She doesn’t need a savior
Whenever I talk about my passion for working with young women on releasing perfectionism, there’s one response I hear that has a way of crawling under my skin. “Oh that is so needed,” people say. The tone they use to deliver the sentence makes it sound like I’m a hero stepping up to rescue young women. “Oh that is so needed…” the subtext being young women are constantly at risk of some type of peril. Over and over I hear it, and over and over I say “yes, it is” because I have nothing better with which to respond. How do you respond to someone implying there’s a fire constantly burning and you’re the one coming along with a bucket to try to calm it? You’d think I would have come up with a better response after a decade in this work, but, alas, I have not.
Something about it is always irksome to me. What they’re saying, is they’re aware young women are suffering and they’re happy to hear someone is doing something about it. They know being a woman in a society determined to make them second-class citizens is really freaking hard. They know the early decades of life, spanning anywhere from 13-25, in which young women are trying to figure out how to undo all the junk society taught them while navigating a pressure to keep their bodies safe and secure in a society that attempts to deprive them of that security every day, are loaded with pain and impossible dichotomies. It’s strange to be on the receiving side of that supposedly grateful awareness. It’s uncomfortable to stand in the shoes of a perceived savior knowing I am not a savior. The discomfort is there because I don’t believe women need to be rescued.
I am a firm believer in entirely the opposite. I deeply believe that, given the tools she needs, a young woman is entirely capable of rescuing herself. She doesn’t need a savior, she just needs education. There’s one woman I admired from a distance during my adolescence. She was a Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Her name was Professor Wangari Maathai and she was the founder of The Green Belt Movement. A highly educated woman herself, and the first in her region to be so highly educated, Professor Maathai learned of the needs of the women in her community and responded. The waterways in her community were drying up, making their food supply scarce, and the women had to walk further and further to secure firewood for fuel and fencing. Dr. Maathai taught the women of her community how to foster seedlings and plant those seeds so trees could grow and restore their environment with strength to meet their needs. The Green Belt Movement still exists today in Kenya, though Dr. Maathai passed in 2011.
Just so we’re clear, I am not comparing my passion for empowering women to the work Dr. Maathai did in life and continues to do in legacy. Not even a little. It was her passion for empowering women through education and community that inspired me as a young woman and continues to inspire me today. It’s also the reason I don’t see myself as someone to rescue or “save” women. Women don’t need to be rescued. Each time I speak to a room full of young women, I’m reminded all they need is someone to come along and do two things, 1. give them a secure space to be vulnerable and honest, and 2. remove the veil of the patriarchy from their eyes so they get a glimpse at what it would be like to really believe in their abilities and stand fully in their confidence. It’s an honor to be that person. It’s an honor to be that woman. No, I don’t see myself as a savior or a rescuer of any damsel in distress. I am a highly educated woman returning to my community to share that education and empower other women through education.
Over the years, the education I share has grown from media literacy to self-compassion and body image, fostering community over competition, choosing brave vulnerability in the face of frightening silence, the male gaze, tools to reclaim her own body, and removing an identity from the lens of productivity or achievement so simply being is enough. There’s a lot to talk about and it’s unrealistic to think it will all be resolved in a two-hour session.
In fact, it is profoundly unrealistic to think I’m “saving” a woman from a society designed to make her feel less than. That’s like thinking you can save a fish from the water the fish lives in. The fish needs the water, but cleaning that water requires vigilance and maintenance. Similarly, the sessions I facilitate are simply the starting point. The discussion and discovery within the audience can feel refreshing when the conversation has never been heard before, but we’re talking about shifting an entire mindset, an entire belief system. That doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen through just one person. I love that I get to ask the questions and facilitate the conversation, but in the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes consistent reinforcement and a willingness to dive into discomfort to remain free of the veil of insecurity.
The reality is, I’m not trying to get on my soapbox each time someone acknowledges the work I do. So I continue to say “yes the work is needed” and move along with the conversation. Empowerment is, after all, not really part of the rescuer/victim story. Empowerment is a personal journey each person must choose. Sure, I get to walk into a room and facilitate the conversation, but each person in that room must choose to be there in the first place. In the same way, ignorance is chosen, empowerment can also be sought and selected. No, women do not need to be saved. I’m not here to do the saving. I’ve simply taken that thing I’m passionate about, removing the veil, and helped other women remove theirs.
If you’re looking to get started on embracing your empowerment, I encourage you to start learning about the male gaze in media. Then, take it a step further and learn about the internalized male gaze. Learn more about the pay gap and the denotative definition of feminism. Take a really hard look at climate change and what it means for your day-to-day life. Watch Iron Jawed Angels and send me an email with your reaction. If you want a more complex understanding of media than “media is biased”, take a look at the companies that own media outlets. Then, if you’re itching for more, take a look at what social media is creating in the world in both a negative and positive way. On the other hand, if you want some help learning about all of this, I’m available for both coffee chats and school visits!
I’m not a savior. I’m not here to rescue anyone and I still don’t believe in the damsel in distress construct. She doesn’t need anyone to climb up her hair or put the right shoe on her foot. She’s a woman living in 2021. She likely has access to the internet and she knows how to use Google. She’s been tying her shoes since she was two, she keeps her hair in a ponytail because she’s tired of it getting in the way, and she’s never worn a corset in her life outside of Halloween or the Renaissance festival. She needs headphones and a cup of coffee more than a savior. I’m just happy to be one of the voices to which she opens her ears and her mind.