How I Became a Woman
…or How I Began an Endless Journey of Examining and Maybe Getting a Grasp On the Many Multitudes Within Womanhood and Personhood
I’m thinking about what it means to be a woman.
Recently I was with a friend — a guy friend – and I told him that I have PMDD. I explained that it’s basically an extreme form of PMS; once a month, my hormones go all out whack. He smiled knowingly and commented that it’s interesting that I called it an extreme form of PMS and talked about it in relation to my sex. “It’s a psychological condition. Anyone can have it, after all,” he lectured me, with a cocky smile. I smiled back. He was completely wrong, of course. But it was late, and we were speed-walking in the Chicago cold, and I had already expended most of my energy on searching the 7–11 for my brand of popcorn (which they didn’t have anyway), and we had Netflix to watch, and I just didn’t feel like arguing. “Well hormones are hormones. You’re right, we all have ‘em.”
My immediate reaction to my guy friend’s argument is feminist indignation. That is, of course, after bemusement at the complete scientific inaccuracy of it — it would be difficult for someone who does not have a menstrual cycle at all, as is the case with most men, to experience Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. But after the bemusement, comes a whole lot of indignation. How dare he take something as specifically and profoundly female as periods and try to claim it as something for men too? Doesn’t he know there is a certain pain to the feminine experience that he can never know? Do men have to take everything from us?
But, as I think about womanhood and feminism, I wonder if there is perhaps some merit to my friend’s argument. It is often valuable to find the universality in human experiences. In addition to my complete disinterest in arguing with him that night, part of me also kind of agreed with him… or at least wanted to agree with him. After all, if PMDD is something that we all can experience, if we all have hormones and raging emotions, then maybe we can stop marginalizing women and think of us all as simply people, rather than divided genders.
It’s easy to vacillate between the two sides of the argument, and I do… until I find some peace with my own personal definition of being a woman:
It’s “the balancing act of opening myself to the world while also celebrating in the worlds within myself.”
This is a line I wrote and performed one year ago as part of the Shmagina Dialogues at Wesleyan University, a student-written and student-performed response to the Vagina Monologues, in which we voiced our feelings about sex and gender. I talked about my own muddled definition of womanhood, about how exploring how I interact with the world has helped me to understand my gender and myself. It’s something I’m still figuring out, and happily exploring and reflecting upon with each interaction and reaction and thought every day.
Below is an edited and updated version of my piece from last year.
Trigger warning: assault, harassment
My name is Sarah. I’m 22 years old. I have a vagina. I am a human person. I am also a woman. This is how I became a woman.
Growing up, I never really felt like “a girl” or “a woman,” because really I spent so much of my time feeling like simply “a person.” I sat at the boys’ table in the cafeteria in third grade, not because I was an eight-year-old militant feminist, but because Brandon and Alex were my best friends and I wanted to sit next to them. I ran and jumped and sang and loved my body and was comfortable in my own skin and I didn’t think about how my vagina defined me. I was a person.
But as I grew, I realized that the world around me called attention to my gender in ways that I never had. Because I was a girl I was expected to act in certain ways. I listened when adults told me not to get my clothes dirty and I listened when they told me that the boys I had crushes on were supposed to chase me and not the other way around.
And then there was the time in junior year of high school that I took drivers ed. One Saturday morning, I sat in the middle backseat of the drivers ed car, squished between two girls who had just giggled as they forced our teacher to play the mix CD they made for him. Our teacher was a gruff man in his late 50s named Joe who had a habit of chewing cinnamon gum and commenting on the color of our hair. On this particular Saturday, he was asking us about our love lives. When it got to be my turn, Joe interrupted me before I had a chance to start talking and said, “You’re a really pretty girl, but if I were your age I would be too intimidated to date you. You’re just too smart for your own good.”
Just as I had listened to all the adults before him, I listened to Joe. I giggled my way through the rest of high school, patenting a style of flirting that was comprised of tossing my hair and laughing about how forgetful I was– even though I always remembered everything. Any time a man stared at me for a little too long, I stifled my fear and took it with pride, feeling like I was doing something right. The men who shouted from passing cars made me forget that my body was mine and not theirs. I began to feel like the presentation of my sexuality was the defining factor of my womanhood. And I allowed that womanhood to be defined by the value others gave me.
I now look back at my young, naïve 16-year-old self, even with the distance of a measly five or six years, and at first I feel sad for her. She gave all her power to the male gaze. But then I think about her more, and I just feel empathy for her. She was doing the best she could in a harsh world where she wasn’t yet strong enough to fend off the catcalls and unsolicited advice; didn’t yet have the power to remember that her body and her personhood belonged to her.
Freshman year of college, during a dry, hot afternoon, a man started to assault me, until someone else thankfully intervened. I felt scared and violated and my body vibrated with unwanted energy that I didn’t put there.
That night, I group of my friends and I camped out with greasy to-go dinners in one of our rooms. But at around 10pm, I decided that I was still going to go out that night because that’s what you do on a Saturday night and I was going to make this a Saturday night just like any other. I stumbled out onto the sweaty dance floor of the frat, still carrying the shaky residue of the afternoon. I started dancing with a guy, and then I started making out with this guy because that’s what you do on a Saturday night (at least for me, freshman year). This guy and I walked out together and passed by his dorm. “Do you want to come to my room?” he asked me. I paused and I stopped shaking for a moment. It occurred to me that it had been my choice to go out that night, and it was my choice to kiss him… and now it would be my choice to say good night to him and leave the night at that. It was a choice that reminded me that body belonged to me, not my attacker, not this frat guy, not Joe the drivers ed teacher, no one else. I went home that night feeling like not only had I started to reclaim the part of myself that had felt violated that afternoon, but that I had started to reclaim a sense of wholeness that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Now, when I think about being a woman, I think about confidence. I think about being comfortable in my own skin, my skin. I think about the oh so many multitudes. It’s about the power of building walls with my own two hands, and tearing them down just as proudly and with just as much strength. It’s about choice. It’s about being able to say “Fuck off” and “I love you” with the same mouth, and meaning them both equally.
For me, becoming a woman didn’t happen when I got my first period or had my bat mitzvah or had sex for the first time. It happened when I learned the balancing act of opening myself to the world while also celebrating in the worlds within myself. It’s a balancing act I’m still learning every day.
My name is Sarah. I’m 22 years old. I have a vagina. I am a human person. I love movies and I drink a lot of coffee and listen to showtunes and I like to do yoga and there are lots of other things about me too. And I’m a woman.
All images from the talented and inspiring Ambivalently Yours. Check out the site here.
Originally published at www.sarahhallecorey.com.
Sarah is a writer, filmmaker, and digital content creator who produces work about feminism, feelings, pop culture, and everything in between. You can read more of Sarah’s writing here and here, and subscribe to her bi-weekly newsletter Pop Warrior here.