When I was a kid, being a woman seemed like some sort of secret, mystical state that one entered into when they were, say, 16 or 17. Like maybe I’d go to sleep an awkward adolescent kid and wake up graceful, beautiful, and smelling like Estee Lauder Youth Dew. Who really knew how it would happen? The whole process was shrouded in mystery. Women had secret rites round make-up and feminine hygiene products (seriously, worst phrase ever) and no one seemed willing to explain these things to me.
Maybe I was just supposed to intuit them.
I did not intuit much of anything.
The 1980s/1990s hyper-conservative world I grew up in was full of god-awful gender stereotypes and a stony silence around sex. There was only one way to be a woman in the world: pretty, made-up, and ultimately submissive (men were the head of the household. They always had to make more money and, ultimately, made all the decisions. Which was some bullshit and I knew it, even then). Oh, and I needed to be a virgin. For sure. Because why buy the cow, if you could get the milk for free? (Just typing that out makes me cringe. But it was gospel truth in my world)
Two things really crystalize who I was when I went away to college:
- I had no idea how to use a tampon at 18 years old. This became problematic when I got my period just as my best friend & I were about to head out to the beach. I told her I couldn’t go. She rolled her eyes so hard, she’s lucky they aren’t still stuck in the back of her head. She proceeded to stand outside the stall door and coach me through inserting a tampon, so we could go to the beach. How did that go? Well… I hemmed and hawed until she threatened to come into the stall and insert the damn thing herself. I figured it out real quick after that.
- When I was at Florida State, a young woman who’d been class president (or vice president or something of that sort) in high school came to me in all earnestness and asked how she was supposed to reconcile holding a leadership position with the call for women to be submissive. She’d gotten mixed up in our youth group right before she left for college. Obviously, we were a persuasive bunch. The most persuasive? The boys who had something to gain from all this submission bullshit. I don’t even remember what I said to her. But I knew, at that moment, that everything I’d been taught about women was a lie.
Three things happened around that time that further unveiled the mystery of womanhood, gender stereotypes, and my own body:
- I took a college class on Christianity. I thought it would be an easy A. I’d grown up in the church, after all. I knew things. Instead, that class upended everything I’d been taught in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, youth group, in sermons, on retreats… I’d been raised on a legalistic, self-righteous brand of conservative Christianity. And, for me, this class exposed everything I’d believed as a lie hellbent on manipulating me into fear and submission. And I was pissed. For years afterward, I wouldn’t even spell out Christmas (Xmas all the way, baby. I tend to be pretty hot or cold. So, when I was done with Christianity–for that go-round at least–I was aggressively done).
- I took a Women’s Studies class. Mystery = unveiled. Goddess religions? Yes, please. History that included women’s contributions as something other than a footnote? Hell, yes. Women as equal and powerful? I could not get enough. Truly. I realized I could be a woman in whatever way suited me. First decision: no more make-up. I’d been one of those girls who never left the house without at least eyeliner and mascara–but usually a “natural-looking” version of the whole shebang. The first time my father saw me without makeup, he inquired as to what in the holy hell could be wrong? Upon discovering that I was currently in a makeup eschewing stage, he informed me that women wear makeup. I didn’t put on a lick of makeup again for at least 3 more years. It was my own daily protest against the tiny, proscribed life that I’d been raised to lead.
- I started dating women. Here’s the thing: I’d always been completely awestruck by women. I just didn’t know there was anything I could do about that (no one said I wasn’t a little slow on the uptake sometimes). But when I realized that I could be in a relationship with another woman–honest to God, it was like heaven broke open. Everything in the world made sense. Angels sang. I wasn’t broken, I was a lesbian. This truth set me free in ways I didn’t know possible.
When, at age 34, I discovered I was pregnant with a baby girl–I had to start unpacking some of the complexities of being a woman real quick-like. I remember standing in front of the mirror, naked, right after I brought home this beautiful baby that looked so much like me. And I knew, right then, that whatever negativity I leveled at myself she’d hear as judgement about her own body. That was it: that was my moment of total release. I let it all go. All the body image bullshit I’d carried around, all the times I’d been nudged to be quiet, to not take up space, to just get along–I let all that shit go. And I finally set about becoming the woman I really wanted to be.
That’s what my baby girl gave me: the gift of being totally and fully myself.
While I know that the journey is just as important as the destination and all that jazz, I’d like my daughter to grow up with actual knowledge of her own body and an understanding that there are so many ways to live into being a woman.
There’s power and beauty in it. And there’s struggle, too.
I want her to proudly wear the Feminist badge (and to understand and live out a feminism that is truly intersectional). I want her to love, cherish, and understand her body–because it’s beautiful, and powerful, and worthy just the way it is. And I want her to know that she can love whoever she chooses.
But most of all, I just want her to be a open to the big, beautiful possibilities that her life holds.
No submission necessary.