Learning to be a woman

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of my own gender. Of what society believes is associated with it. Of the body I was born into. Not because I feel as though it was the wrong one, but because it represents how others see and treat me. Looking in a mirror, I don’t see a personality. I see tags, hooked on through personal experiences and continuous bombardment from (often conflicting) socio-cultural messages about what it means to be either gender. Laurie Penny puts it far better than I can:

“For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever…Women. Men. Boys and girls. The words don’t change but the resonance does, and what it means to call yourself one of those things in the twenty-first century is something very different from what it meant in the last century and what it will mean in the next. Being a woman, or being a man, requires effort, attention, the suppression of some parts of your personality and the exaggeration of others. When Simone de Beauvoir said that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ she was bang on, but I prefer Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, reminding us that ‘That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.’” – Excerpted from “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” by Laurie Penny.

I’d got used to telling myself that “women’s issues” didn’t concern me (bear with me on this one). The ongoing debates seemed way over my head, with women far more intelligent and informed writing thought-provoking blogs and articles and tweets. How could I possibly fit in? I’ll admit now, I’d also bought into the man-hating side of things, the strange self-love/loathing that seems to permeate certain discussions about women’s rights. Which is it – do you want to be men, against them, for them? In the end, I’d shut my ears to the noise.

Until this year, and then mostly through reading my Twitter feed. I’d had no idea, for example, that such terms as “male sexual entitlement” and “male privilege” existed (much less how these could be made relevant to my own life.) That’s the beauty of social networking. Information has a way of filtering down, through blog entries and articles friends’ personal accounts, hashtag memes like #YesAllWomen, until it’s not just describing someone else’s life –
It’s describing your own.

Turns out I hadn’t been so much disinterested in feminism, as afraid to confront the truth about my inbuilt beliefs, my place in the world, and relationships with people of both genders. There are days when I’ll wake up afraid, presenting a prickly spine and bad language to anyone of the opposite sex who so much as dares to glance my way. This sort of mentality helps no one, since it means I’m tarring male friends and strangers with the same loaded brush, giving no one a chance to prove themselves capable of treating me like an individual. What happened before shouldn’t define me today, but it’s easier said than done. When it happens over and again, with a different perpetrator each time, you start to wonder if things will ever change – or if indeed, it’s something inherently wrong with your own character and/or appearance.

Veronica Roth said in her book Divergent, that “becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”

Well, here’s my fear. I look like a woman again. And I hate it; I hate being afraid.

I see a body that’s almost recovered from anorexia nervosa, with a healthy/sustainable weight for my age and height. It’s taken a long time to get here, and even longer to knuckle down and recognize what lies beyond the restriction/compulsive exercise symptoms, which took up much of my thinking. A lot of the reasons behind the illness can be traced to a need for routine in a rapidly-changing world; everything went to hell in 2001. But I’ve had to confront something else, not easily discussed even with close friends. I’m afraid of upsetting people, of saying something wrong, but the fact is, I can’t deny what’s been going on in my head for over a decade.

I feel vulnerable and soft as a woman, as I did post-hospital, when I’d been built back up from starvation levels. I went to the gym on the doctor’s recommendations, though it should have been more to do with rebuilding crucial bone structure than toughening up. I’ve used exercise to whittle myself into something androgynous; the message being ‘untouchable’, in the able-to-defend-myself sense. It was as much to do with self-denial and control over pain – feeling nothing – as reducing bodyweight. I thought it would make me safer, to appear and act less feminine.
Which just goes to show how long I’ve subconsciously bought into the idea that my gender is ‘vulnerable’ – and then, based mainly on experience.

When men in the gym stop what they’re doing to watch me exercise, I want to run away and hide. I can’t figure out if it’s to with my wearing shorts and a strappy top (because I get hot) or because – shock horror – a woman is lifting weights. I’m not putting on a display for anyone’s benefit. I’m trying to lay down crucial new bone minerals to ward off osteoporosis; I’m enjoying the rhythm of sets, and running because I love the feeling of freedom.

I’ve been the trophy girlfriend. The fuck-buddy. The little girl, the waif. Now I’m trying to find myself as a woman, while struggling to control a horrible rage that would burn each and every relationship I have to the ground, if I let it happen. It’d be too easy to isolate myself because of comments about my face and figure, as though these were commodities I happened to put on display.

My gender is reflected in the eyes of the men who at various points in my life, have felt it their right to use me for their own gains; to control my body and voice. To make me ashamed of my appearance and my mind, as though whatever I have grown into is an accessible right of others, and if I dare to refuse to play along then I’m causing trouble. Being naughty. An obnoxious cow. Huffy. Stuck up.
Those are just the words I can remember.

But you know what? I’m getting well anyway. I’m starting to eat according to what I want, not what calorific contents tell me will happen to my body. I’m trying to do things that I once shunned for being “girly”, in case they tore up my “don’t you touch me” image. I have to face up to my own beliefs, unknot them, and let them go; otherwise, I’m just part of the problem. With this new-found health, I’m able to think more clearly about all sorts of topics and issues. I can form opinions and move from one point to another, in a way that was denied to me before when it the rat-tunnels of an eating disorder. These advantages keep me going, when it seems that the sudden arrival of long-buried memories and emotions will eat me alive.

