When Shauna Ryan was given a challenge last year, little did she know it would lead to a project that’s now inspiring and empowering women around the world. She was challenged by a friend to take photos of 40 “strong women” within seven days. “After three days I realised what a huge task it was,” she says. “Nevertheless, I kept focusing on the goal. I approached not only my friends but women I’d never met. By the end of the week I’d photographed 55 women and noted their stories, and in the months that followed I received lots of positive feedback from people who’d been inspired by the stories. Many of them wanted to share the story of a strong woman in their own lives.”
And so Project Strong Woman was born—a platform where stories and images are posted on social media to inspire and empower women. Whether they’re a CEO or an artist, a cancer survivor or a single mum, the project celebrates women from all walks of life and sees beauty in every story.
Through this project Ryan has discovered just how many women are struggling with low self-esteem. “As women we can be so hard on ourselves,” she says. “We’re so quick to belittle ourselves, downplaying our stories and self-worth.
“When someone asks us ‘How are you?’ most times we respond with ‘good’—even if we aren’t! I think as women we fear authenticity or transparency because it may reveal us as weak. As women we need to start having honest conversations with each other. Then we can support one another in the ways we need; and we’ll see a community of strong women.”
Indeed, the project has helped Ryan confront many of her own self-doubts and insecurities. “I’ve always been very self-conscious of my physical appearance,” she says, “and as a child was bullied all the way from first grade to high school. I think from there I just developed a pattern of self-doubt, which I carried through to my adult life—never feeling smart enough or pretty enough.”
Ryan said that she’d built walls to keep people out of her business. She’d always been a nurturer and a fixer, but she didn’t appreciate others doing the same for her. So it wasn’t until recently that she had some very honest and confronting conversations with some of the people who love her. “They helped me break through those ‘walls’ I’d put up,” she says. “Harbouring years of self-doubt and low-self esteem was exhausting, but really being able to call out these issues and then work on them directly was been huge.
“It would be foolish for me to claim that I’ve gotten entirely over my low self-esteem and self-worth, but I’m certainly much more confident and self-loving now than I was even a few months ago. Stepping back and seeing myself the way others see me has been a big part of the change.”
Ryan believes that one of the most powerful things people can do is to share their story with someone else. She says, “To me a strong woman is one who’s aware and confident of who she is, comfortable in her journey, and who sees beauty in her story. In today’s society it’s pretty unusual to be able to facilitate these positive conversations with strangers, but I hope it can become more common.”
Starting Project Strong Woman has been an enormous leap of faith for Ryan, a Christian who felt called by God to take on the challenge. It led her to walk away from a steady job at a time when she had no savings in the bank!
“I definitely feel that God has called me to this,” she says. “I’ve worked as a travel agent, an event coordinator and a teacher; and while I loved my time in each of those jobs, I never felt that it was my core purpose. It’s only since starting Project Strong Woman that I’ve felt the deepest sense of peace and calling on my life.”
Choosing to step out in faith and leave her job has proven to be the most terrifying thing Ryan has done, but she says it’s also the most rewarding thing. She’s had many people, both friends and close family, really question her decision, but knowing this is exactly where God wants her to be is all the affirmation she needs. She relies on prayer and conversation to keep her focused.
“Finances are my biggest headache,” she says, “but I continue to trust that God is leading me on the path that was specifically paved for me. And so far He has been faithful, and this journey just adds to my testimony. Also, the conversations I’ve had with my friends are honest and inspiring. I thank God that He has surrounded me with a solid group of friends and family who keep me questioning and keep me praying.
“A mentor once told me, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.’ I’ve found this to be profoundly true in working with Project Strong Woman.”
For more information on Project Strong Woman, visit the Project Strong Woman Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/projectstrongwoman.