The first woman I remember watching was my stepmother. Not that I wasn’t aware that my mom was a woman, too, because of course I was and of course she is, but when you are 9 years old, you might not be able to reconcile the fact that your mother is her own woman too, and not just your mom. So when I watched my stepmother show up in her skirts and high heels and perfume, when I watched her put on makeup in the car (always with a steady hand even if we were on the freeway), and when I watched her shop for clothes for herself and for my sister and me, I did so with the childlike notions that this was how a woman was.
In my teen years, the minute I could, I went through a phase where I wore entirely too much makeup and wore bras that pinched at the seams. I relished in the newfound freedom of being able to buy and wear cosmetics, but for some reason, it didn’t give me the kind of joy and ease and sophistication that I had associated with my stepmother’s womanhood. (It never occurred to me that you cannot buy femininity in a tube, try as I might otherwise). Frustrated, I then decided to do the exact opposite: I did nothing at all. I eschewed makeup altogether, not because my skin was particularly good — it never has been — and I opted for sports bras over underwire, even though I did not play sports. I favored sweats and jeans and rarely wore dresses. I wanted to want to be feminine, but being feminine in the prepackaged, conventional idea is time-intensive. And I was not all that interested in spending my time in something that did not feel natural.
I was, after all, still a teenager. I was not very comfortable in my own skin, no matter which way I painted it or dressed it up. I was busy battling with all the aches and pains of puberty, and I had no interest in finishing the transformation into being a woman and dealing with everything that I thought came with.
As a teenager, I would look at photos of models in magazines, women pared down in just the right places to just the right amount of space, and find myself lacking. I’d see their dresses, their heels, their makeup, and the untold work of the countless unseen people that went into these two dimensional photographs, and I’d feel like I didn’t measure up. I’d open my mouth, say something crass, something opinionated, something that clearly sounded like a thought I’d come up with all my own, and was told to be quieter, to be more ladylike, to not say that. People told me to wear more dresses, to wear more skirts, to keep my hair long, to try to maybe lose weight but also to try to keep my curves.
I know they were trying to come from a good place, really, that they were trying to coax me to embrace some sort of femininity and womanhood that was in line with the one society seemed to want for me. But I didn’t want to embrace it, because I felt like there was nothing there for me. That no one was ever good enough for the constant societal demand of more-more-more, not my friends and not my mother and curiously, not even my stepmother, the person after whom I modeled my first ideas of being feminine. But that was a woman’s burden, I supposed, and maybe if I ignored it completely, I’d avoid the responsibility. But still, I felt like there was something wrong with me for that.
Being a woman is hard sometimes. I didn’t know what I want out of my womanhood — sometimes, I still don’t — because I’d always been far more worried about just functioning as a person for starters. That always seemed important enough a thing to do: to be nice, to be kind, to be conscientious and courteous and ambitious without belittling other people. To be a person was a thing anyone could do, man or woman or boy or girl or anything in between. It was a challenge, but it seemed like a doable one. Yet the challenge of being a woman seemed to involve constant scrutiny from your parents and your peers and boys and fellow women and men and random strangers on the street who watch as you pass and think they have a right to look at your body and all the space it takes up. It seemed to involve being on edge, knowing that some people will want to police for how you think, and for what you say. It was presented to me as a challenge in which you could never fully leave your body, because either you are too sexy and have used your body to get ahead, or are not sexy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, altogether not enough.
Because womanhood as we know it to be is this highly curated thing that we perceive as an ideal. It is no longer just the act of being physically or mentally or legally or spiritually a woman. It is femininity and cultural stigma and stereotypes and milestones and glass ceilings and motherhood and empowerment and Having It All and a little bit of misogyny sometimes. Even still, it is a little bit of that. And it is also the pressure to be beautiful, though that can seem like an afterthought, like a small issue in the grand scope of things, and yet we take this on, too. After all, we are human and it is only human to be drawn to things that are naturally beautiful. It is easy for a 9 year old girl to gawk at her stepmother and want to look like a magazine model. Because these are beautiful things, and they are very real — and there are even fun things about toying with appearances. It is not bad to want to look pretty, to give yourself an ego boost if you so choose. But one cultural standard of beauty isn’t all there is to being a woman, and to get hung up on appearance is to miss all of the potential that lies within just being a person, for starters, whatever your outer wrappings.
Over time, I found that how I dressed up my outsides didn’t change the person I was inside. A skirt is a pair of pants is a dress is leggings. It’s just something to wear, and if it makes you feel good about yourself, then all the more reason for you to wear it. I realized that lipstick does not change the fact that a smile should still come from the heart. I learned that I liked heels, even if I could not walk in them, and that red nail polish made me feel powerful, and no matter what kind of jeans I wore, there was no masking my butt. There was no getting rid of it, either; mine is a body that was meant to have a butt. Some bodies are just built this way. (Which is also not to say that you’re no less of a woman if you don’t have a butt.) What’s more, I learned that actively rejecting my body wouldn’t get me anywhere — I still had to wear a bra and deal with raging hormones every month and dodge the stares and comments of strange men on the street. (Because the thing of it is, they don’t care how you’re dressed or what your body looks like if you’ve even showered recently. If you are a woman, you are fair game.) But these strangers also don’t get to make me feel like less of a person and more of an object if I don’t let them.
Because try as outsiders might, the only person who can define you — or your womanhood, or your manhood, or anything anywhere in between — is yourself.
The other night, I was walking home from dinner with a friend, a warm and funny girl who is just as self-contained and self-realized and self-actualized a human being as you could ever hope to be. I’m lucky to know women like that, who just know who they are. It was cold, and I shoved my hands in the pockets of a jacket that looked like I might have stolen it from a boyfriend, my baggy jeans rolled above heeled boots. I hurried, because I’m better at running in heels than I am at walking in them, no matter how unladylike that may be. And with every footfall on the sidewalk, there was a wonderful sort of power and presence. I caught my reflection in a store window as I went, and realized that there, staring back at me, was a woman. I had little interest in the act, but it turns out I’d grown into one all along. It was also there that I’d realized I’d grown proud of the person staring back at me. Because that is who she was. A person first, who just happened to be a woman. And there’s nothing wrong with being either, and even with reveling in being both.