Bad Ass and Owning It

Here I am, drowning in that ninth-month, hard-to-breathe, always-gotta-pee, can’t-find-a-good-side-to-sleep-on feeling—and all around me, it is the season of strong women kicking ass. From the members of the US soccer team at the World Cup in Canada, to Serena Williams at Wimbledon, it is clear how good strength looks on us as women.

Scratch that.

It is clear how good strength feels.

As a blogger-sermonist, I usually wrestle with a biblical passage or plumb a sacred text I admire from another tradition. This time, however, I do not need an outside text.

My text is everything I have learned from other women—gay and straight, cis and trans—about how tough it can be for us to live our own lives in our own bodies.

My text is the friend who confesses she cried the day she learned she was having a girl—not from joy, but from sadness at how hard it was for girls to just be and do in this world without having to worry about how they look while they are at it.

My text is the friend in advertising who tells me she has had supermodels sob on her shoulder because they are just not “pretty enough.”

My text is the young servicewomen I have counseled who drive boats, fix planes, and patch up wounded bodies on the battlefield—yet are convinced to really get their lives on track they need a boob job or butt lift.

My text is an aging friend who rocks her silver mane like nobody’s business, yet says it has taken 50 years to get to the point where she would not re-make her face or body from scratch if she could.

In short, my text is our very own female bodies—the one thing that is solely ours, yet which we never seem to get to own.

I suspect, though, we are getting closer.

When the New York Times chose the eve of Serena Williams’ record-breaking sixth Wimbledon victory (and fourth grand slam in a row) to run a piece reinforcing every stereotype about women’s bodies in the book, the response was fast and furious.

Times reporter Ben Rothenberg was largely quoting things that a handful of the world’s female tenniseratti had to say about their own body insecurities. Yet there was that magical, journalistic slight of hand at work, making it seem like the hidebound, 1980s-esque ideas of femininity he quoted simply and irrevocably were “the norm.”

Not even a norm, but the norm. As if these few women were confessing for all of us what every woman deep down truly (and logically) must want: to be slender and girly at all costs, all the time. Even when our jobs require us to be some of the toughest people on the planet.

Even, somehow, when we facing the imminent prospect having to birth something that feels more or less like a sentient medicine ball.

But ha! Guess what? It turns out it simply is not true. That just is not the morn anymore, not by a stretch. Everywhere we look these days, there are women busy being and doing—living their lives exactly the way they mean to—without worrying a bit about whether it makes them “cute.”

It is pretty freaking awesome.

And I am not just talking about female athletes.

I am talking about Bree Newsome, who scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina state house and helped bring down the Confederate flag in that state.

I am talking about Malala Yousafzai, who—now well past al Qaeda’s attempted assassination of her in 2012—spent her 18th birthday opening a school for Syrian refugee girls.

I am talking about Janelle Monáe, the brilliant, gravity-defying artist who says she is not interested in exposing skin to sell her music. “People don’t ask Jay-Z to take off his shirt,” she points out, pretty much ending that matter for all time in one phrase. (The one about Janelle Monáe is from 2013, but it just came across my Facebook feed last week.)

I also am talking about my friend, Dr. Joanna Bilancieri, a physical therapist and world-class paddle-boarder, who recently launched a campaign called “Bad Ass, Not Bare Ass.” She is on a mission to shift the representation of women in sports—away from the obsession with whether women athletes are sexy or feminine “enough” and toward the only things that should matter: their talent, their fitness, their prowess, their victories and defeats. July 25, 2015, is her inaugural event: paddling 45 miles around the Bermuda Triangle’s apex.

Joanna Bilancieri paddling in the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. (Ka’iwi Channel, July 2010)

There is no point in history where we have been more blessed with women role models from all walks of life, owning their physical, mental, and spiritual power in magnificent ways; living their truths; getting out in the world to do what they came to; and letting go of that pernicious, bone-deep fear that keeps so many of us in check.

That fear that we cannot be feminine while being who we are.

What hooey! Because being feminine? We own that. Nobody else could.

So let us really own it.

Don’t get me wrong. I will not blame myself or any other woman for giving into the fear. But I am going to celebrate every Serena, Bree, Malala, Janelle, Joanna, and every women who manage to point the past that fear of failing to be feminine while being who we are.

My text is not women’s bodies, it is women’s lives. We are here to live, not to be looked at or objectified. The more we do exactly that—living fully, on our own terms—the more quickly the rest of the world falls in line and realizes nothing could ever be any more or less feminine or womanly than…us.