“We equip girls with the skills to exercise the power of their voice.”
Last May, I was thrilled to be preparing for my third summer as a Girls Leadership Summer Program Staff member. Whether I was delivering morning announcements to a full cafeteria audience, leading discussions on anger or body positivity in workshop, or performing a Beyonce lip sync during staff talent night, Girls Leadership was the place where I felt liberated to use my full, booming voice. My greatest joy was in seeing campers find and use their own voices. As the incoming Director of Residential Life, I was busily preparing trainings for the residential staff and planning evening activities for the participants, all aimed at celebrating the power of our collective and individual voices.
Unfortunately, while I was looking forward to the summer with joyful anticipation, I was struggling to use my own voice in the present. For months, I had been plagued with pain in my right leg and hip. I quietly mentioned it to my yoga teacher as an aside, needing alternatives for poses that had previously been within my practice. I murmured a request for physical therapy to my doctor at the end of an appointment when driving and sitting at my desk had become painful enough to require daily pain medication. I hushed my friends’ concern when I developed a limp. I suffocated my voice by denying my pain and diminishing my body’s messages.
There were so many reasons, it seemed, to deny and silence my pain.
It wasn’t that bad. Tylenol and ibuprofen helped. The seat in my car must be causing it, get a lumbar pillow. The physical therapist I saw insisted that my IT band was suffering from the seated nature of my job. I needed to stand more, walk more, stretch more. The underlying message of these excuses was, “I’m too fat.” My fatness, I’d been told since puberty, in doctor’s offices, and in media, would be the ultimate enemy to my health. This shame-filled silencing of my pain was actually the greatest threat to my health.
My body was desperately trying to deliver a message: “I am in pain. I need attention. I am not OK.” I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, on the day I was supposed to arrive at Mount Holyoke for Summer Program in June 2017. A tumor had been growing in my right femur for some time, and I required immediate and intensive treatment.
On learning of my diagnosis, I couldn’t contain the power of my voice. Hearing the harsh reality of my diagnosis–the validation of my pain–I yelled, sobbed, and screamed. I said over and over, to friends and to family and to myself, “I have cancer.” I wrote lists of questions for my newly acquired oncologists and surgeons, and I asked every one of them. Acknowledging my pain reconnected me to the power of my voice. Though I didn’t get to spend Summer 2017 with Girls Leadership, I felt the power and importance of our work in this unique and trying circumstance.
We talk a lot at Girls Leadership about taking up space.
This is one of the skills we work to equip girls with, allowing them to exercise the power of their voice. To be physically, emotionally, and vocally present, rather than shrinking away. To teach this, we play games that make us look and feel goofy. We practice eye contact. We make noise and laugh. These games were always my favorite part of the day at Summer Program. Our voices live in our bodies, and games like WHOOSH! were often the key to unlocking even the quietest voices. Listening to our bodies is how we are able to take up space, whether it’s feeling the shape of the WHOOSH and giving voice to that or noticing and saying that our body needs attention.
Pain and fear can make us shrink, and this shrinking extends to our voice. I encourage you, even in times of pain or fear, to take up space. Give voice to your body’s messages rather than silencing them.