.
This is Mona. When I met Mona, I was immediately threatened. Immediately. Another lady joke teller. Honestly, I quit for a while. I stepped back. But that was silly. Yes, Mona is better at what she does than I am, but that shouldn’t be a reason to stop. That’s a reason to keep going. To stand with her and work at becoming better at being funny. Work at feeling more confident in my own words and thoughts. Mona’s strength and blatant confidence is incredible. It shouldn’t threaten me. It should encourage and strengthen me.
Jessica, when I met her she was called JFo, much to her own dismay. I’ve watched her grow, now at a distance, from a spritely teen into a powerful mother of twin boys. Her strength is so quiet, which I think is what makes it so very strong. (As an aside, she couldn’t decide which picture to use. Both seem pretty damn important, so I needed to use both)
Krista. She’s been in my life for some 25 years now. I’ve talked about her before. Krista is such a presence of strength through forgiveness and grace for me. She’s shown me so much more grace than I could have ever fathomed. Her patience and unrelenting kindness is such a powerful strength.
Lauren. Family is a strange thing. Blood is weird. This genetic tie. We’re so loosely tied. Our grandfathers were brothers. And now, Lauren inspires me. She does the things that drive her. Lauren’s goals are beautiful. Her strength to pursue what drives her strengthens me. She maybe my little cousin, but she’s leagues ahead of me.
Harmony. I’ve known Harmony in real life two days. She was the photographer for the wedding of friends. But, ya know what? I love her. What I know of Harmony already serves so much as an inspiration. I wish she lived next door to me. It’s not often you find kindred spirits in what can be such a hectic place, but she is one. Harmony has this amazing way of understanding people instantly. Which is important for what she does, but it’s also just important. And it’s an amazing strength.
Michela. Michela amazes me. I’ve reconnected with her recently, and I’m so grateful. Do you know how powerful it is to have an old ally come forward again as a renewed ally? Michela has this remarkable loyalty. A loyalty I feel so much like I don’t deserve. But that’s what her strength teaches me.
Amber. Not everyone has coworkers they love, but I do. Amber is one of them. Over the last year she has helped carry me. When my heart and my head wouldn’t meet, Amber rationally and so straight-forwardly heard me out and advised. Amber’s take no shit from anyone is so monstrously encouraging.
Cara. Mostly, I’ll let Cara explain this picture, but know that she has strengthened me over the last 10 years, and I’m so very grateful.
“It’s an interesting task to find a picture of a feeling that people, but especially women, rarely represent in pictures. I’ve been thinking about it, and I was pretty sure this was the picture I would land on, but truthfully- that race sucked. During the half marathon, I didn’t feel strong. I felt uncertain. Looking at other pictures and asking myself how I felt then, that was the same answer I kept coming up with, even in pictures where I looked confident and I knew that things were good. There was always something happening in the picture, whether it was a show shot or a group of people hanging out. I settled on this one because it is a tangible show of strength: I completed a task that I had trained (kinda, I blew this training off a bit) for and I accomplished it. I do like to keep this picture around so that I can remember that feeling of frustration in my lack of preparedness, but that’s another story… I started to think about when I feel strong: in my classroom, smiling at Kars, in general being in my home, and it’s hard to get pictures of that, especially because I’m not a selfie person. It’s not that I don’t feel strong ever- quite the contrary. But that feeling isn’t something that gets documented often.”
Ashley. Quiet resilience. Growing with Ashley the last several years has been encouraging. Watching her move forward, watching her love those around her even in adversity. Quiet resilience.
AnnMarie. I haven’t known Ree long, but every day she surprises me. Her kindness. Her faithfulness. She’d never admit. She can’t see it, but the truth is she’s so strong. I see it on her face. I see it in her decision to wake up every day. To raise two children on her own.
Ashley. To me she’s always been McCann. When I call her Ashley, she calls it her “lady name.” I lived with Ashley for two years in college. Providence brought us together. What I learned from her and continue to learn from her is independence and such a strong sense of self-worth. Ashley’s strength resounds the moment you meet her. Knows what she wants. Works for it. And who the hell are you to stand in her way? And while we’re at it, why the hell should she care what you think of her? And yet, Ashley is uncommonly kind.
