The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent three weeks studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria. Like a lot of other students who go abroad, I used being on the European continent as an excuse to travel around by myself before and after my program. I thought it would be this magical, transformative journey where I'd learn a bunch of Important Shit about myself (I was 20, LOL) and discover the true joys of being a fully independent young woman.
That's what I'd been led to believe by all those aspirational, viral internet essays that assholes who study abroad (me) love to share with their friends. The experience felt like one that's practically vital for anyone who can afford the extreme luxury of taking off to Europe for two months. Traveling all alone seemed especially vital for my development as a young woman, a bracket of society that's often unfairly portrayed and criticized as too dependent (young men, of course, are independent and self-sufficient by the very nature of their male-ness). The fact that so much internet space is dedicated to lists about why women should do shit alone, what it really means to be a stay-at-home mom, or why it's OK for women to be the breadwinner in the family, means the general assumption is that women, by default, are dependent. If women were independent enough on their own, all this discussion wouldn't have to exist.
Getting to see places like Budapest and Paris and Lyon was incredible. Walking down Parisian streets and staring at rivers atop bridges was lovely. And, just like the happy essays said I would, I learned a lot about myself as a young woman. But the most important thing I learned in the end was that, in reality, it fucking sucks to do a bunch of cool shit all by yourself. It sucks to travel alone and see some of the most beautiful places in the world without anyone who you can turn to and say, "Dang, this is pretty." I didn't feel a ton of personal satisfaction when I managed to get through minor tragedies like being pickpocketed in Paris or getting bedbugs in Budapest without any help, because there was no help to be had. I felt so alone, I spent most of my time watching other people interact in languages I couldn't even understand. When I got home, I wrote a shitty essay for class about how I felt a kinship with the backpack (an inanimate object) I'd carried with me.
Traveling independently didn't make me stronger, or sexier (I had a very good tan but whatever), or more independent, or empowered. It made me realize that I'm actually the sort of person who needs people from time to time, that the goal of total independence is really just a (pretty sexist) myth, and the reason there are other people in the world aside from you is because people require other people. It doesn't make you weak, it just makes you human.
Maybe I just read too much into all the essays and coffee mugs and preachy blog posts about the virtues of being alone. But it's hard to digest all those messages coming at you a million miles an hour from every direction when you're young and trying to parse out what it means to be a Good Woman in the world.
I think that everyone — men and women — should be able to handle self-sufficiency. There are certain things all healthy people, regardless of gender, should be able to get through by themselves. Spending time with yourself is valuable. Knowing you can solve problems on your own, if need be, is a nice thing. I'm incredibly here for women in particular having a Fuck-Off Fund because the simple facts of women being underpaid and breakups being expensive are still a pretty shitty reality.
But the thing that took me a very long time to admit to myself was that needing people does not make me weak. Something that sounds stupid aloud but is true and worth saying: human beings are full of nuance and independence is something that ebbs and flows depending on where you're at in life. This is true for everyone. Even Beyoncé, who's released songs like Independent Woman Pt. 1 and Diva, but also songs about how she loves her husband "more than this job," because enjoying even her level of success alone would be a shitty alternative to enjoying it with someone else.
Be careful how you apply advice on being alone or independent to your own life. Know that these words have fluid definitions that aren't One Size Fits All Women. Know that feeling like you're happiest when you're around other people doesn't make you weak or dependent, it makes you a person, which is what you are (sorry, I know, it's terrible). The most ~*~feminist and sexy~*~ thing you can do, actually, is figure out how to identify things that you can and should do by yourself, and things you shouldn't be ashamed to ask for help with. Anyone who says you're weak for needing things is bad and wrong.
When I got home from my study-abroad trip and readjusted to being able to fucking socialize again, I spent almost every remaining minute of that summer with friends. When I went through a pretty rough breakup a few months later, I leaned on friends and on my mom and didn't even try for a second to get through it alone, which is what I definitely would've tried before. No one criticized me for it, and I didn't feel weak or stupid — I just felt lucky to have people around.