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  • Chealsea Wierbonski

Transcending Smallness (part 1)

Note: This post is written from my own perspective, which is that of a white, cisgendered, able-bodied woman. I would like to acknowledge that some of these perspectives may not pertain to women of cultures and communities outside of my own.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been bombarded with messages that equate femininity with smallness. I, like so many of us, have been force fed images of small and tiny women, usually touched up and photoshopped into unrealistic shapes and sizes. Most of the women in my family and peer group, including myself, have had a desire to be “small” (or smaller than we currently are) for at least some duration of our lives.

But these messages of smallness not only come as body ideals celebrated in the media, they also come as behavioral messages from parents, teachers, and our peer groups. Directives such as, “be nice”, “smile”, “don’t be loud”, “don’t argue”, “give your grandmother a hug”, and so on, while often coming from a place of good intention, align us with feminine ideals such as sweetness, passivity, humility, and being helpful and devoted. Essentially, these directives teach us to not take up too much space. Or in other words, more “smallness”.

“Small behaviors” are reinforced in the workplace when women are rewarded for displaying more feminine characteristics, such as being collaborative and easy to work with, while simultaneously being punished for displaying male characteristics, such as being too assertive or pushy. Nowhere is this disparity more obvious, than when women are passed up for promotions, especially at the executive level, because of our lack of “male” characteristics, such as leadership (aka assertiveness) or the perception that we are not able to take charge (aka being pushy).

With all of this positive reinforcement around “smallness”, it's no wonder that we can feel intimidated at work, speaking up in large meetings, or sharing our ideas. To make matters more confusing, we are told that we are living in the age of “women’s empowerment”, which seems to imply that we have the support needed to bust out of gender stereotypes, which certainly doesn’t align with these not-so-subtle messages of smallness.

We are living in a time where so many of us want to be strong leaders, make a meaningful impact, and have a larger presence in the world. Yet at the same time, we are being inundated with messages that reward us for being smaller. Not to mention in some cases, we even change our diet and exercise habits to literally make us smaller physically.

So how do we reconcile these two contradictory messages?

Over the last decade as I've explored this topic, I have found that there are a few key ways to do this.

First, we need to acknowledge that these messages of smallness exist, both within the world around us and within our own lives. We can't deny or ignore them, as much as we may want to.

Second, once you've acknowledged that these messages exist, try to identify where they may be coming from in your own life. In what situations do you typically feel “small” or “less than”? Are there specific people who trigger your “smallness”? Are there people who actually try to make you feel small intentionally? And, where are you being rewarded for being small?

And finally, once you've acknowledged the messages of smallness and identified where they are coming from, it's time to turn those messages around and make yourself feel BIG.

But how do we make ourselves big after years of being rewarded for being smaller?

Read my next post to find out!


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