I saw this powerful picture of 18-year-old Olivia Sasser on Reddit last week:
It’s powerful for many reasons. It’s art, really. Because everyone sees it differently. Everyone draws their own conclusions.
They certainly did when the photographer, Robert Smith, posted it on Facebook. And, at first, it was these reactions that drew me in.
Why did people assume the boys were villainous? Why did they assume she felt uncomfortable? Could not hold her own in this situation? (The answers to these questions are worthy of a whole other article.)
But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it, until today.
Until today, as I sat staring at the phone in my hand, a familiar cold chill wrapping around my spine.
I’d just sent an honest message to someone I love. Someone who also hurt me, recently.
I had to think carefully while I typed out my reply to their apology. I reread my words before sending them.
I remembered something I heard on a Brené Brown podcast. When someone apologizes, say, “Thank you for your apology.” Don’t say, “It’s okay.”
Because it’s not always okay. And I’ve been saying, “It’s okay,” my whole life. Even when it’s not.
More than that, I’ve been filling the awkward gaps, as well: after an apology, after one doesn’t arrive, after I say something I mean, something true, something I worry might upset someone else.
“That’s just my opinion, anyway.”
“Is that okay with you?”
“Just a thought.”
“Does that seem fair?”
It takes every ounce of backbone for me not to fill the space after I’ve spoken up. To practice resting in the silence. Not to soften my words, despite my burning impulse to do just that. To eat them up again just as fast as I have carefully laid them out on the table. Even though they were not unkind. Clearer, more honest than the words I have spent a lifetime cushioning.
It takes a conscious effort to put the phone down, to resist the urge to check for a reply. To fidget—mentally, physically, emotionally. To add another message to soften what I’ve said.
Later, as I’m settling into the rhythm of my workday, I watch a quick training video. One of our dear editors is in conversation with Waylon. She’s smart, outspoken, beautiful (the kind of inside-out sunshiney beauty Roald Dahl wrote of), a leader.
I watched as she dished this great, clear, concise wisdom. Then, as she added, “Anyhoo, I just figured I’d throw that one out there…” Nooo! Trust us women to undermine our own authority. To semi-apologize for having something noteworthy to say. We do it in our emails, in our Zoom meetings, in person, and we need to stop.
The girl in the photo, Olivia Sasser, popped back into my head. Specifically, her words about the controversial picture in an interview on the Mississipi Scoreboard:
Too often, as women, we feel compelled to fill the silence we have the right to claim.
No surprise, when we’re trained since birth to be polite, to put others’ comfort before our own, to smile, even when we want to bite.
Meanwhile, we clam up and hold the silence we have the right to break. In those same Zoom meetings, group chats, or personal moments of reckoning, we bite our tongues because we don’t feel worthy, or we don’t have the exact right words, or we don’t want to come across as aggressive.
It’s one of the hidden reasons for the pay gap: “Nice girls don’t ask.”
Many of us, in my generation and earlier at least, weren’t taught how to advocate fiercely for ourselves when we needed to. To sit confidently with the potential discomfort of that. We weren’t taught how to claim silence unapologetically for ourselves when we needed to. To stand boldly in the potential discomfort of that.
This is changing. Olivia is proof of that. So is my niece being called “domineering” and “bossy” by old-school kindergarten teachers who don’t yet understand that it’s these girls who will become the women who will lead the world one day. Who already are.
I still haven’t had a reply to my message, and that’s okay. I’ve said my peace, with love and self-respect and clarity.
It may have taken me nearly 40 years to learn, but this Women’s Day, I’m claiming my voice and my silence. And the wisdom to know when to use both.