This morning at the studio, women are oohing and aahing over the new yoga and workout merchandise. Sleeveless, spring tanks in soft mauve and leggings in ombre grey, trending colors and patterns I have glimpsed in athletic wear catalogues and online. But there is one tank in particular that has captured attention. Women cluster around the clothes rack. Two women hold the shirts up to their chests to guess at sizing. The buzz is contagious and my first thought when I see the tank is, I’ll get one for each of my daughters! The tank reads, “STRONG IS THE NEW PRETTY.” There is a discernible hum in the lobby, and I’m aware of stepping into the middle of a conversation about affirming women’s strength. And just as quickly as I admired the shirt, I feel suddenly enraged. I am not angry at the women around me; I do not criticize their impulse to buy or their choices of purchase. Unless we make our own clothes, we can only choose from what is produced for us. But this shirt, even with its seemingly positive message and implicit rejection of “pretty,” incenses me.
I spend the entirety of my workout grappling with hand weights and my irritation over the shirt. Not so ironically, I am surrounded by women, many of whom wear shirts with messages like, DO MORE or YOU ARE ENOUGH. Many of their bodies bear text and images needled into their skin: ankh symbols, peace symbols, LIVE THE LIFE YOU CHOOSE, SHINE ON, a golden phoenix rising, prayerful hands above the word, namaste, the Virgin Mary with a sunlit halo. When I am upside down or tired of counting squats, I stare at these tattoos and wonder what they mean to me and what they mean to the women who will bear them for the rest of their lives. I’ve met many of these women. They are professionals, business owners, teachers, physicians, new mothers, grandmothers. I look around and see strong, fit women of varying ages in different-looking bodies. Is it necessary to wear a tee shirt identifying us as strong? Maybe we do need to replace the word pretty. In my ear, pretty denotes a smallness, even the closed, small shape of one’s mouth in pronouncing it, the double t’s, expresses a diminutiveness that sounds slight, negligible. It is akin to the word, cute. What, I wonder, is the male version of pretty? Handsome is a stronger word, for which beautiful might be the equivalent in a gender-biased dichotomy. But beauty is more than skin deep as the idiom goes, and pretty is solely physical and signifies a socially acceptable, sanctioned appearance. Jane Austen, on the other hand, described the strong women of her novels, like Elizabeth Bennett, as “handsome.” More irreverent women, like Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, who turned down a marriage proposal,did not merit the distinction of handsome. These women were simply “intelligent.”
Halfway through the cardio section, sweat dripping into my eyes, I realize I’m not angry about the words,“pretty” or “strong.” I am angry that we are shopping for words for our chests. A wee confession: I own a shirt that reads, “badass feminist.” I love this shirt. If there had been extra-larges available, I would have bought them for my husband and son because I know they would have worn them with pride. The shirt is made by My Sister, a Minnesota company whose profits directly benefit the survivors of sex trafficking. “Badass feminist” is an expression of howI am, what I assert, how I will act, choose, defend, voice, vote, etc. It is a political shirt. Is this a silly distinction? Is my anger displaced? Certainly, I am not angry at the women in my workout class. I am angry that in 2018 we are still struggling to assert ourselves by defining ourselves formen. If pretty renders us invisible, certainly, strong is a preferable word. If it is a choice between pretty and strong, hell yes, let’s shoot for strong, even stronger than strong: how about powerful? Brawny? But the very fact that we have to articulate and label our “badass” strength is indicative of systemic problems.
Men don’t have to wear shirts that say, strong. Men are already powerful and overwhelmingly dominant in the highest echelons of the work force, in every business and industry. Women, on the other hand, are still striving to have seats in board rooms and venture capital firms, Hollywood production companies, the U.S. Senate. When we get to a point where we no longer to need to wear labels on our clothes, will we be closer to being recognized for what we bring to the table? Will we be valued for our capabilities to lead and redefine our communities? For our work in literature and art in reimagining our relationships, our societies, our planet? Might our strong voices escape the necessity of anylabel, ‘pretty’ or‘badass,’ that diminishes and suppresses the fullest expression of our words and selves?
Years ago, I was volunteering in my daughter’s third grade class. A new student was ushered into the classroom and the teacher, Mrs. LaFrenz, stopped in the middle of her lesson to greet the young girl and introduce her to the class. The student said her name so quietly, the teacher had to ask her to repeat it three times. The girl’s name was long and unusual, and she muttered that it was probably easier for people to call her by a nick name. Mrs. LaFrenz erased her lesson from the white board and wrote in large print as the girl spelled our her full name letter by letter. We sat there and looked at her name in bold. A name we had never seen or heard before but now we were hearing it repeated loudly and clearly by the teacher who waited on confirmation that she was indeed pronouncing it correctly. It was just the girl’s name but the moment felt powerful. Now, one might argue that her name, any of our names, are chosen for us before we have the opportunity to decide who we are. But in this moment, in a classroom quieted by the occasion of her arrival, the girl smiled. Over the next months, we would get to know her, what games she liked on the playground, her favorite books, the stories she liked to write about fairies and woodland animals who could sing. This moment of announcing this girl’s arrival in big, bold letters, was the first step in saying to a young girl: we see you, we hear you, we welcome you. What was proffered by a wise and generous teacher was permission for an 8 year-old girl to go out into the playground and, ultimately, the world to create and define herself for no one else but herself, no labels or pretty clothing needed.