I am not sure when my ideas about womanhood wrote themselves on my being. Likely it began when I was young, born in the sermons of the Pentecostal church my family attended: “Make up is not a sin,” one pastor told us, “But you want to paint the barn not decorate it.” In those moments, I learned that women were not only objects to these men but objects meant to look pretty but only so pretty. I grew up with a powerful female matriarch and her five daughters. But even she submitted to the male leadership in our church. My mother raised us alone but her yearning for my father made it impossible to feel like she was the strong queen of our little home. At some point, I started to fear being a woman. Right before I started my first period, a male friend, taunted me about my budding breasts. Furious, I jumped off my BMX bike tackling him to the ground. I punched him a couple of times and ripped his coat before the other boys pulled me off.
Later that fall, I started my period. I put away my bike along with a lot of other things. I put away speeding down a dirt trail towards a homemade ramp, sailing off the edge and up the gully with the wind pushing against me. I gave up learning new tricks to impress my friends. I also gave up sports. Running. Baseball. Basketball. I took on make-up, clothes, and romance novels. Not all the new things were bad. Later, I came to love make-up and the drama I could create with it. Even the romance stories lead to some amazing fantasy books which gave me images of strong women who loved because they choose to love. But still somewhere in me existed a girl who loved to run, bike and jump. Who climbed trees so high she felt dizzy. Who had scars from bike tricks gone seriously wrong. A girl who could play with Barbie but be covered in mud an hour later. Before my period, these things did not make for inconsistency. My world included dolls and bikes; crushes on Michael Jackson along with loving a game of pick up baseball.
Only much later did I remember how good it felt to run my body to exhaustion. In my thirties I began to exercise again. I loved lifting free weights and running set me free in many ways. Recently, I started to think about getting a bike again and indulging my old love of trail riding. How sad that I forgot the joy of being athletic, I mused one day after a good run. A week later I joined a belly dancing class which appealed to my desire to move but also stirred in me an ancient feminism. As I laughed my way through some awful hip movements on my part, I remembered that ten year old girl. I remember that she loved many things and didn’t label them as boy/girl. They were just the things she loved to do. And I wondered how she lost her way.
When my oldest daughter started her period, we didn’t make a big fanfare. I took her on a trip to get chocolate and pads. We talked about how long it would last (she totally grimaced when I mentioned this would happen throughout her life), what to do for cramps, and more importantly what this meant for her. “Do I have to be a woman now?” she asked, tentative. “No,” I said, “of course not. You’re still a tween. A kid.” She smiled relieved and I hesitated about what to say next. I didn’t want my lovely girl to be fearful of being a woman. I didn’t want her to give up ideas of self to some imaginary image.
“What do you think it means to be a woman?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled, “Like I have to wear make-up and dresses and like boys.”
“Well,” I said, “Do I wear those things all the time?”
“No,” she admitted.
“And I like boys and girls but I’m also a lot older than you. That may come and it may not. It’s okay either way.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Being a woman is something that is up to you to define for yourself.” I continued. “You get to make some choices in what that will look like for you. And the good thing is that you have a lot of years left to figure that out.”
I know my daughters do not view womanhood as I did when I was young. Neither their father nor I, ever imposed an idea of gender onto them. My children had wars between lined up dinosaurs and neon colored ponies. They loved Star Wars as much as “Mulan.” They didn’t make distinctions and as they grew older that continued with their love of manga and anime. They listened in as their father and I discussed cultural constructs of gender; conversations which no doubt made little sense to them at the time but still shaped their ideas of how the world works. As my oldest daughter grows older, I watch as she navigates these ideas of gender. She still wears “boys” clothes, cargo shorts being her newest love (“I can store all my things in these pockets!” she exclaimed upon taking over a pair of her brother’s outgrown shorts.). She pierced her ears and loves earrings. She wore a dress to a dance but no make-up. She’s cosplaying a boy for Halloween. I love how fluid she sees gender. And in her joy, the sad twelve year old me finds freedom; not just in my daughter’s freedom but in my older self-putting on sneakers for a run in the rain.
[[A light skinned person sits facing the camera on a concrete brick wall, thier feet dangle above the ground. It is outdoors in the daytime. We see the person from the waist down. They are wearing a white t-shirt and jeans with shredded large holes at the knees and a red plaid shirt tied around their waist. Their hands are resting on their knees. Their nails are painted white and they wear white canvas sneakers. ]
I must admit, I’m a bit jealous at our children’s freedom in navigating gender with a fluidity our generation didn’t even imagine when we were young. It’s so free and beautiful. I’m glad we can learn from them as well as them learning from us.