What is the definition of “womanhood”? Any takers?
I am 21 this year, I just turned 21 last month. 21. Twenty-one.
I’m a woman. At least, according to social psychologists and the dictionary, and other professionals like doctors, and in the eyes of the government and the law, I’m no longer a little girl anymore, nor am I a “tween” or a teenager; I am a full-fledged woman, ready to go forth into the world and discover, explore and conquer, be it new lips to kiss or new books to read, in the full prime of my life, with rosebud lips and unwrinkled skin and high heels on my pretty, little feet.
Or say they say.
Today, I went to a wedding. It was a beautiful wedding, in a church, and there was a sermon and pastor; there was music and singing, vows were read and spoken; food and refreshments offered in an annex off the church, on long, huge tables, salmon canapes and sushi and finger sandwiches; and I had quite a pleasant, if not wonderful, time.
The whole entire time, however, new thoughts and revelations were whizzing through my mind like pinballs. First, I was suddenly surrounded by scores of beautiful women, many of them much older than me, 27 or 28, even in their 30s, all dolled up, dressed in finery and heels, earrings and necklaces, hairdos and rings. Not all of them were exquisite—that is only to be expected—but they all had this certain “grown-upness” about them, a kind of glamour and beauty that comes with age and experience and worldly knowledge, or perhaps is inborn, like a seed implanted in them when they enter the world and which blossoms and grows inside of them as the years pass.
They seemed so dazzling, so faraway, floating about in a world I couldn’t reach, speaking high-sounding words and laughing and interacting with one another like women in a fairytale, in a clique, in a secret club. In my pretty black dress with a lace bodice, and black flats, my hair done up in a bun, sitting in the pews near the back, I felt secretly very childish and small, like I was a little girl, masquerading as a grown-up, and doing a very poor job of it to boot.
The feeling worsened when the most beautiful woman I had ever seen sat behind me in the pew. I only turned around and glanced at her for a second as she sat down, but that second was enough: she was tall, elegant, her face gorgeous and perfectly-formed, her body willowy yet womanly, her hips curving within the confines of her tight-fitting blue gown. But it was more than her physical appearance that struck me like a slap across the face: it was the way she carried herself, her aura; she seemed to exist in a grown-up world of handsome men and suites in fancy hotels and champagne and cocktails, cigarettes and James Bond movies, sex and money. Everything I was not, she seemed to be. To me, she was the epitome of the exquisite womanliness a thirteen-year-old girl might bask in awe of, not a twenty-one year old woman already growing into her own bones and limbs, already starting on her own path in life. No, more: she was the popular girl in school, who always seemed older and more womanly than me, bolder, braver, more interesting, brighter, who captured the boys’ attentions and made the girls laugh. She was the kind of woman the tall, handsome men who populate the novels I read and write would find themselves drawn towards, like a moth towards a light. She would laugh, shining with her womanliness and sexiness, and they would be captured, just like that. I was just a little girl, watching from the sidelines—I had no hope of attracting the attention of a prince.
“Not all of them were exquisite—that is only to be expected—but they all had this certain “grown-upness” about them, a kind of glamour and beauty that comes with age and experience and worldly knowledge, or perhaps is inborn, like a seed implanted in them when they enter the world and which blossoms and grows inside of them as the years pass.”
I suddenly felt very, very small. Very small. Like I was a child, a stupid child, who didn’t understand the world of grown-ups and could be awed by her first sight of a true and proper lady in a fancy dress, her arm hooked with the arm of a man in a suit. I felt as if I hadn’t grown, not really, not in all my years, not since I was ten years old, or even eight. I was still a little girl, and somehow, other woman had grown up and left me behind. I was suddenly acutely aware of how grown-up and womanly some of the ladies around me were, with a pang of—of grief. Of hopelessness. They had babies, husbands. They had boyfriends, careers, taxes to pay and cars to drive. What’s more, they had the kind of womanly figures I’d always dreamed of having—elegant yet curvaceous, with just the right amount of femininity and sensuality. Meanwhile, I was small-chested and had barely any hips to speak of—I’ve always been rather gangly and thin, with not a trace of sexiness in my appearance, demeanour, body build, personality or mannerisms. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ll always be. A strange, imaginative little girl, building her own stories behind closed doors, dreaming of faraway lands and magical princes, thorns that grow when you speak to them and birds which talk and whisper to you their secrets. Maybe I was stuck, I thought, horrified, stuck in the world of my own mind, stuck in the imagination of a child’s, the thoughts of a child’s, and it had stunted my own growth somehow, made me into this strange hybrid of adult and child.
