On Being Tough

Culture

What makes someone tough?

I’ve been mulling this over in my head for a while now, wrote this before going on vacation weeks ago, but decided to post it finally…now.

Because, really, what deems someone as tough?

Is being tough implied through the way we dress? Is it indicated by how much we yell, perhaps boss others around or intimidate them, or refuse to follow rules? Is it by how loud we are, or how angry we get? Is it by how toned our muscles are, or if we listen to heavy metal?

I’m honestly not wondering any of the above questions, because I think those are all stereotypes of what being tough is. Like the girls in high school who thought being a tough girl only equated to wearing combat boots and low cut shirts, it’s a misconception brought on by misinterpretation.

When I was very young, I think I may have thought of tough girls as tomboys, or girls who could stare scary monsters in the face, maybe.

For instance, I really liked the characters Christina Ricci played at the time. Kat, in Casper, was not afraid of ghosts. Wednesday Addams was just delightful. She had a dry sense of humor, didn’t wear pink (like me!), and didn’t take crap from people. Then, it may have been third grade, when Now and Then came out, I thought Roberta was the bees knees. Her character made me feel less afraid to play sports during recess but, again, I was misguided. I thought if that one boy who thought he was super tough, because he would kick the ball so hard nobody could block it, could be taken down during soccer, it would make me tough. I blocked his soccer goals with as much might as an eight year old can, and his face would get beet red and purple as the soccer ball pummeled me in the abdomen. No internal bleeding! And I’d stopped him.

Did that boy just say girls can't play softball? Uh-oh.

Did that boy just say girls can’t play softball? Uh-oh.

All of this lead to some awkward moments. At one point, a girl asked me who my idol was. I didn’t really know what an idol meant. She said it was someone you liked, like an actor. So, since I liked Now & Then, Casper, and The Addams Family and Ricci’s characters, I told this girl that Christina Ricci was my idol. This prompted much teasing in my direction. The other girl said her idol was Will Smith, but whatever. He punches aliens in the face, so I guess that was cooler. And let’s not forget this.

When I was a little bit older, I definitely thought Buffy Summers epitomized toughness.

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Joss Whedon’s uproot of the blonde cheerleader trope still holds up, in my opinion. Sure, a cheesy teen show full of monsters at first sight, the show covered a wide range of topics, and turned the age old story of a vampire’s predatory attacks on young females into a steaming pile of poo.

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But, like Buffy or even Roberta, the question really is…what makes someone tough?

Did I ask this already? I suppose, but I’m interested in the making portion of this question.

When I was maybe six or seven, a boy in my class started bullying me. He would try to hit me during recess, with large branches around the playground or other sticks, slap me in inappropriate places in class (which I realize indicates a much wider problem here), and push me when we’d play tag outside. When my mom addressed our principal with this issue, he just told her, “boys will be boys”. I remember this very clearly.

So, it was ok for a young boy to try and hit me and slap me, but the girl who took my snack would be reprimanded? I look back at this now and think it was backward for our principal to say that he thought this was ok for a little boy to behave this way. My second grade teacher then took me out of the class to talk to me about it. She told me to tell her the second this boy came after me again.

My mom then had a talk with me about standing up for myself. I remember having a similar conversation with her when a girl I didn’t know randomly attacked me at a rollerblading rink when I was a kid. She told me that, of course, fighting is not good, but it’s important to defend myself if someone is hurting me.

A little while later, my class was playing tag again in the playground. This boy was tagged it and immediately jumped on me. Instead of just tagging me, he pushed me into the ground, poured sand on my face, and then covered my mouth. So I pushed him–hard. I may have hit him in the face, I don’t know. But I heard my mom’s voice telling me to stand up for myself. My fellow seven year old friends saw it and my teacher helped me. I don’t remember this boy being in my class or near me much after this.

Did something like this help me to become more tough? Sure. But I don’t think the act of pushing someone makes me tough. I think the act of standing up for yourself, and not being sorry, does. Though I do remember this year as being when I started to say “sorry” too much, and I think I still do. Amy Poehler actually sums this up quite well.

I say “sorry” a lot.  When I am running late. When I am navigating the streets of New York. When I interrupt someone. I say, “Sorry, sorry, sorry”, in one long stream […] but this doesn’t mean I am a pushover. It doesn’t mean I am afraid of conflict or don’t know how to stand up for myself. I am getting to a place right in the middle where I feel good about exactly how much I apologize. It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to feel sorry for. (from Yes Please)

I know this feeling all too well. For some reason, along the way, “sorry” became a knee jerk reaction. I have since used “excuse me”, or “pardon me”, instead. Not much better, but hopefully insinuating that I was not apologetic, but get out of my way/please explain again/I am going to interrupt you.

See what I mean?

Still, I can’t stand hurting people’s feelings, and I think this translates to “pushover” to some people. But I’m no doormat, and I’ve realized that my way of being stern didn’t always come across as such. I also find it interesting in another way. If you, like me, genuinely try to be nice to all decent human beings, take time to listen to people’s problems, etc, people may assume that you also can’t connect the dots, or are otherwise a little dumb. I’m not sure where this comes from, but I’m going to blame social media, where everyone complains for attention, and nobody expects to be questioned. Is that too cynical?

I think there have definitely been some situations in my life where people were surprised I didn’t behave in a more angry way. Sure, I have found a few moments that would have been perfect to throw a drink in someone’s face. If only the landing post for that drink actually read this…

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Some of the toughest people I know may seem quiet. They may be small, or friendly. Not at all someone you’d think of as a stereotypical tough guy/gal. Some of these people had really rough childhoods. Some of them have terrible diseases. And some of them have experienced horrific incidents. And they are what I call tough. They’re not mean, and they may not be loud unless they need to be. Some of them are dainty, or physically weak. All of them are nice and kind, warm people. And they kick ass.

I hope kids who are bullied recognize this, too, because I often misunderstood it as a kid, until maybe high school. Being mean is not tough, and often those who are cruel are actually much more weak than the people they target. I feel like this should be obvious, but maybe it’s not. I recently realized that someone I’d always thought I’d been kind and friendly to thought I was a weirdo back in the day, and I admit that it made me feel bad. I tend to wonder if my over-friendliness lends to some people thinking I’m awkward and weird. I can definitely be awkward. But it made me angry that someone had taken my friendliness in such a negative way, in such a way to make fun of me for it. But, in fact, I’d always thought this person was so afraid of their own image and following others to be cool, it’s kind of funny to me that he took my personality this way. At least I was ok with being myself, which is more than I thought he allowed himself.

Tough is not scary, and tough is not mean.

summer-glau-river-tam-fireflyWhat is it that made you tough?

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One thought on “On Being Tough

  1. A very thoughtful post 🙂
    I think, being tough is a lot to do with the mindset. As we grow up, there will less emphasis about abilities to kick soccer balls or standing up to bullies who take our lunchboxes. Instead… It is our ability to bend without breaking: to be unshakable by criticism, while staying true to yourself and being secure in your identity, without conforming to the demands of society. 🙂

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