Ten year old me on the mighty Mississippi.
Over the next year I will write a series of essays under the title of, A Call to Womanhood. Ruminations on the simple and complex. Thoughts about modesty, sex, gender roles, learning to drive in high heels and making our voices heard. Read the first post here.
I hope you join the discussion. I hope this becomes a place of further enlightenment. You all have so much to teach me.
Womanhood found my body before it found the rest of me.
I don’t know exactly when it happened. That awareness of my physical self, that there were parts of me different from the parts of others. I don’t know when I started thinking all those thoughts, the ones that said my legs and arms weren’t just for reaching and running. The thoughts that shouted that my body was meant to be posed in certain ways and looked at in certain ways and hidden in certain ways.
I do remember staying up late one night reading past the sound of my parent’s footsteps in the hall. The book was about children that ran away into the woods, away from foster parents and stern faced teachers. They found an old woman and an old cottage and lived a summer of fairy stories and dress up dinners. One of the children was my age and the author had written her so free. She squatted on the ground when she spoke and rolled in the morning dew without her shirt on.
As I read, I looked into her character for the insecurity I felt. At school, I had begun sitting on the very edge of my chair because it kept my thighs from spreading out on the seat. P.E. was a practice in suburban torture, the day they weighed everyone and called out the weights across the hot pavement nearly broke my heart. I changed in the locker room with a red face and my eyes to the ground. I didn’t want anyone to see me. That girl in the story, the one that just let her body move, breathe and be? I didn’t recognize her. She was an epiphany I couldn’t realize.
I was twelve.
By that summer, everything was bigger and rounder. There were moments of triumph, feelings of empowerment as my body became what it was supposed to become. At times I almost had a sense of understanding, that the physical changes were a mere signal of the internal changes I was undergoing just as surely.
But there was also a confusion of self and a loss of control. So many of the things that had begun to change, I felt it was my charge to put back to rights. Hair shaved and plucked. Breasts lifted and held close. Body perfumed and face painted. I still heartily embrace each of these cultural customs today, but they were, at the time, a bit overwhelming. Not because they oppressed or concealed. If you know who you are, then red lipstick and a lace bra can be the cherry on top of a delicious dessert of empowerment and independent thinking. No, rather I think that I was just very young. I didn’t know who I was. I was trying to paint a picture I could not see.
And then there were the things I could not change. The length of my legs, the shape of my nose and the pink ribbons that had begun to etch themselves on the inside of my thighs. Their presence mortified me and I waited to ask my mom about them until the third one had bloomed across the inside of my leg.
We were on the second day of a cross country road trip. It was late and my dad was hooking up the camping trailer while we got ready for bed inside. My sisters brushed their teeth while my mom looked for our bedding.
“Can I show you something?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
I pulled her behind the paper thin wall of the only bedroom and lifted my shorts up to the spot where the red lines began.
“Ummm. What are these?”
“Oh! Well, those are called stretch marks. Lots of girls get those as they grow. It’s no big deal.”
And here my breath caught in my throat as I tried not to cry, “Well, will they go away?”
“No, they don’t go away. But they fade. They won’t always be red. I have them, too.”
The tears turned to anger, “Well, it wasn’t very nice of you to give them to me.”
She looked tired and a little hurt. I walked away before she could say anything and got into bed while my sisters talked through the window to my dad.
As a mother now, I see that scene from the other side of the room. I am sure my outrage about a very commonplace symptom of life shocked my poor mom. But at the time it all felt so real, it all felt so justified. Couldn’t she see it was all her fault? If her body hadn’t had those ugly red lines mine probably wouldn’t have had them either. But now they were there and I couldn’t get rid of them. There was nothing I could do. I closed my eyes against the wall and cried. There was nothing I could do.
I think there was a depth to that conversation with my mom that twelve year old me simply could not comprehend. I was not just upset about stretch marks. I was, in some vague and profound way, upset about the estate of womanhood that had been bequeathed to me. How could I be beautiful and lovely and wanted if I had to live a version of femininity that required growth, stretching, scarring? What was this thing I had embarked on? This journey that suddenly seemed much more complex than the frosting every ideal had put on top of it? I did not yet know that being beautiful had little to do with weights called across a playground. I had no idea that loveliness often finds a home in frizzy, nervous girls like me. And despite all my reading and talks from good parents, I did not understand that being wanted had so little to do with being happy.
It’s been sixteen years and I can look with a smile at that little girl with her eyes shut tight. I want to brush her hair away from her hot face and tell her everything will be alright.
My mom was right, stretch marks don’t go away but they do fade. New ones have traveled across my body since that hot summer night. They etched into me as I raced through puberty and sunk across me again as I carried my two girls inside of me. Each one a bright streak of red across that eventually settled into silver against the cream of my skin. Of course, now there are other lines, the ones that have just begun at the corner of my eyes and the strands of grey that streak down the length of my hair (hidden under red dye and good wishes). For a time, I made peace with the knowledge that I cannot live this life unmarked by the years, by the growth I experience. Now, I do not think I would want to do so even if I could.
The anger is gone, but I am still learning. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I fall asleep against the wall with my eyes closed so tight. But on good days, the days when I can truly see myself, I can almost see that girl from my book so many years ago. The one that knew her body was for reaching and running and rolling in the morning dew.
Every morning I wake up and think the same thing. Remember to move. Remember to breathe. Remember to be.
Next week's installment of A Call to Womanhood will be on modesty. Oh me! Oh my!