I read a book years ago about Chinese culture in the mid-seventeenth century. The way the story went, young girls got their feet bound so they would be desirable to a future suitor. There really were no other options available for women back then, and parents who rejected this custom were all but ensuring their daughters lived solitary lives of dependence, with no independent means of support.
The process was quite gruesome. Girls would have their feet bound with ribbons so tightly that their bones would break. Every few days the ribbons would be removed, and their feet would be rebound, until more bones would break, and eventually turn dust.
The girls were held hostage for weeks, sometimes months, while the foot binding rituals proceeded. The pain was excruciating, and it was common for girls to become ill. A few even died when infection set in and their weakened immune systems could no longer protect them from disease.
They endured this gruesome ritual because society dictated that the worth of a woman was measured by the size of her feet. And a woman was only deemed desirable—worthy of marriage and motherhood, if her feet could fit into a slipper the size of a teacup.
With each page turned, I found myself wondering what I would do if I had lived in China during this era. Would I compel my daughter to endure this pain, this life-altering grisly ritual and to live out a hobbled life experience for the sake of finding a man?
Or would I strike out in courage, refuse to abide by any barbaric cultural tradition, and see my daughter's size 8 feet as beautiful, even if no one else agreed? I’d like to think I’d chart the latter path, but to be honest, I’m really not sure.
Women today do not have their feet bound into the size of their fist, but we’re bound in other ways. So many other ways. I’ve been bound in so many ways as well, as much as it pains me to admit it.
Someday I’ll write about the nature of bondage I’ve endured, but not yet, because those stories aren’t solely mine to tell. But believe me when I say, I’ve endured bondage. And unfortunately, far too often, the messages I received at home were so powerfully reinforced in society that I had no choice but to absorb the messages like a sponge, and comply.
What messages you ask?
Messages that a woman’s intelligence and ambition were inversely proportional to her femininity.
Messages that being perpetually kind and nice were a prerequisite for social acceptance.
Messages that self-care was the same as selfishness.
Messages that self-sacrifice, that pouring into others’ lives, would increase my worth as a woman.
Messages that having low expectations of myself was the finest expression of humility.
Messages that if I wasn't careful, my big ideas and passions would be “too much” for people (particularly men), and people (particularly men) would find me exhausting.
These messages weren’t always overt. Sometimes they were extremely subtle. A raised eyebrow or a quick disapproving glance. Some were couched as suggestions that perhaps my life would be better, easier, if I was just a bit more "tamed." Some were joking "asides" that it was a good thing I was “pretty” because what I needed most in life was a solid man to keep me tethered (lest I float away in a cloud of lofty ideas and relentless passions).
These types of messages were reinforced in powerfully insidious ways, both within my home, as well as within society, making it difficult to refute them. Media (movies, television shows, even commercials), faith communities, a well-meaning friend blaming me somehow for my non-traditional life, rather than society's short-sightedness.
I call these types of messages, and their results, “shadows,” because they shade our instincts, eclipse our truth and shroud us in darkness when we desperately need to be bathed in light. Depending on where the sun is in the sky, shadows can be quite long, reaching across the landscape, and capturing us no matter how far we believe we have traveled beyond them.
The other day I was reflecting on my personal growth in this last decade, and my courage to confront all of the various shadows in my life. And then I had an epiphany. I still haven’t “arrived.” I still at times suffer from self-doubt and the “imposter syndrome”—that belief that I don’t belong, and that regardless of all my hard work, it’s still not enough.
And then I had another epiphany: I no longer care.
I no longer care if I’m not the most youthful person in the room. I no longer care if I’m not the smartest person around, or the most attractive, or the thinnest (actually, I still care a little bit about that one), or if I don't have a lot of money, or the appropriate level of status. And I no longer care if my thoughts and opinions lack widespread appeal, or do not reflect society's ideal of femininity.
And probably most important, I no longer care if my driving passions to make this world a better place for everyone, make people uncomfortable. The truth is, I probably am too much for some people. And that’s fine, because those people aren’t my people.
Last year I got my first tattoo—the words “Be Brave” on my bikini line. A place that’s vulnerable enough to remind me that bravery is always susceptible to self-doubt, but to keep trudging along being brave, regardless.
It’s taken me years to realize that the subjective feelings of low self-esteem and self-doubt are a part of the human condition, and as such, should never be completely eradicated from our psyche.
The shadows of low self-esteem and self-doubt are boring to me now. They can fluctuate at will, and that has very little impact on my life. Again, I just don’t care.
In fact, I actually appreciate my shadows now in a way I could not have when I was younger.
Rather than finding comfort in the seeming safety of conformity, I’ve learned how to stand out on a limb when necessary, despite the shadows that often make me question whether a particular limb is worth the risk.
My shadows have taught me how to persevere during times of doubt and lacking support.
My shadows have taught me how to speak my mind despite my doubts, and how to believe in myself, even when that belief feels like a very tenuous thread.
My shadows have taught me how to get up (again and again) when I’ve made mistakes (huge mistakes!), and the limb I am standing on has snapped, causing me to crash to the ground.
And my shadows have taught me how to slow down, when the force of my enthusiasm would lead me impetuously down an unwise path.
If I'd waited until I had complete self-esteem and no self-doubt before taking a risk, I’d still be waiting, and asking permission from anyone and everyone to move forward. I’d still be hiding under my shadows, waiting for a sign (neon with flashing lights and arrows), because self-doubt is just a part of my emotional landscape, and likely always will be.
It is now my tribe of fellow passion-seekers in whom I take refuge, not my shadows, and definitely not conformity.
Still not convinced you can live a life of passion and meaning, even if it scares you and pisses some people off? Then get a new tribe of like-minded thinkers who will keep pushing you forward when you’re unsteady on your path.
Find a tribe of people who don’t want you to live a small life, who aren’t intimidated by your dreams, and who can clearly see your light, when all you can see are your shadows.
So thank you to all of my tribe members—old and new—for keeping me afloat, when society's shadowy messages threatened to engulf me and keep me from seeing my light.
None of us is meant to live small lives. Imagine if all of us became more committed to living up to our full potential (and even exceeding it!), despite our low self-esteem and self-doubt?
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer façades, less role-playing and a lot more fun. I chose a photo with myself and my son because he is my heart.
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