Leslie. I developed an enormous friend crush on Leslie the day I received a letter from her. She didn’t know me. I didn’t know her, but her words were perfect. Leslie’s career makes her remarkable, because she continues to be patient with her friends when they too are complete wrecks. She’s quiet, but not because she’s afraid. She’s introverted, yes, but she’s also smart. She’s reading people. She’s feeling people out. And almost instantly understands them. And after years of watching her tend to the needs of so many other people, it’s beautiful to watch her take care of herself too.
Monica. This is my work sister. She like Lauren inspires me. Some times I need Monica to just be around to acknowledge sexism or racism or the demonizing of any other social standing. Monica is going to do amazing things with her future, because she’s doing them with her present. Her feminism, her social awareness, is ferociously encouraging and strengthening.
Kristen. In her own words, “This is me after a Grapes of Wrath matinee. The show was almost impossible for me to do, because all the girls in my dressing room were ostracizing me and gossiping about me. But I kicked its ass anyway.” That’s Kristen. And watching her strength grow into this has been so encouraging. Watching Kristen step into herself, and unashamedly be herself is wonderful. She’s been working with Girls, Inc. to teach other young women the same.
Emily. I’ve known Emily since elementary school. In her own words, “I don’t have many pictures of me, at least not since high school, but I didn’t really feel strong in high school. I’ve probably never felt stronger both physically and emotionally then when I was able to bring my girls into the world.” She has three of them, and there’s a fourth babe coming. What touches me about this is that when we were in high school, I did see Emily as strong. I always have. Even when she’s struggling, she is so strong. To come out of some of the darkness she’s faced, and see her now raising three beautiful women is wonderful. Emily’s strength in high school and middle school, when we were both pretty big weirdos, strengthened me. It still does.
Rachel. Goodness. In the last two years Rachel has become one of my dearest friends. Yes, I’ve known her for years, but timing is everything. Now her patience and understanding, even when I’m making stupid decisions is so striking. She has an incredible amount of strength when it comes to frustrating people or difficult situations. She’s riddled with emotions, but she also has one of the most even tempers I’ve ever experienced. Soon she’ll be a foster mother, and there isn’t anyone better suited. She’s been nannying and babysitting for years. Not to mention essential opening her home to wayward adults who also need a little fostering.
Lindsay. In the recent past I’ve watched Lindsay step out of a dark situation with so much light around her that she’s now more effervescent than ever. The strength it takes to step away from a terrible situation is so hard to mount, but to do it and then come out on the other side even stronger? To come out and start pursuing what she’s always dreamed of? For her to come out of all of that darkness, and now have this genuine smile on her face is such a calming breath.
Amber. After a couple of years of being strictly social media friends, I had the pleasure of meeting Amber IRL. Amber represents for me this amazing thing about the women of Fort Wayne on social media. The women of Fort Wayne are so good at standing for each other and supporting each other. Amber supports the people around her so well. So intently. She loves her city. She loves her friends. Amber loves. You’re hard-pressed to hear her say something disparaging about another human being. It’s hard to nail down the strength of Amber, because the strength of Amber is Amber.
Angie. (right) When I asked Angie for a photo, she picked this one because, “it’s from the night I punched you. I acquire power through physical domination.” The truth is Angie’s strength shows through so much. Her words. Her actions. And occasionally her mighty fist. Angie is the older sister of my friend Elise (left). Both of them have represented so much about individualism and determination to me. They’ve both, for as long as I’ve known them, been their own damn people. And now they’re both such strong and formidable women, that to call them anything, but strong would be idiotic.
Bekah, or Pose as I call her. Left is a photo of Bekah studying her beautiful brains out. She’s becoming a doctor. Because she went on a trip to Thailand once, and found herself caring for people. She knew that was her calling. Below is an image of her with her loving husband. There aren’t two better suited people. Because both of them are two of the kindest, most compassionate people I’ve ever known.
Seeing Bekah push through school and so successfully. Below to the left is Bekah being featured at her school. Her face is also inside on a wall, which she said makes her feel pretty BA too. Her kindness and fondness to see people live well emanates from her being.
Tia. I’ve known Tia about a year, and in that year I’ve learned so much about her strength of will. In her words, “These are my two favorite photos of me. They encompass how I define myself. Silly (like miss Lucy was) and strong enough to stand up for other when they can’t.” Honestly, how could I better describe her strength than she has already done?
