“Strong women intimidate boys and excite men”. There is an image of a woman wearing a tank top with these words on it that has been doing the rounds online recently. It’s a glamour shot – an advertisement for the American clothing company that sells the top. But the line is so powerful that the image, free of branding, has gone viral. Is it cocky? Only if you’re someone who hides behind the idea that people fear you, like a little creepy-crawly that casts a looming shadow. But for most people for whom the line strikes a chord, particularly straight women, it appeals not so much to the ego as to the never-not-broken heart.
No one gets to be strong without first having been shattered. The Japanese have a beautiful artform, kintsugi, in which a lacquer of powdered gold is used to repair cracked pottery, rendering an object more beautiful not despite but because of its brokenness. Some of us are thus now made almost entirely of gold.
I wish I had a rupee for every time someone said to me, as though it was some major insight they were offering me, “I think men are just afraid of you.” (I’d always have exact by-the-meter change for autorickshaws then). But what does the “just” in “just afraid” really mean? It’s a word that seeks to paint as obvious what is in fact an imbalance, a reflection of the disturbing reality that empowered women are punished most of all in the arena of personal relationships. How can a positive trait like strength – and attendant qualities like ambition, success, independence and candour – be anything other than desirable?
When a man, especially in a romantic context, is put off by a woman’s strength it is not because he isn’t sure that he can handle a life that demands more of him (this is what he will invariably say as he conveys his regrets). It’s because he actively prefers to not try. The kind of woman he is not afraid of is the one he will choose. She is not necessarily weak. But she is always afraid of him. The truth is, fear does excite weak men – her fear, that is.
But I think of all the times I have held the beverage before me with slightly shaking hands, lowering my eyes as I received the condescension of being told or showed that I am too strong to love, and I can tell you – of course there was fear then. And despair. And anger. But when I finally raised my chin, the only emotion they’d register would be the last. Scary lady.
I reject the idea that I am too difficult to love. And if that means being rejected by anyone less than my perfect equal, then so be it. (Why try, why not do the rejecting first? Well, that’s what really separates the weak from the strong – whether you embrace vulnerability or seek to avoid it).
I’d add a clause to the quote on the tank top. That bit about exciting men? Boring. And easy. Anyone – intimidating or otherwise – knows this. I’d rather be seen, not just salivated over. I’d rather be understood than craved. Of course I want to excite you (it would add another crack to my gold-filigreed heart I didn’t) – but just as much, I want to challenge you, to learn from you, to provoke your sense of purpose, to arouse your best self, to stimulate in you – just as there is in me – an insatiable appetite for life.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.