Don’t Tell Me What it Means to Be Tough

My friend Liza (@itsthebunk) wrote a fabulous response to this horrible ad by Ford for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Watch the video below and read her post here before continuing.

After reading Liza’s post I felt I had to say something.  While this is an ad about breast cancer awareness, I think it speaks to a much more insidious culture that tells women in general and those of us with chronic illness specifically who they should be, how to feel, how to react and display those feelings.  I don’t need to be told what it means to be tough.  I know some amazingly tough women dealing with breast cancer and other illnesses and diagnoses every single day.  I look to them to see what tough is, and it isn’t what this ad portrays.

Instead of rewriting a post, I’m posting my response to Liza’s blog.  Here you go:

I take offense to this on so many levels.  First and foremost, I take offense on behalf of the women I know out there who have faced and are facing cancer – whether it’s breast cancer or any other form.  That is a journey unique to each individual and not one that should be used for PR under the guise of “awareness” for any company.  Whether it’s the drillbit debacle of the past or the constant pinkwashing in stores throughout the year, I am sickened just knowing that people use this disease for gain – financial gain, name marketing gain, and to somehow prove that they are good because they somehow care by putting an add on TV or putting pink dye in the wash with the cotton tshirts.

I also take offense to it as a woman with chronic illness in general.  I have not had cancer, though the odds are high for me to develop skin cancer and it is a recurrent and ever-present fear.  I do struggle with my own autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses though and am faced with the same pernicious rhetoric that I should be tough and fight hard and smile.  I feel a kinship with your struggles and in the way we, especially as women are told to deal with them.

As I watch this ad, I think of my friends with intense chronic pain who are shamed for taking opiates because they are somehow not strong enough.  I think about each needle prick throughout the day as I give myself insulin to survive and how I’m not allowed to ever admit that sometimes it hurts, and sometimes the Lantus burns.  No.  I have to smile – and if possible, not show anyone I’m doing it at all because needles offend people’s sensibilities.  I have had to subject myself to countless procedures and surgeries and tests and scans as many with cancer have and because of rhetoric, or even just the images, propagated by ads like this, I feel I’m weak if I show the slightest sign of fear or sadness or pain or anger.

I think of all of the women with chronic illness in any of its forms – physical and mental and the damage this “tough girl” idea does to us all.  Sure we want to be “strong” but sometimes strong is being vulnerable.  Sometimes strong is not holding in the vomit so no one can see it or going to the bathroom to take my shots so it will make someone else feel better – it’s acknowledging that I have real and true feelings that are my own and NO ONE needs to tell me what they are, how to feel them, or how to show them.  No one needs to yell at me or shame me.  No one needs to tell me to smile.

As a woman in general, there are constant pressures to not act “moody”, to think positively.  We have to be tough but not too tough to seem angry because we have to prove how pretty we are with an ever present smile.  And we are judged if we are anything less than the ideal. Constantly and unrelentingly judged. We are hit with that message in subtle and not so subtle ways every day regardless of whether we have illnesses or not.  We don’t need that pressure from each other as is put on showcase here. Women don’t need to yell at each other to be stronger, better, smiley-er.  Women need to support each other.  Scream FUCK YOU, CANCER!  SUCK BALLS, PAIN!  together – not at ourselves but at the very things that are hurting us.  Or we need to cry and feel broken because we are broken.  Or we can laugh with each other at the ironies and macabre humor found in dark moments.  We need to be WITH each other not yelling at each other, or at our selves, because we’re supposed to be tougher.

I’m tired of using illness for others’ commercial gain.  I’m tired of “awareness” that isn’t about awareness at all.  I’m tired of being a woman in this society constantly judged.  I’m tired of a society that thinks it’s okay to have women yell at each other to be stronger rather than lean in to the realities together.  I’m tired of being told what my feelings should and shouldn’t be.  I’m tired of smiling and of putting on a “brave face” when needles are shoved down my spine while I lie unsedated, aware of every moment and how very alone I am.  I’m tired of not saying “son of a bitch” when I push that lantus into my arm every morning. I’m tired of pretending it’s okay so no one else has to see the ugly parts.  I’m tired of commercials like this and all the ways they misunderstand disease, fighting, being a woman, and just being human.

I’m glad you wrote this.  I’m glad others are calling out Ford for this bullshit.  I hope you know that I’m standing with you and with other women to feel our feelings and express them as we need to – without judgment or agenda.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaking out is what it means to be tough for me in addition to the million ways I deal with disease, poverty, ignorance, and mental pain every day – both with a smile and without.  I don’t need anyone to yell at me to tell me what it means to be tough, so please don’t.


2 Responses to Don’t Tell Me What it Means to Be Tough

  1. […] Erin Gilmer followed up with some thoughts of her […]

  2. […] of fighting to get by and advocating for others. That this anger may be justified and a sign of just how tough I really am.  You would understand that my nature to question, to be critical, to insist we do better is not […]

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