Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need to Act Like a Man to Become a Strong Woman

Dear Little One,

Last week, we arrived at the theater early and, before a movie about beauty and beasts, we saw a preview for a movie about men and machines. We came for a story about love and we got a preview about war. I’m okay with that—it’s the world we live in and I’m used to it.

What I’m not okay with is the young girl we saw in the preview.

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Photo Credit: Rawpixel (Bigstock)

She looked directly into the camera, covered in sweat and dirt, and she said, “Some kids used to tease me…they’d say, ‘You run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl.’ Fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl. Don’t you?” Then, for the rest of the preview, she exuberantly participated in the blowing up and destruction of everything.

I felt like that little girl had punched me in the gut, too.

Because I looked over at you—seven-years-old, eyes wide behind 3-D glasses, already wondering what it means to be a girl—watching the not-so-subtle message that to be a strong girl, you have to fight like the most violent of men.

Little One, as your father, I want you to know, this was not a message about how to become a strong woman; it was a message about how to become an extinct woman. This was the message of a war-riddled and violence-obsessed hyper-masculine culture, hell-bent on victory, knowing that the only way to have victory over your womanhood is to erase it.

After all, what is the most effective way to eliminate the other? It’s to make them exactly like you.

Don’t fall for it.  

We have enough ego-driven, angry, aggressive, and violent men on this planet. We don’t need you to become one too, just so you can prove to those very same men that you are a “strong girl.”

No, Little One, the way to become a strong girl is to resist your assimilation into the worst elements of masculinity. The way to be a strong girl is to grow into the best and strongest parts of your femininity.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to push others down; you simply refuse to be pushed around yourself.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to relish aggression; you simply resist it.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to use violence; you just need to use your voice, steadfastly, resolutely, and unceasingly.

But most importantly, you don’t become a strong woman by acting like a man; you become a strong woman by acting like yourself. 

At the center of you is your soul, your heart, your truest self. It is the least tangible part of you, yet the most indestructible part of you. It is the least violent part of you, yet the part of you from which you will fight most resiliently.

You don’t have to be like a man, you only have to be like you.

You won’t become your truest, strongest you by struggling violently against others. You will become your truest, strongest you by struggling to love the world in the very specific, very unique, perhaps ordinary, but always beautiful way that only you can love it.

Little One, if we all loved the world with that kind of beauty, the beasts wouldn’t stand a chance.

Peace to you,

Daddy

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • CatV

    Why can’t we let an angry woman be an angry woman? Why do we have to lecture little girls that femininity doesn’t include killing and war as opposed to telling men and women that killing and war is neither feminine or masculine but that it’s just useless? I suppose if your daughter wanted to play hockey you would tell her little girls don’t check or if she wanted to become the next Laila Ali, you would tell her girls don’t punch. Sorry daddy, I think you tell for some hype yourself along the way.

    • JC

      Why can’t people stop being angry? Why can’t someone who loves you “tell you” / encourage you to be a better version of yourself that they see in you?

    • Cat, if my daughter wanted to play hockey, I’d buy her the best skates I could afford. 😊

  • HK17

    I usually like what you write but this is beyond silly. How on earth can you seriously write about how to be a strong woman?
    In your shoes I would ask, listen and resist the urge to tell your daughter how to be a woman.

    • JC

      A father should be 50% of the voice in a woman’s heart on what it means to be a woman. The way he treats her mother; the way he expects her to respect herself; the warnings about what men who would harm her heart and/or her body might attempt; the very nature of his “manhood”; should all speak to her and help her to know who she is and what it means to be a woman.

    • I appreciate your feedback, and I certainly have to be aware of potential blind spots. Writing publicly is a good way to have those pointed out for you! In this case, though, I feel like it’s important for me, as a father, to speak into my daughter’s development as a woman. In the same way, I hope my wife will speak into my sons’ development as young men. Of course, as you say, when any of them tells us to be quiet and listen, it’s time to be quiet and listen. 😊

