Lucie Jackson ponders the resilience of the ‘weaker sex’.
It seems counter-intuitive to speak about strength in the defence of women: physical strength is exactly the argument that has established women as the inferior sex in a binary model since the beginning of time. But It is important to recognise bodily resilience and to appreciate the strength of mind required by a woman to survive even one day. Thus, strength is a word I instinctively associate with women.
Women suffer a lot of stupid physical pain. Every month many of us experience the energy-draining ache of periods which are simply a reminder that everything is working normally. Our reproductive systems are so ill-designed that Nature itself has provided us with in-built bodily torture. But there are other pain stimuli: hair-removal, for example, that we are pressured into inflicting on ourselves. I once read that due to an increased sensitivity to pain you should not wax your legs during your period; it seems I must remember to spread out all the pain I must pointlessly endure so as not to make life difficult.
Childbirth is another big argument when it comes to the respective pain tolerance. It is unnecessary to explain the credit that should be given to anyone who has ever had a child and no one denies the impressiveness of this capability. The changes a woman’s body can undergo throughout her life are terrifyingly extreme: puberty, pregnancy, birth and menopause are violent processes that take a physical and mental toll. Our bodies gruellingly mutate and adapt to serve our purpose as a walking human farm.
I highly recommend reading the short poem ‘Thoughts After Ruskin’ by Elma Mitchell. It unashamedly shows the physical robustness of women, a trait which is so rarely poeticised since women usually make better subjects as lovely, passive ornaments. Mitchell’s poem ruthlessly displays the grit and hardship of motherhood; it begins, ‘Women reminded him of lillies and roses./ Me they remind rather of blood and soap’. It crosses the taboos of the grim and unattractive nature of mothering – ‘Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,/ Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,/ Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles’.
I think about this poem whenever the physical strength of women comes into question. I strongly encourage reading the rest of it (which explores more on femininity and gender roles) but I will say again that the strength of women does not always have to display itself so graphically, especially in aid of those of us who are not mothers or body-builders. Women must cope mentally with the strain of being perpetually sexualised and belittled. Simply withstanding regular bodily pain, while going to work, being sociable, enduring torment on the streets or ridicule from your peers, to me, is always impressive.
It is frankly not surprising that weakness is so often associated with women. Our bodies are picked and poked: they are pierced, plucked, dressed up, starved, sexualised, fall ill and bleed. Women’s bodies continually prove their resilience to this beating – I am always amazed that women do not simply faint all around me out of exhaustion.
I would say our bodies are not “weak”, as they are so often described, but are instead tired, not directly because of our anatomy, but by the punishment of simply existing. Like in ‘Thoughts After Ruskin’, women should more often be associated with physicality and be credited for their ceaseless bodily endurance.
Illustration by Lucie Jackson