Katie. I’ve not known Katie long, or terribly well, but what I do know is that she is strong. She’s inspired me more than she knows, and encouraged me more than she realizes. Katie is unashamed of Katie, which is great because there’s nothing shameful about her. She’s a faithful friend to those she loves. I’ve witnessed it. Moreover, I’ve never known her not to be kind to people. People who can’t mix anymore, it doesn’t stop Katie from loving both sides.
Maria. When I asked Maria for a photo, I pretty much knew this is what she would pick. And I can see why. I’ve known Maria most of my life, and I’ve never known her to be anything less than a pillar of strength. For herself, her family, her friends, strangers. She’s changed so much over the years, and is still that awkward second grader. She still laughs about farts, but also now finds herself the matriarch of two families. Her own daughters and her siblings, and it’s amazing. Her strength to carry on. Her strength to rely on Christ so completely. She’s so admired by so many, and I don’t question why for one moment.
Chynna. She was an RA when I met her. In the time that I’ve known Chynna, I’ve known her to constantly serve as an inspiration and encouragement to young women. To stand in Christ, and to stand for themselves. To love themselves. To love others. To be proud of where they come from. Chynna’s strength is overwhelming. She inspires women all around her, including me. In her own words, “Apparently I stopped taking pictures of myself a few years ago. Here’s one that my husband took of me after I spoke at a conference. I felt pretty powerful that night.”
Emily. I’ve met Emily once, but she stayed in my home. I don’t know much of her at all, not first-hand. But what I’ve been told of Emily is beautiful. She’s nothing short of herself. Confident and funny. In the few hours I’ve spent with Emily, I saw so much strength in her.
Kari. Goodness personified. If ever active listening and unrelenting love were to be a person they would look like Kari. Her devotion to her family and her friends should be heralded in the town square. She’s miles away, but when recently when the chips were down and people in my own town didn’t visit when I needed visitors, Kari was on the phone. When she can’t be here, she makes sure she’s as close as she can be. And not just for me. I know that she doesn’t just do that for me. She does it for everyone she loves. Kari isn’t just strong, she’s strength, added strength, for so may around her.
Jenn. In the time that I’ve known Jenn, I’ve watched her set goals for herself. Exceed them. And then exceed them some more. She’s raising a daughter, working full time, and a full time student. Her tenacity alone is an incredible strength, but on top of that she’s constantly running. Constantly working to better herself, for herself. Which is nothing short of inspiring.
I guess it’s my turn. I didn’t realize what a hard task I’d given people until I took it on myself. Most of the photos of myself that I take pride in are silly. And they’re silly because I don’t know how to take sincere photos. OR they’re filled with other people, because I feel like I hardly exist without the aid of those around me. But since I’m writing, and I was the one that asked everyone else for photos, I feel I can indulge myself. And maybe I need to. Maybe it’s time I stop and take stock of my own strength.
I look monstrously apprehensive here because I did something that terrified me. I felt called to remove the only thing I was taking pride in at the time, so I had my hair cut to no longer than four inches. I love my hair, some times maybe too much. But this decision forced me to look at more than just this one vanity. I had to reexamine my heart and my head, and I finally was beginning to like what I see.
This was taken one Sunday morning when I was hurting and trying to endure. What strengthens me now looking back on this photo is that I’m still here. Every time I look back into the darkness, I can’t believe I’m still here. But I am. I haven’t quit yet. Oh I’ve wanted to give up. I’ve come very close to giving up. But I haven’t. Things have gotten darker still since this was taken, and I’m still here.
At the beginning of the month I did something foolish and broke a few bones and had to have surgery. Now, I’m left with a scar that some times makes me so sad. I’ll forget that it’s there, though that seems impossible for the pain. But I will, and then I’ll catch a glimpse of it in the mirror and feel so hideous. So marred and repulsive. My collarbone is short on that side and raise now. But other times I see it, and think, “nah, go ahead. Mess with me. See where that gets you. Because look at me. Tell me again I haven’t endured. I haven’t come out stronger. That I’m not someone who can keep taking the punches.” Because I will, and I do. Things seem to keep getting shittier, but I’m still here. Try to pull me down if you want to, but I’m not going anywhere. This picture features my scar and one of my tattoos. I took it to remind myself that there’s more strength in me than I remember. There’s more strength in all of us than we see. Please, don’t forget that.