We Contain Multitudes
On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate women for *all* they are
I often recall the quote by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large. I contain multitudes.” Oh to have that luxury.
It’s an ultimate sign of power to be able to own one’s many facets. In some cases, to be able to shed the old in favor of the new; in others, to have the freedom to be as varied as the days.
Despite being a society obsessed with growth, there are inherent contradictions in the process of evolving — many of which hold women back. Because the ability to exist in contradiction is wrought with normative judgment: A man who is complex? Well and good (a leader, even). A woman who is complicated? Avoid at all costs. Being complex allows for contradictory thoughts or ideas to coexist, however resolved. But it’s a loaded term for women, and even the mere accusation has caused me to shrink in many circumstances of life — avoiding growth and the fullness that comes from holding many things at once without fear of reprisal. I have sacrificed opportunities to learn myself better because the depth of what could be found had even the potential to contradict what was expected of me — or what I hoped for myself to be true, conditioned over time. A positive brand, a comforting presence: consistency is a force that keeps us in one place (and in line).
But inconsistency is deeply human. When inconsistencies become habits — or when they clash with known values — they offer the information necessary to grow. And yet, they must be experienced before they can be evaluated. Gaining conscious awareness of two competing priorities, conflicting beliefs, or misalignment between words and actions, for example, provides an impetus for self improvement. Too often, this process is short-circuited by societal expectations: As a woman, I have often sought to be consistent, steadfast, even deferential — in a word, stable — above all else. When I haven’t lived up to these characteristics (and I rarely do), I still — in my 30s — feel like I’ve let someone down. Though these are certainly not bad qualities in and of themselves, they’re often assigned value in a hierarchical system. Power — and self awareness— lies outside of these bounds.
Because bold, opinionated women have been labelled “hysterical” for centuries: unstable, untamable — simply for having a voice. If we own our capacity for growth, we can create space to change our minds while expressing opinions or taking a stance. But in so doing, we also make ourselves vulnerable to the feedback of others. Giving ourselves the freedom to acknowledge beliefs or actions that are — even temporarily — at odds with one another can be perceived as a liability too great to bear when reputation is at stake, based on societal expectations. In other words, to contradict yourself as a woman — even in the process of growth — can become an unshakeable character flaw. Instead of being a normal part of becoming, it becomes a mark of what we will always be.
There is power in doing something that feels outside of our initial inclination; in shaking up routine to stretch outside of our perceived limitations. Of stepping into the unknown, even if it means abandoning the things we thought we knew for certain; the absolute truths that confine us to uniformity or to any singular path. Even in moments where we can’t place a certain feeling, or when we feel disappointment or question aspects of our identity, it’s what comes next that should be defining — not the act itself of straying from what was default. There’s growth in contradiction. There’s freedom in embracing our multitudes.
This International Women’s Day, I hope we celebrate the women in our lives for all that they are: as that shifts and crystallizes, then morphs once more. The things we are will never be fixed or finite; what defines us has limitless potential to change in new seasons and with new learning. Let that allow us to step into our power: large and uncontained.