  • Cris M

    Dear Kelly,
    This is a good point to make, very timely for me these days to reflect on. And your post bring a couple more things to feed the reflection. The aggressive little girl in the film “was a girl” and the others were telling her “there was something defective in her for being a girl”: one other element is the response: to show they are not right, she becomes an aggressive warrior. Yes, I know it is a film, but we have enough research to show how we are influenced. In the last few months in my country there have been many protests and women getting out in the streets; it started with a polemic for a woman being topless in a public beach. Women who say they are feminist, started posting “aggressive messages” in the Facebook, painting messages in the street walls (showing anger) and doing a protest in topless in the middle of the city, all with the intention to say “it is their right”.
    I may be old-fashioned, but I am also a scientist, and we are over the top with evidence than women are different from men, we have different sensibility, different ways to analyze the reality, different priorities; and there are a lot of things where were are not different: we have the same intelligence (shaped differently by our other gifts, etc), we have the same rights, etc. And hence, with a combination of all this our roles in society, family life, business work, or wherever, will be different, and likewise our way to respond.
    When we decide that the way to be a strong woman with rights is to fight aggressively like in the film or the streets, in my opinion we are denying our woman nature, we are not taking fully responsibility of our own gifts as women and our unique way to contribute to the world, in a “woman-ly” way. We still can fight for our rights and we still can tell a girl she can go to the army if that is what she feels called for, but none of those things will obliterate that she is a woman and is perfectly fine to be a soldier in a “woman-ly” way. (This is a controversial topic, I already experienced uncomfortable discussions around it, but is a good one as we need to take time to reflect on this, we are passing a very important message to a super-extra-huge number of women and men to be…) – Hugs to you! Cris

    • Amanda

      Agreed!

    • You know how much I respect your opinion, Cris; I’m really grateful for your comment. We do have to pay attention to the original problem in the preview (and the world), that saying you do something “like a girl” is supposed to be an insult. My hope for my daughter is that when she is “insulted” in that way–for throwing like a girl for instance–she can respond, resolutely but not violently, “No, I’m not throwing like a girl, I’m throwing like me.”

  • gigi

    Kelly, you are spot on!!
    You can play hockey and still be a woman. You can be a lineman and still celebrate your femininity. I grew up in the beginning of the bra burning, equal rights, get in their face movement…I was one of them. But as I got older I saw something being stolen from me. I saw my heart being hardened. Becoming just like those who we were railing against. Shaming others who did not agree us.
    Metaphorically, I put my bra back on. I love the me I started to discover. I feel blessed to be a woman. I am strong, I am tender. I am accomplished. And I hope each night when I go to bed that I have wrought beauty into the world around me not woundedness

    • Gigi, I absolutely love the way you describe this. You discovered your heart in all of its strength and tenacity, and you were able to catch yourself before that very same heart got hardened. That’s a line I’d add to the letter now: “Discover your heart, just don’t harden it.” Thank you for this.

    • gloriareading

      Beautifully written. “…wrought beauty into the world around me, not woundedness.” Love it!

  • This is a perfect example where that old adage “If you can’t beat them join them” makes no sense.

    • Patti, you’ve succinctly identified the message of the preview that I was reacting to so strongly. Thank you!

  • Sherri Lefler

    There are plenty of women that see themselves as “warriors”. I could easily have seen myself in the military. However, no one could nurture my children better than me. We are multifaceted. The message that you don’t have to do exactly what another person does to be equal or as valuable is absolutely important. Not all men are warriors. A woman does not have to have the stereotypical man chatacteristics to be considered “strong”, neither does a man! One of the strongest women I know wears high heels and classy clothes every day and defends union workers in her state. She protests and saves peoples’ jobs. Her clothes and shoes have nothing do to with her strength. That goes for the rest of us. Working with young girls, this is a great message for not only the girls bu women who struggle with their self esteem and question their own place in the world.

    • Right on, Sherri. Strength is about becoming the boldest version of your truest self, however that may look. Well said!

  • JC

    “Woman is God’s supreme creation. Only after the earth had been formed, after the day had been separated from the night, after the waters had been divided from the land, after vegetation and animal life had been created, and after man had been placed on the earth, was woman created; and only then was the work pronounced complete and good…Of all the creations of the Almighty, there is none more beautiful, none more inspiring than a lovely daughter of God who walks in virtue with an understanding of why she should do so, who honors and respects her body as a thing sacred and divine, who cultivates her mind and constantly enlarges the horizon of her understanding, who nurtures her spirit with everlasting truth.” -An excerpt from President Gordon B. Hinckley “Our Responsibility to Our Young Women,” Ensign, Sept. 1988, 11.

