I used to recite the last line of Fergie’s 2006 hit song every time I was hurt and overwhelmed. There were days when I locked myself in a bathroom stall at school or at work and repeated those words to myself over and over, grasping desperately at the million pieces of my heart as they fell. Of course, it did not take long for me to realize that reciting ‘big girls don’t cry’ to oneself is not the same as calling candyman in front of the mirror five times. A hook does not appear out of nowhere to wipe away your tears or replace the pain in your heart with warmth. I am not even sure if the candyman thing works, but with a Jordan Peele movie in the works, I am not about to test it.
I quickly accepted that tears were an unavoidable part of my journey and heck, they were refreshing. In the years that followed Fergie’s song release, I stopped believing I was weak whenever I cried. On several occasions, I left my desk and purposefully strolled to the bathroom to have a good cry. As tears rolled down my face, I would say words like “breathe”, “it will get better”, “this is not the end of you”, “you can do this”…. and many more affirmative phrases that could get me through difficult times. But as I grew to accept this side of me, I started to realize that the world was not ready to.
I am not supposed to cry. But I do, and I have found that not many people can understand how a strong woman like me can have meltdowns
You see, I look nothing like teary-eyed Demi who stands in front of a bathroom mirror to affirm herself. I am what the world refers to as a strong woman. When I open my mouth to speak at meetings, I speak from a point of comprehension. Except for social gatherings, I hate speaking just for the sake of speaking. I have been told that my resting face is intimidating. I am the world’s description of a strong woman. A machine. A boss lady. A woman who slays all day every day. I am not supposed to cry. But I do, and I have found that not many people can understand how a strong woman like me can have meltdowns and be heartbroken when things turn sour or are overwhelming. This perception is hurting me and women who are like me, especially when it comes from the people we love or people we expect to see us beyond our steel exterior.
I remember sitting with a love interest once and expressing my fear of the future. I was at the tail-end of my masters degree and unsure of what to do next. I told him how terrified I was and how I just felt unsure of myself. His response to the outpouring of my heart put an end to that kind of conversation between us. He said “I thought you were supposed to be a strong woman.”
Last year, I was sharing my anxious thoughts with a person I have known intimately for seven years. I was again at crossroads and on the cusp of making life-changing decisions. As a single person, I needed a sounding board, a person I could express myself to without reservation. His response took me aback and left me feeling unsure of myself. “I have seen a different side to you since this conversation started. A side that’s driven by anxiety and fear.” He didn’t say it was distasteful but his facial expression told me all I needed to know.
Recently, a friend shared how her boyfriend always said she was not confident whenever she expressed any kind of emotional response to work, life or love. “You are supposed to be confident”, he would always say.
There is a perception of strong women that the men who date them fail to look beyond. They see the steel exterior, the slay warrior, the boss lady, the machine, and they think that is all there is to her. They believe she always has life on lockdown, and often become shocked when this mean machine needs a shoulder to cry on. How can she cry? She’s supposed to be a machine!
Here’s something to bear in mind: machines, no matter how excellently they function, always need maintenance. Without consistent, top quality maintenance, machines break down. Now, I am not saying women are machines. We are not work horses who simply receive instructions and churn out outputs. What I am saying is that it is important for the men who date and marry strong women to realize that they need care, love and sometimes, cushioning from harsh realities. We don’t always have life on lockdown. Many times, we have questions that have no answers. We cry when a boss says something mean or when life does not make sense. We feel anxious when we are making big decisions and we sometimes question our approach to situations.
In these vulnerable moments, we do not want to be told we are not confident or strong. We don’t want to see or hear expressions of distaste that make us wonder if we are letting down the entire human race. We simply want to be seen for what we are – complex, multifaceted, human. Yes, we go out on some days and slay the devil to hell. On other days, we want to sit with you on the couch and cry about how horrible work is while eating a tub of salted caramel ice cream. We want the men who care about us to see the vulnerable, the unkempt and the ugly. They are the different parts that come together to make us the strong slay warriors you love.
So, next time your strong girlfriend has a meltdown and starts to open up, don’t shut her down with Fergie’s “big girls don’t cry”. Instead, be a shield and a cushion, and believe that Sia was on to something when she sang “big girls cry when their hearts are breaking.”
Featured image: bustle.com