When I was about eight years old, my mom introduced me to the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman TV-show, and I was hooked.
I played Wonder Woman when I wasn’t pretending to be Pippi Longstocking. Super-human strength? Sounded awesome. Red high-heeled boots and an American flag corset? Even better. But above all, I wanted to be the hero. I would imagine fighting bad guys away from my family with magic wristbands and riding a horse to lasso escaped kidnappers and thieves. Other times, I pretended to be either Aragorn or Eowyn or Arwen, and I would always have a sword.
Delusions of grandeur, you see, are particularly gender-blind amongst children. Most kids are dying to be the hero. They want to fight their bad guys, get up from the tough falls, and (more or less) do good.
But then something happened. Age eleven happened, for one, which was when I started getting the conservative American evangelical Christian schtick about modesty (lest you tempt men to think bad thoughts about you, which would be your fault) and purity (where women just don’t understand how men work, innocent little things we are).* I felt as if ‘lust’ was somehow wrong before I even had any conception of ‘desire’. As a woman, I was supposed to be pure, and, of course, my only “temptation” would be “emotional” rather than “physical.”
Somehow, being a hero didn’t seem quite so easy.
Little sponge I was, I also started absorbing everything I saw on magazine covers and on TV. My heart would pound harder every time I walked past the grocery store checkout, simply because I knew I would see something that would measure my worth. And I so wanted to be worth something. If I couldn’t be exactly the hero I wanted to be–if I couldn’t be Wonder Woman chasing down the bad guys and making men fall for her–I at least wanted to be beautiful. I at least wanted a hero to want me. If I wasn’t able to feel desire unashamedly, perhaps I could become desirable.
This triggered a fairly sharp descent into disordered eating behaviors. I had to control my body and my appetite and everything I felt because everything I felt was so confusing; I constantly worried I was doing or about to do something wrong.
Over the years, those behaviors waxed and waned and waxed again, but always because I so badly wanted to believe the promise of control, beauty, and “good enough.” I wanted to feel I was worth a hero.
By saying all of this, I by no means intend to blame anyone for what I’ve dealt with–least of all my parents or any others whom I dearly love. I see my struggles as the cumulative result of first genetics, then environment, acquaintances, consumer culture, etc. Nobody is to blame, least of all people who’ve done their absolute best to show me love.
If you’ve read any of the rest of my blog, you’ll know some of the rest of the story. I’m doing a lot better now especially in terms of depression and anxiety. This has been the result of medication, therapy, family support, great friends, and a ton of hard work.
About a year ago, when I was fighting through the harder things, I read a book called “Half-Broke Horses.” This book grabbed me by the throat from page one. The heroine–the author’s grandmother–was nothing short of a messy, complicated, flawed badass woman who never stopped. She broke horses from the time she could walk, and when she was fifteen she undertook a 500-mile solo trek across the desert to teach at a remote school with no more than an eighth-grade education. She failed somewhat as a mother and a sister, ran away from her own anger, and took risks she maybe shouldn’t have.
She wasn’t perfect; she wasn’t Wonder Woman. But she didn’t let her failures dampen her sense of resilience.
Later in life, when she owned her own ranch and was driving some Chicago journalists around the Arizona desert, her car’s brakes went whilst heading down a mountain pass. She strategically crashed the car and got everyone out. Her words to the terrified journalists were: “If you ride a horse, you gotta know how to fall, and if you drive a car you sure as shit better know how to crash one.”
Resilience, I firmly believe, is knowing that shit will go down and that you can deal with it, or at least figure out how to deal with it.
But, additionally, I think the (highly imperfect) strength and resilience I have now are mine as a result of reclaiming that luminous childhood grandiosity–tempered, of course, by a bit of common sense, a few trips to the emergency room and a few scars. It’s the belief that I can deal with the shit life throws at me and that I can take joy simply in the fact I’m here. I don’t need to be perfect: cars crash. But crashing cars makes for a damned good story.
I firmly believe now that I can feel what I feel, be it sadness or anxiety or courage or happiness or hunger, without shame. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s what I believe. I believe that I can have goals and go for them. Again, that’s not always what happens, and I still break again and again, but it’s what I believe. And I believe not only in the fantastic heroism of people I dearly love, but also that everyone can and should be their own hero.
Creating a narrative of victimhood is not how I will get stronger; it reinforces notions of dependency and shame. However, creating a narrative of resiliency will transform threats into challenges.
The fact is we don’t need an eating disorder or substances or self-harm or whatever it is that sinks your boat to offer consolation. We don’t need to feel shite about ourselves or to constantly worry in order to feel like we’re in control of ourselves and of the demands put upon our lives. For one thing, we’re not in control.
Moreover, we women in particular need to fight back against everything that tries to make us objects to the purported heroism or desire of others. This is unhealthy for every party, and it cuts us off from doing what we love. It stops us from becoming the kind of women who love fiercely, tenderly, and unapologetically.
Be your own damn hero: pursue what you love, for this is beautiful. May you desire and be desired by those who are also their own damn heroes.
We will never be perfect or ‘enough’, but even Wonder Woman got captured in, like, every episode.
*Insulting to everyone involved because a) it paints men as two-dimensional horny dogs b) it supposes women are too good and angelic to not also occasionally shallow and two-dimensional and c) rather than trying to foster an environment of unconditional mutual respect and conditional mutual lustfulness, it paints men and women as eternally at odds. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the LGBT+ community.