    Women AND men are not truly strong. If any of us agree with the words of our good friend Dr. Flanagan, it is our vulnerability and the messy fragile parts of us that really mean anything and that really bond us to what is most critical in a life well lived. If any of you reading think your strength originates somewhere inside of you, you are on the edge of a faulty understanding and susceptible to false concepts. Inside each of us is a small child, lonely, scared AND brave. The source of strength that drives us? THAT is God, the source of all strength. We find strength in LOVE, which is purest at its source [God]. I am a good man when I am gentle and kind to my children and my wife. I am a man of principles and undeniable valor when I stand firm in my beliefs, unwavering when storm or strife would tear me down. When & where do I fight? At two times & in two places… always internally as I struggle to let go of my shame and let it be known on the outside; and often externally, with unmatched vigor, when defending those I love, my home, and my rights to enjoy both of those freely. How do I fight? There might be a show of power, maybe a battle cry, or maybe, I will be on my knees surrendering my will to the Lord and suffering whatever consequences come as I am directed by divine inspiration. The core principle here is that WE ARE ALL children of God, ALL of us equally have access to His guidance, and He has a plan for our happiness. If we but seek out truth and invite others to learn it with us as we find truth, we will succeed in being the absolute best version of ourselves.

    • JC, certainly in this letter I’m trying to address the confusion that labels aggression as strong and love as weak. To love ourselves and others boldly is the strongest thing any of us can do. Hopefully without sounding too Huey Lewis and the News, thank you for pointing us to the power of love.

  • A. Julie

    I’d argue that the same goes for strong men. Strong humans.

  • Mike Gates

    That preview impacted me, too. Those people aren’t known for their subtlety. 🙂 We were seeing a different movie with a young female protagonist. The message there was different too. She was a weapon. Part of the story arc was showing her that she didn’t have to be.
    What we’ve always tried to do, is to create a space where the kids can become who they wish to be/are. My wife and I aren’t mindless caricatures of sitcom gender-roles (who is?) We don’t expect/fear that our children will be, either. What you and your wife do day to day is waaaay more impactful than stupidity on the TV or movie screen. The kids are 17 & 18 now and have become neat people. we’ve done something right.
    Finally, I expect that you mean well, but at some point I had to stop thinking I know what women need to be doing. How they need to act. Your daughter is going to develop and behave in ways you aren’t OK with (see my reply to your post from last week). As a man, I need to exhale and allow that to happen. Because no matter how scared I might be about that uncertainty, it is OK for them to be their own person.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Mike. By the way, one of the things I always love about you and your comments is that you seem to genuinely like your children. Not just love them, like them. I can’t imagine a better affirmation of a child.

      • Mike Gates

        I’m glad that comes though, because we do like them. They are the kind of people you want around you. It isn’t lost on me how fortunate I am.

        In my comment I stated “As I man…” when I should’ve phrased it “As the man I’ve decided I want to be…” I’m a fan of self-determination 🙂

        Thanks for doing what you do.

        • Cris M

          I would like to be around people like you Mike! ups, I actually am around here in the blog! Hugs, Cris.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    As a strong women, I very much resonated with this message. A woman learns how to be a woman by how her father reacts to her (much more than how her mother reacts to her). A father who accepts us for who we are and encourages us to stand in our own power is a godsend. Thank you for your work.

  • Judith Andrea Manriquez

    Beautiful and gracious. I’m grateful because I well know the role a father plays in defining his little girl’s worth as a woman. So interesting isn’t that?

    Thank you for reminding her, and us, that it’s our inner Soul/Self that defines us. And always does so with greatness and grace.

  • Judy lawrance

    What a beautiful, encouraging letter you have written for your daughter! It is just the kind of message young girls desperately need to hear these days! “Be Yourself!”

  • jacalyn

    if only it were that easy…. the world is trying to “erase” any differences between men and women! In the social policy of my home province of Alberta, Canada, there is no mention of pregnancy, for instance; apparently we just all spring forth full-grown from…. ???? And even here where I’m studying at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, an LDS Church-owned school, to study postpartum depression in my latest paper, I have to first prove that men and women are different. The world is giving us huge challenges in raising young women!

    • I think it comes from a good place, Jacalyn. We used to see men and women as entirely different and now we understand how much men and women have in common because they share the same humanity. We’re now trying to figure out how to balance this new complexity. Stay a productive part of the conversation!

