Recently I’ve been feeling a growing discomfort with the term “strong woman”. And I’m not alone…

“I think if I tried to encourage one of my male friends by saying they were strong, they’d be like.. Mm thanks! It’s an insult right. Like someone saying you’re “quite pretty”. If you’re not going straight to beautiful, you can keep your compliment.” – Katy Perry

What does ‘strong’ even mean? What does it mean to be a strong woman and why do we use it as a compliment?

People of course are alluding to emotional strength, rather than the physical. The sense that as a ‘strong’ woman you are someone who exercises power over your emotions and your presentation of yourself to the world. Whilst I think this is a valuable trait, I don’t think it’s really an exclusive one. Given the challenges we all have to face in life – heartbreak, rejection, illness – I’d argue that to exist is to be strong. To be an alive, happy person making difficult choices requires strength. To love, give love and embrace life, means using strength to a degree. So could we not be loving, ambitious, optimistic… something other than strong?

If I’m crying because someone upset me, does that make me weak? Crying is a display of vulnerability and to be open to your own vulnerability, is a show of courage in my opinion.

“Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” — Maya Angelou

teary strong women

Sometimes I feel unshakable, and at other times I feel very vulnerable. Neither is exactly an accident, but a choice. At different times in your life and in different situations you dig in to various aspects of yourself to handle things in the way that is most beneficial to you. Sometimes that means crying alone on a train, so your emotions don’t bubble up inside. Then at other times denial and proactive ignorance is exactly what you need to move on from emotional turbulence.

In fiction or film, a well written female character shows both strengths and weaknesses. They have elements of vulnerability and inner conflict, because that is humanity, and we as the audience should see both their beauty and their flaws.

“I want to tell you how it feels to play a woman. The end… Find another adjective, dammit! I’m just playing women. If it’s not strong, what is it? Are you telling me there’s a weak option? A lead in a movie is going to be weak? It just doesn’t even bear having the conversation. So enough already with the ‘strong woman’ please.” – Emilia Clarke

As Emilia points out, the notion of calling someone strong is like saying, if you weren’t responding in this way, you would be weak, like all those many women before you. There are so many better, more accurate words to describe women you admire. Women you want to take inspiration from.

Free. Wild. Brave. Ambitious. Responsible. Bold. Hungry. Open-hearted. 

I could go on.

If you must use strong, perhaps use it instead in conjunction with something:

Strong-willed. Strong-minded. Strongly-written.

“We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free.” – Kavita Ramdas

strong women holding hands crowd together

If you don’t feel ‘strong’ today. That’s cool. I’m sure there are many, many other wonderful things you are instead.