The Stiletto Myth

Here’s the scene: I’m pushing a pram with one hand, balancing a takeaway latte in the other, and attempting to get up enough speed over the rough pavement to coax my little one back to sleep. Despite the mild sense of frustration as my coffee slops out onto my hand, life is actually quite good. I’ve just completed a “jog” (let’s be honest, primarily a walk with bursts of activity in between whenever the fancy takes me) and it’s a beautiful day. I mean, I’m out for a walk by the water, I have a coffee in hand and a beautiful baby by my side. Happy place all round.

I pass a local hairdresser, of all places, and notice the following quote emblazoned on the window:

“Strong women wear their pain like stilettos. No matter how much it hurts, all you see is the beauty of it”.

As I let the words roll through my mind, I nearly dropped my latte and let the pram coast of its own accord, in my haste to try and snap a picture so I wouldn’t forget it. I decided against the photo, however, when I noticed all the people inside having their colour adjusted, and I thought it might weird them out. And I realised I wasn’t going to forget the quote in a hurry.

I hastened home, mentally compiling a list of all the things that are completely wrong, wrong, wrong with that statement.

strong women quote

Side note, I have no idea what the context of that quote was. Google hasn’t helped me figure it out either, since it’s attributed to Harriet Morgan, who died in 1907, and the first usage of “stiletto” with regards to footwear was apparently in the 1950s…. thank you Wikipedia).

So, I’m responding to it on face value. 

Why should pain be hidden?

There is nothing glamorous, sophisticated or admirable in hiding your ‘pain’, whatever that may be. Men, women, children… no-one should be trying to keep up a happy facade when everything is crumbling away on the inside. There’s no point having everyone around you thinking how wonderful it must be to live your life, how happy you are, how perfect things are for you… if they’re not.

There’s a whole spectrum of ‘pain’, and I acknowledge that perhaps at one end there are things you might suppress – the fact your latte came out with a bit too much froth (no need for a teary in the middle of the cafe), or you can’t get an appointment to have your nails done until tomorrow, when you were so hoping they could be done today. Sometimes it is best just to move on, if the little disappointment doesn’t really impact you.

But even then, sometimes even seemingly insignificant events, disappointments or setbacks can compound to the point that they actually do cause pain that needs to be talked about. In my experience, the act of not talking about what’s going on inside can be what leads to a snowball effect. Things pile up, little things add layers of stress and upset, and because you’ve spent all that time telling people things are alright, it can be even harder to open up and say “No, everything’s not alright”.

I have personally experienced this, and seen it impacting people around me. On the flipside, I’ve seen people who are quite open about what’s going on for them and it appears they handle things much better – they can process challenges and upsets, talk them out and move forward.

I’ve tried to apply this myself, during the challenging few months of being a new parent. Lack of sleep, hormones and the overwhelming responsibility of protecting and nurturing this precious little being are a potent mix. I thought I was coping quite well, and that was the response I gave everyone who asked. But then a few times, I would find myself irrationally upset – I planned to go for a walk, only to find the stroller wheels were a bit flat. I completely lost it, sobbing like I was experiencing intense grief. It was a pretty shocking experience and made me realise that I was under stress, I was experiencing a certain amount of pain, and I was not doing myself any good by pretending I wasn’t. So firstly, I acknowledged this for myself, then I talked about it. I opened up to Michael about it and together we’ve been able to identify the actual problems and look at ways to make life easier. The result? I’m much, much happier – inside and out.

Does hiding pain takes more strength than being open about it?

Absolutely not. Hiding pain allows you to get on with the day to day, but it’s a recipe for disaster.

I’m sure the first day your child goes to daycare, or school, you feel pain. It’s probably prudent not to burst into tears in front of your child, as it’s not going to help them settle for the day, and so a parent employs a certain amount of strength to hide that pain, in that moment. But that doesn’t mean you should hide your distress altogether – it just means finding another outlet, such as another parent who can empathise.

Continuing to grit your teeth through whatever pain you are experiencing, and forcing a smile, might sound difficult but it’s actually often the easiest thing to do – because doing anything else seems to make us too vulnerable, and is not always well supported. How many times a day are you asked “how are you?” or “how’s your day?”. When was the last time you actually gave an honest response? The ‘appropriate’ response is just “Good, thanks. You?”, and it generally wouldn’t be seen as appropriate or ‘normal’ to give an actual, honest account of your feelings at that point in time. (Let’s face it, you don’t know the kid at the checkout and he wasn’t actually asking how you’re doing).

Even in more intimate settings, such as with friends and family, we don’t always open up about those things that are troubling us. It takes a high level of trust to expose pain to others, for fear they won’t understand or will inadvertently make us feel worse. I know it was difficult to explain to Michael how I had been so overwhelmed by a little disappointment and frustration in my day – I doubted the intensity of my emotion, I reflected on it and thought it was just something I should ‘get over’. I considered not bringing it up, but I realised that it was just going to keep happening if I didn’t address it. So I had the conversation, and I’m so glad I did.

So men wear their pain like ill-fitting steel-capped boots?

I’ve left this til last, because I’m not usually one to harp on the gender angle, and I also feel it’s fairly conspicuous here – why are women the only ones applauded for stifling their pain? I don’t believe anyone should be encouraged to bottle up negative, caustic emotions.

Moral of the story – lose the heels.

If the stilettos are hurting, they’re probably doing damage – in the short term, causing blisters that are going to stop you going for that jog tomorrow, or doing long-term damage to your muscles and posture.

If you are hurting on the inside, you are only causing yourself more tension and stress in the short term, while allowing things to grow and become more toxic, until you have a serious problem on your hands.

So take off those heels, throw them over your shoulder and find someone who will run along barefoot beside you.

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