  • MishaLJStallworth

    I appreciate the encouragement to resist hypermasculine culture and I wonder, what would this letter look like directed at your son? Directed at little boys in general who are even more indoctrinated into that culture and because of their privilege often grow up to be a part of the sexist and misogynist society that produces these films. Little boys who also dont have to “act like a man” and only have to act like themselves. It’s true that being a strong woman, a strong anybody, is rooted in one’s sense of and commitment to self; but is that message stronger without another message to resist an oppressive society? Is the message about commitment to self, paired with one about resisting oppressive society better directed to those who one day by doing so can change that society? This language obviously would not be for little ones, nor is it for them to carry at this time in their lives, but for us as adults I think we must be intentional about what responsibility we place where.

    • I’m right there with you, Misha. It will take all of us, both boys and girls, men and women, to truly change our culture. Our boys need to hear this as well.

  • Amanda

    Great message!

  • I have many mixed thoughts about your well-written and thought-provoking post. Thank you for writing it. I hope that my comments will be taken in the right spirit.

    I also saw that preview on Monday and had a rather intense reaction to the trailer. First, I responded in many similar ways to you. I was disheartened by the message of being powerful by being a destructive weapon. (The theme of overwhelming and destructive violence in current movies is rampant and disturbing). But I also noted as did another comment, that the girl was being disparaged for being a girl and that frustrated me. I commented to my husband later that evening that it makes me sad that pop culture does not portray women with the greatest super-power they possess-as being creative beings who create and nurture life. In television, women who bear children and nurture them are often seen as overbearing and helicopter parents. Likewise, men as parents are portrayed in media as being bumbling idiots incapable of properly nurturing and parenting. I find both portrayals offensive. As a mother to six children with a wonderful husband who is every bit a compassionate and wise nurturing parent as I am, I see that society does not value the parenting contribution that my husband and I make.

    That said, I think this hyper-masculine approach is a product of a culture that has long sought to put women into boxes (and men are put into very narrow and confining boxes as well). For so long, women were told they couldn’t do things because of their femaleness and that their only contribution to society was to bear children and then raise them. So it is a bit of a conundrum and I think we are seeing the pendulum swing to the other extreme. Even as a SAHM, I struggle with wanting to be seen as a whole person. I am a woman who has created life and I clearly value being able to raise my children. Its hard and valuable work. But I also know that I have other talents and abilities that aren’t expressed or seen in my mothering capacity. I am a complex human being and I want to be seen and appreciated for that complexity. I want to be respected for the work I do as a mother who nurtures.

    But I am also a woman who feels anger at having the female body objectified by men and the media. There was a time in my life where my angry persona was the only protection I had against unwanted advances because the men and boys in my community–at church, at school, and in my hometown–were not providing that protection. The very institutions that say they value femininity, gentleness, and softness are often the first to abuse those qualities. (An example that comes to mind is how the Duggar family protected their son at the expense of their daughters who were molested by them). So its kind of hard for me to hear a religious man tell me how a woman should be when I little faith that the same religious man will protect his daughter against those males who would prey on those very qualities that make her vulnerable to abuse and attack. I have seen it far too many times where girls are told to act and behave a certain way. When they do, someone abuses that and they become a victim of sexual violence. And sadly, many of those girls have no protection or recourse against their perpetrators and too often are made to pay for someone else’s sin. In light of that happening, is it any wonder that girls would rather turn into a destructive, violent weapon instead of being vulnerable?

    So I guess what I am saying is that if a dad wants his daughter to have the freedom and courage to be powerful as a woman, he needs to recognize that until men step up to the plate and channel their strength into being true protectors of women–fighting against sexual abuse and rape by getting to the core of it (addressing men) then girls and women are going to continue to look for ways to protect themselves.

    • Tiffany, I absolutely appreciate the spirit of your comment, and I think it reflects the spirit of the post–you’ve not hesitated to use your voice here and to add it to the conversation. Thank you for modeling that for all of us.

      • Thanks for your kind response. I have a few more thoughts about that trailer. Violence and destruction come from a place of enormous ego, arrogance, and pride. That has often come (historically) from men in positions of power seeking more power and control with zero regard for the cost in human lives and all that is good. It is frightening to me that the reckless destruction based upon pride and ego is being celebrated and labeled as good.

        On an international front we are witnessing the unparalleled destruction of Syria (as well as other countries). It is horrific and absolutely breaks my heart. When I recoil from that devastation, I see the refugee families who fled the violence–the mothers and fathers doing all they can to protect and preserve their families. Their efforts are heroic and require far more courage than blowing up a city does.

        Every woman and man should aspire to be a builder of peace and goodness-not a destroyer of society. It is most unfortunate that our society seems intent on glorifying violence and destruction.

