by Jessica Kay Lee
Edited and featured on "Centered on Taipei" March 2023 Issue
The month of celebrating womanhood is upon us once again. This time, Centered on Taipei’s Editor-in-Chief Sue Babcock spearheaded this conversation by asking me a big question: “Jessica, what does it mean to you to be a strong woman?”
Last Women’s History Month, I explored the topic of unspoken “surface pressure” inspired by one of my favorite Disney characters, Louisa from Encanto, who despite her super-strength, had a metaphorical moment of weakness, where she could no longer carry her family’s burden.
Just like Louisa, so much of womanhood has been focused on playing out our roles and identities not just as women, but super-women. One who is not only a caring wife, a nurturing mother, an obedient daughter, with the skills of a housekeeper, cook, nurse, teacher, driver, and counselor at home, but also a competent professional and contributing member of our society, all while gritting our teeth, nodding our heads, and smiling through it all as if we have even more to give.
It is interesting to note that while 1 in 4 individuals around the world will develop mental illness at some point in their lives, women are impacted at a higher rate than men - specifically 1
in 5 women versus 1 in 8 men will experience a prevalent mental illness such as anxiety and/or depression. (1,2)
From what I’ve personally experienced, and professionally seen and heard as a meditation coach for women and mothers, most of the time, we’re spent, we’re tired, and we’re actually not okay.
We just don’t talk about it, because that’s what “strong” women do. Right?
In truth, behind the scenes, there are the women who look the part, glamorous and capable, but carrying the heavy burden of socially-shameful family secrets of loveless romances, broken marriages, or infertility stress. Then there are the fun moms who enjoy weekly high teas and midnight karaoke with other fun moms, only to be desperately looking outwards for external validation to fill the big empty void at home, or in their hearts. There are also the women who are called too “vocal,” too “masculine,” too “aggressive” in their activism towards political, educational, economical equity, yelling out to the world because once upon a time, their loved ones, or they themselves, fell victims to injustice, trauma, or abuse. We all have our stories, and it takes so much strength to hold it all in.
The truth then and the truth now, is that over time, carrying these socially constructed expectations all by ourselves is not an act of strength, but an act of self-neglect.
There is a limit to everyone. For we all get tired, we all need breaks, we all need support. Thus, my professional recommendation continues to encourage women and mothers to mindfully carve out intentional time and space in order to quiet and hear ourselves.
When we hear ourselves, we learn how to take care of ourselves.
So today, as I re-examined the topic of womanhood once more, my answer to Sue’s big question comes down to one single word: vulnerability.
Why would anyone think of vulnerability as a characteristic of strength when it literally is the
exact opposite in definition?
To me, vulnerability is strength.
To me, being a strong woman means willing to be vulnerable - being vulnerable with yourself and being vulnerable with others. In a society where we are expected to work so hard, look the part, be this way and that, meet outrageous standards, it takes “strength” to say “NO,” to set boundaries, to stop living for others, to realize that this old way of dismissing our fatigue, pain, and hurt is no more.
Storyteller, professor, researcher Brene Brown says it best. “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.”
When we are vulnerable with ourselves, we show the people around us, such as our kids, our partners, our aging parents, our friends, our colleagues, other women, that it is perfectly okay to not be perfect. That it is okay to make mistakes, get it all wrong, and try again. When we are vulnerable, we give way to the whole of us, not just the surface level us who keeps on going when there’s nothing more to give. When we are vulnerable, we allow in love from loved ones - who otherwise didn’t know we needed help - or professionals - who can lend an objective eye to guide us with expert tips and resources.
Sometimes, all it takes is just an ask.
When we are vulnerable, we create an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, to realize that we’re only human, and we are creatures of emotions, feelings, needs, desires, and rest.
When we are vulnerable, we see and hear ourselves. We get to know who we really are.
When we are vulnerable, we make way for healing.
When we are vulnerable, we are then strong.
For strength is vulnerability.
1. Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization'ss World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry. 2007;6(3):168-176.
2. McManus S, Bebbington PE, Jenkins R. et al. Mental health and wellbeing in England: The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. NHS Digital. 2016. Accessed January 21, 2022.