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A couple of years ago, I saw an ex-schoolmate on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.

My first thought was incredulity (“Is that really her?”).

My second: Admiration. After all, she was one of only 23 Singaporeans on the trade publication’s venerable list. Then came a third, traitorous, thought. A tiny inner voice wondered: “What am I doing with my life?”

It’s not surprising that young Singaporean women are taking charge and scaling greater heights in their careers and pursuits – from the arts to technology.

Campaigns such as #LikeAGirl are reversing gender stereotypes and inspiring girls around the world to become “strong women”.

In a social experiment conducted as part of a campaign by ad agency Leo Burnett for pharmaceutical giant Procter & Gamble, a group of people were asked how to run, and fight, “like a girl”.

Most of the participants – boys, men and women – behaved in a silly and overly effeminate way, reinforcing the negative stereotype that females are weak.

The girls in the group, however, reacted completely differently. They ran and fought as hard as they could. For them, doing something “like a girl” meant doing it as best as they could, with confidence and strength.

The campaign aimed to encourage girls to keep going in the face of setbacks, take on challenges, and strive higher. Essentially, to become a strong woman.

But what does it really mean to be a strong woman?

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When we think of strong women, we think of athletes like tennis giant Serena Williams, who won twenty-three singles Grand Slam titles so far, the most by any man or woman in the Open Era.

We think of leaders like Michelle Obama, who during her time as the US First Lady, captivated audiences with her powerful speeches and thoughtful campaigns.

Then, there is teen activist Malala. She advocated female education in Pakistani and was shot in the head for her beliefs. She survived and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 17 years old, the youngest ever Nobel laureate.

Closer to home, Singapore Paralympic swimming champions Teresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu overcame incredible personal odds to break world records in their respective categories.

But strength isn’t only shown in grand gestures or sporting records.

International Women's Day - Family
My mum and sister are one of my greatest pillars of support. Image source: Serene Leong

When I think of a strong woman, I think of my mother, who gave up her career after I was born to take care of my sister and me. I think of her as the primary caregiver of my late father and pillar of support for the family. I think of the daily sacrifices she made, as a wife and mother, to bring us up as the women we are today.

The problem is that we don’t usually think of ourselves as strong women.

Friends who are new mothers tell me they struggle to balance work and family, and often feel like they are not good enough. The hashtag #momguilt has been making its rounds on my feed.

Students continue to lament the increasing pressures of doing well in school and fear they will not be able to meet up to expectations.

But why are we so harsh on ourselves?

It’s as though we peg ourselves to an unrealistic standard of perfection to attain this ideal of a “strong, independent woman” portrayed on our television screens.

International Women's Day
Image source: Serene Leong

I believe that a strong woman is someone who isn’t afraid to make mistakes and admit she is human. She has her share of off-days where she ditches the to-do list and goes on a Netflix binge. Here’s the thing, the next day, she gets back up on her feet and tries again.

A strong woman accepts herself. She sees her flaws and shortcomings to recognise the good in her. She respects herself enough to know she is worthy of receiving love and in turn, giving love.

A strong woman defines her strength, instead of adhering to a set of standards society has decided women must follow in order to be considered strong.

A strong woman is independent, but knows when to ask for help and is willing to seek support from friends and family.

Above all, a strong woman is kind to herself. This builds resilience and increases her capacity to be kind to others.

Research has shown that people who are kinder to themselves tend to be happier and healthier, have less anxiety and depression, and better relationships.

A strong woman realises she is not better than others. She does not bring others down but celebrates with them when they succeed. She is confident yet humble, showing appreciation to those around her. She is able to see the good in others.

International Women's Day - Friends
Friends who journeyed with me through highs and lows. Image source: Serene Leong

As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I once thought I needed to be up there with the likes of “changemakers” or “most influential women” such as my ex-schoolmate to be successful (They, and many others like them, are in their own rights, artists, athletes, and businesswomen who are breaking barriers and contributing to improve the lives of others).

But I am none of those. And I may never be.

What is different now, is that I no longer look for external validation from a society that constantly tells me who I need to be.

I have the courage and kindness to accept that I am unapologetically me – stubborn and socially awkward – and to still boldly say, I am a strong woman.

And, chances are, dear reader, so are you.

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Top Image: Serene Leong