What makes a woman a woman? Is it her sensuality? Is it her marital status? Is it her maturity? Is it the width of her hips, the size of her cleavage? Is it a certain aura about them, that seems to speak of an understanding of men and all their wonders and quirks? I felt as if I was in high school all over again, standing on the other side of the window to the other teenagers, watching as they laughed and socialised, and I stayed quiet in a corner and buried my nose in a book. I felt left out, cheated, angry, sick. I wished I could slot myself amongst all those gleaming, beautiful women, laugh with perfect, painted lips, my earrings dangling and catching the light, perfume radiating from my hairless, glowing skin. I hated myself in that moment, hated my childish-looking body, my childish thoughts, my insecurity and inferiority complex—I hated myself, and wished I was grown-up and womanly with that air of glamour about me, like cigarette smoke, like sex.
I’m a little girl, I thought. I’m not a woman. This is a joke. Give me twenty years, fifty years, a hundred, and I’ll always remain a little girl. In my heart, I am a child, and physically, I’m thin and straight and flat as a board. I don’t have the femininity to lure men into my clutches and make them fall in love with me and my body. I felt wretched. Tears threatened to build in the backs of my eyes. What makes a woman? I pondered and thought. I wasn’t a perfume-radiating, high-heel-wearing creature of womanliness and beauty. I had no baby to rock on my knee and feed to my breast, confirming my womanliness. I had no man’s attention, lavished upon me, no strong arm wrapped around my waist, steering me as I walked through the world. I didn’t cook or clean very well, I didn’t sew (as outdated as these ideas might be), I had no group of laughing girlfriends, I didn’t have a career in some corporate office with eyeshadow on my lids and pencil skirts, I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse or a scientist or an artist or a singer or a teacher; I was just a writer, a lonely girl, tapping out her thoughts and imaginative worlds onto an electronic screen in an empty room.
“I hated myself in that moment, hated my childish-looking body, my childish thoughts, my insecurity and inferiority complex—I hated myself, and wished I was grown-up and womanly with that air of glamour about me, like cigarette smoke, like sex.”
But was that what it meant to be a woman? To be feminine, womanly, sexy? Is that the only definition of womanhood that exists? Babies and husbands? Careers and conversations revolving around housing prices? Pretty dresses and earrings and bloody perfume? No. There are different ways to be a woman. After thinking about it all day, to the point where my head hurt and I had to down some water and Panadol to stop the ache from splitting my head open, I’ve realised womanliness doesn’t necessarily revolve around curvaceous bodies and babies and men and perfume and high-heels and job stability and sexual experience. I’ve realised there are other ways to be a woman, because everyone is an individual and different. I dug deep inside myself, into the core of who I was, where the dark, poisonous wells of my self-loathing lay, and drew it out of myself and inspected it, ran it through a sieve, through a filter. And I realised something.
I’m not a “girl”. “Girls” don’t have the wisdom I do, to see into myself and the minds’ and hearts’ of others. “Girls” do not possess the kindness to want to plant trees all over the world and help people who are starving, or thirsty, or suffering from toothache, in some ugly, third-world community. “Girls” do not spend their waking hours painstakingly writing word after word after word to construct a book, a story, diving into otherworldly worlds like a fish. “Girls” do not realise a man who wants you for only your body isn’t a man at all. “Girls” do not write articles like this. “Girls” do not love animals enough to weep at the fact that they have to consume them for the sake of their health and nourishment. “Girls” do not listen to music as if they are drinking water after a long thirst, soaking in the notes and tunes, feeling them thrum and dance through their blood, weep at the sense of nostalgia, the feeling of yearning for someone or something you’ve never known, that rises in their heart at the sounds of certain songs. “Girls” do not watch films with a bittersweet feeling in their chest like a hard knot of bone and sinew, or lie awake staring into the vastness of themselves. “Girls” do not see their father and mother as flawed, unhappy humans with their own pain and inner worlds and lives and thoughts and feelings. “Girls” do not possess the heart that I do, that mind that I do, the spirit I do, and, yes, the body that I do. I may be flat and straight as a board in all the wrong places, but as far as I know, all the pieces are in working order and, if need be, I could birth a baby just as easily as the next woman.
“I’ve realised there are other ways to be a woman, because everyone is an individual and different.”
There is no one definition of being a woman, just like there is no one definition of being a human. We’re all marvellously intricate, special, unique, lovely and one-of-a-kind. We are who we are; we are ourselves; and that’s wonderful. We’re children of God. Our lives are blessings, our experience of the world gifts. When the time is right, someone will be attracted to me; when the right person comes along, in his eyes, I will be the most exquisite creature on the planet. But I don’t need the male gaze or the male presence to feel womanly, or to be a “woman”. The definition of womanhood is that there is no definition of womanhood, because womanhood isn’t defined by the world or society: it’s defined by the size of your heart, the maturity of your soul, your connection to life and the universe, and the strength of your spirit. And, in that case, I am most definitely a woman.