As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “No one is ever owed sex – not when they’re nice, not when they’re domineering, not when they’re manipulative, not when they’re attractive, and definitely not just because they’re a man.” When men – some of whom I count as friends – have made me squirm with repeated comments about my physicality, it’s not just out of embarrassment, or the fear that they’ll do something about it – their words are leeching me of all hope that my intellectual abilities will ever be recognized and appreciated. I want to be remembered for my writing, for my opinions and ways of expressing myself; for my taste in music, or interest in graveyards and old musty books and geology. For any number of things that don’t include how my hair looks, or what film star I resemble, or what I’d be like in bed.

I want to look in the mirror and see a personality, not a body held together by perceptions of it. I know damn fine what will happen if I give in to that fear, and try to starve all the flesh off again, to feel “safe” and untouchable. Recovery from this eating disorder has been balanced between fear of what will happen to me if I don’t gain weight, and what might happen to me if I do. Which is just buying into the same bullshit that a female form = vulnerability. Availability.

So, why should my health be at risk because I’m terrified of looking like – no, being – a woman?
In the end, it’s only me losing out.

I know I don’t live in an adult body that’s grown and changed in its own right. I live in a diminished form of myself (slowly rebuilding), because I changed its course of growth, and subsequently, my future, based on fear of being myself, in as many ways as possible. I sent out a lot of mixed messages, and denied myself experiences. Whether it’s in a professional capacity or sexual advancement – just plain old fantasizing – I’ve felt myself to be “wrong”; that my wants and needs didn’t add up to what was expected of me as a girl/woman.

But if I want to be alone – to recharge my batteries, to read and write, to get on with things – I’m going to do it. Even if that makes me seem cold or aloof. I’m not about to play up to the ‘nice girl’ image, and no, I can’t be there for everyone. No woman should feel she must do all the running-around after people, and likewise, no man should feel he has to bear all of his problems alone, deny himself vulnerability. He should be just as capable of turning to male friends for support and comfort in difficult times, as female. But that’s a story for another blog.

Awareness is just part of recovery, of growing and learning how to be Yourself, without guilt. Without adherence to social/cultural/religious expectations, if these are going to cut off the light shining on as many facets of your personality as possible.

So I’ll post a couple more entries later, about challenging gender stereotypes/gaining equality, because it turns out I had more to say than I’d realised, and this was turning into a mammoth essay.

Cheers for reading.

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6 thoughts on “Learning to be a woman

  1. Great post!!!
    This topic is not going to be summarised in one or two posts. And with every post and feedback it will unravel more thoughts.
    Looking forward to next!

    • raishimi33 says:

      Thank you 🙂 You’re right; I realized when it’d gone over 3, 000 words that I’d be better off breaking things up into their own specific entries, rather than keep editing down to meet some kind of word count. I’m aware I do write long-reads, and want to make my thoughts a bit more accessible for everyone.

      Plus it just means I can devote more time to details with each entry.

      Thanks for reading

      • Amira K. says:

        Fantastic, Rachael. You and I are so alike, sometimes it’s a little frightening – like seeing a mirror image across the pond. When I wrote that blog post about body image in April, I was suffering from the same things – fear of femininity, fear of womanhood, fear of having hips and breasts and thighs that might be able to carry a child. I didn’t want any of it. I still don’t, in a lot of ways.

        I, like you, like the protection that androgyny offers. I like the independence that being thin and strong and somewhat young-boy-looking offers. I don’t like to look like a proper woman because that means vulnerability, as you’ve pointed out. It means weakness.

        But I’ve come to accept (though I have to consciously remind myself on a daily basis) that strength and femininity can exist in the same space, in the same body. That I can be powerful and still look like a woman. That I can be unafraid and still be feminine. It’s been a hard truth to accept, and lot of days I still have to fight my ingrained biases against my own idea of myself.

        I’m very proud of you for writing this post, and gratified that you did so, because you’ve shed a lot of light on a challenging subject that is, so often, an impossible mess of stereotypes and lies. Thank you.

  2. anniehp says:

    Like the comments above, this post has had a big impact on me. So powerful and thought provoking.

    A part of me not getting better for so long was to do with a fear of becoming a woman and all that meant. There were so many social pressures of what that meant and they weren’t things I felt capable, or ready to do. As I’ve moved further on in my recovery I’ve begun to accept that being a woman is about what I want to make of it. I do think the recent wave of feminism has helped. Awareness it is about women rights, not burly, unshaven women demanding things.

    Thank you for this post.

    • raishimi33 says:

      No worries – and thank you for speaking up. Feminism … it’s one of those things I wish I’d looked into sooner, to feel stronger inside. But you’re right, it’s awareness (by degrees) and, like growing up, I think you have to be at a certain point to respect the movement for what it is. I think a few years ago I would have had a harder time grasping the gender-equality bit. I was still too angry and unwell. But I want the best for men/boys too, for them to learn how to treat women as humans, with humanity – and for women to let this happen, without unnecessary bashing and ridicule.

      I guess in the end, we’re all still growing into ourselves x

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