  • Samantha

    Thank you! As a professional woman in a male-dominated profession, a fierce feminist, and a mom of three girls, I reject the idea that women or girls should have to act like men to succeed or be valued. There is nothing wrong with femininity, and much that is toxic about masculinity. I love the shirt I’ve seen lately that says “The future is female.” I take that to mean that we are (or should be) moving toward a future where “like a girl” will not be an insult for girls or boys. Where cooperation and collaboration are valued as much as (or more than) aggression. Where people – men or women – don’t have to “lean in” for our abilities to be valued. Where female traits and feminine power will be celebrated as much as masculine traits, and every individual gets to be whatever combination of those he or she is.

    • gigi

      And there is much that is right about masculinity. We cannot take a an us against them. Because it takes away from the uniqueness of us all. I love that my husband can cry, share his heart. But my father.. No.. But his strength and his faithfulness to us as we grew up .. I look at with such a grateful heart. He grew up in the John Wayne era. Strong and silent , but that was who he was. And just like I want people to see there beauty in who I am as a woman. I chose to see the beauty.. The uniqueness in the men around me and celebrate it

  • Niki Schroeder

    I think the whole point of the original commercial or preview you saw was that there shouldn’t be an idea of “acting like a man” or “acting like a girl”. The fact that you are telling your daughter to not act like a man to be considered strong is exactly the point of the commercial…I understand what you were trying to say in that your daughter should just be the best she can be that is true to whatever is “her” but you missed the target a little bit in identifying that there are behaviors that are manly or girly. Sometimes to stand up for oneself, you have to show physical strength and that should not be tied to gender. It is ok for women to show physical strength as well as mental strength. Let’s just stop classifying behaviors with gender and get rid of the whole gender roles that society continues to have. Let’s just focus on being successful in whatever we attempt to do for the sole purpose of being true to ourselves.

    • gloriareading

      Giving up gender roles sounds like a really boring way to live. Why can’t we celebrate the differences and the similarities. It seems like there has been a lot of overthinking to a really simple and wonderful post. JMO! 🙂

      • Niki Schroeder

        Wow. Allowing people to do whatever they want without associating gender to the behavior sounds boring?? How does that even make sense. You are aware of what a gender role is, aren’t you? That would be statements like women should take care of the home or kids and men should take care of fixing things. Same concept here…perhaps not quite so exaggerated. There can be beauty in strength and muscle; indicating it is not feminine is unfair and doing a disservice to women. IMO.

  • Rita Kerley

    Touche’ I am & have one strong daughter! (Two sons, also) I believe Kelly & Kelly are bringing up their own ( males & females ) to be independant thinkers!

  • Rita Kerley

    Also note: response to insult ” you punch like a girl” could simplly be”and, whats wrong with that! ” usually,(@ least w my experience) catches them off guard & shuts em up!

  • Marilyn

    Your children are sooo lucky to have a dad with your sensibilities! Living in a world that sidelines the true beauty and strength of women while glorifying violence and power is disturbing. Dr. Kelly Brogan has a blog post (or more) addressing this issue in a really insightful way that supports what you’re saying. I’m happy to read such wise words by people like you who address important issues–important for all of us! Thank you!

  • joan

    I think you have a good handle on the situation and will be a good non violent you can be a strong women without it meaning throwing your weight around kind of dad mentor… Strength both in men and women can mean and should mean non-violent behaviour.. using the brain power instead of the fist power.. In order to have strong women , we need to mentor them both as female role models and male role models.. so for me.. it is just as important that your daughter see the strong yet gentle ways of men as well as women if we are going to ever bring a yin/yang men/women female/male peace to our Mother Earth and all who share this sacred space… M’sitnokamaq.. All my relations.. hugs to you and thank you

  • Brian Shimer

    Thanks dear brother. Your writing invites me in and inspires consistently.

  • gloriareading

    Copying this for my granddaughters. Beautifully written and oh so accurate!.

  • Lynn Ploe Gillis

    Thank heavens you are parenting your daughter this way…we need so many more Kelly’s in this world….have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?! xxxooo

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  • Wow. I’m late to this conversation. Did you see all of this coming? It’s a lot to absorb. I’m impressed, encouraged, dismayed, and “thought provoked” by all of the responses.

  • guest

    Hey Kelly, have you seen this short video “Like a girl”? I urge you and everyone below to watch! Only around 3min. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/XjJQBjWYDTs