When I was in elementary school, I thought it meant being picked first for kickball, even though I kicked like a girl. I thought it meant scrunching my nose and curling my lips when a boy wanted to kiss, and I thought it meant getting as dirty and hurt as the guys I shared recess with.
When I was in middle school, I though it meant playing basketball and volleyball and softball and running track. I thought it meant liking video games and heavy metal and acting more masculine than feminine. I thought it meant choosing Shop instead of Home Ec, and saying "no" to boys when so many of my friends were starting to say "yes."
When I was in high school, I thought being a strong woman meant going shot-for-shot with my male friends. I thought it meant guarding my virginity -- or, at the very least, hiding the fact that I had lost it. I thought it meant caring very little about my popularity, while simultaneously cultivating it. I thought it meant knowing exactly what I wanted to do once I received my diploma, and not allowing a boyfriend to influence my future plans.
When I was in college, I thought it meant experimenting sexually and with conscious fluidity. I thought it meant answering questions in class, but not too often and not with too much conviction. I was told it meant refusing to shave my armpits or legs, if only to fight a patriarchal society's view of femininity. I was convinced it meant fighting back against the social pressure to get married and have children.
But what I have learned, in my humble 28 years as a woman, is that being a strong woman means being unapologetically, fiercely and wholeheartedly you.
It means you like what you like, regardless of the gender we've attached to it.
It means you're not afraid to love football, even though you know people will assume it's to impress a guy.
It means you're not afraid to love ballet or makeup, even though you'll be typecast as a "girly girl," considered frail and weak for liking something society has deemed "feminine."
It means getting an abortion because you know it's the right thing to do, even though you're painfully aware a good portion of society will unequivocally hate you for it.
It means putting your child up for adoption, even though people will tell you that means you didn't really love them.
Being a strong woman means asking for what you deserve, even though you'll be called selfish and impatient.
It means fighting for the right to exercise a basic freedom, while your male counterparts chastise you for it.
It means wearing a short skirt and a low-cut top because you feel beautiful in both, knowing full well you'll be slut-shamed for it.
It means wearing a conservative turtleneck and slacks, even though people will call you a prude and a goodie-goodie.
It means refusing to apologize for having a voice and using it, even though you know you'll be called cold or cruel or a bitch.
It means speaking about the sexual assault you've survived, even though you know there will be people who won't believe you.
It means choosing to put yourself through an examination, even though rape kits are backlogged and convictions are few and far between.
It means abandoning the exhausting and often fruitless process of reporting your rape, because no one but you gets to decide how you recover from trauma. You'll be called selfish and weak, but you'll know what's best for you and the healing process you've chosen.
Being a strong woman means loving yourself when the rest of society says you're too big or too skinny or too dark or too tall or too short or too much or too little.
It means owning your sexuality and using it when you see fit, how you see fit and because you see fit, despite knowing people will judge you for it.
It means choosing to have a child out of wedlock, even though you're well aware people will think you're "stuck" or "irresponsible" or doomed to be a single parent forever.
It means refusing to list the reasons why you don't want children at all, because what happens in and around your uterus is no one's business.
Being a strong woman means deciding not to get married, even though you know friends and family won't understand why.
It means deciding to get married and proudly immersing yourself in tradition, because you shouldn't change what you want in order to somehow prove you're independent or self-sufficient.
It means not apologizing for having needs and voicing them, even though you know you'll be viewed as clingy or emotional or annoyingly dependent.
Being a strong woman means you're no longer looking for validation from a society that will constantly tell you to be something else.
It means defining your own strength, instead of adhering to a set of standards society has decided women must follow in order to be considered strong.
And now that I am no longer that elementary school girl, who thinks she needs to be picked first in order to be strong -- or that middle school girl, who thinks she needs to like what boys like in order to be strong -- or that high school girl, who thinks she needs to know it all in order to be strong -- or that college girl, who thinks she needs to go against the grain in order to be strong...
I can say that yes, because I have the courage to just be me, I am finally, unapologetically strong.