I Enjoy Being a Girl?

This past weekend one of my oldest and dearest friends came down from New York City for the weekend. Amy and I have known each other since junior high school. We’ve watched each other go through all the ups and downs of adolescent life and the experimentation of our early adult years. And through it all, we have never stopped being friends. We may not always talk on a regular basis. We might go through long stretches of time where we don’t see each other. But every time we get together, we pick up as if there was never a gap, never a lull in conversation. It always just feels natural.

This, I understand, is not usual. Most people drift apart as they grow and change and explore and move into their adult personas, but Amy is one of those rare individuals who just accepts people as they are. Utterly and truly. I pointed out to her once that it was pretty remarkable that she remained my friend through some pretty outrageous stuff and she just looked at me, almost confused, and said, “Why would I stop liking you just because we don’t believe the same thing?” I really want more people like that in the world.

There is something special about people who have known you for that long. They have a picture of you that you can’t really hide from. You have no choice but to be utterly yourself. Amy has seen me through a lot. She has seen me at my best and my worst. She also knows things about me that often escape my own attention–like my reluctance to spend money on myself and the consequences thereof. I have no idea if she intended to help me out with this problem when she came to visit, but that is exactly what happened.

On Saturday we took the train into center city to walk around, do a little shopping, see some sights, and meet up with our sweeties later for a bite to eat. I honestly did not intend to spend much money. I threw out the idea that if I found a great deal on a pair of sandals or if I saw a few t-shirts I might pick them up, but I know myself and my ability to walk away from these things. It wasn’t a real threat, but I was fretting about it anyway. Corvus just said to me, “Do what you need to do.” In other words, “Spend what you need to get the clothes you need.”

Need? Wow. Need is a very hard concept for me. I mean, I have clothing, it fits me. It may be old, worn, frayed, falling apart, etc., but I don’t *need* new clothes, do I? Fortunately Amy was there to help me answer that question. The answer was, “Yes. Yes you do need clothes. Desperately.”

She followed me all over the city, made me actually try things on, suggested options I wouldn’t have considered, went in search of different sizes, and helped me find really good deals on clothes, shoes, and essentials. She even provided the gentle push I needed at a couple of points where I was close to caving in to the panic.

At the end of the day I had a number of nice outfits that would take me through the summer, and well beyond, without having spent a ridiculous amount of money. I can’t even begin to describe what a difference I felt this past week. I hadn’t realized how unattractive I was feeling. I put on my new summer dress and there is a bounce in my step. I feel pretty. Light. I feel like a girl…

Like a girl?

I have been mulling this thought over in my head all week–in between admiring what my new bra and flattering shirt do to my breasts, of course. “What does that mean?” I fretted. “Have I bought into media stereotypes? Am I embracing traditional and destructive ideas of feminine beauty? Have I traded in my feminist card for a few flouncy cotton t-shirts and a floral dress? Is the patriarchy hiding in my soft-pink pima-cotton cardigan?”

Of course I ask these questions in jest, but it did get me thinking about my own relationship to beauty, feminity, fashion, and feminism.

A phone conversation with my mom on Sunday afternoon added a further wrinkle to the topic. She was absolutely giddy over my young cousin who had shown up to a family wedding in a dress. This cousin is notorious for her dislike of all things traditionally feminine. It goes beyond the tomboy realm. For much of her life she repeatedly insisted that she wanted to be a boy. That she only liked boy things. And boy clothes. And went through a spell where she talked about “When I have a girlfriend…” before she either passed through it or learned to keep those feelings to herself. When I tell you that many of my family members are extremely conservative and very Christian Midwesterners, I’m sure you can imagine how comfortable they have been with this. Yeah, not very comfortable at all. I mean, when I finally started dating a boy and got married you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief. I don’t think they even minded all that much that we lived together for a couple of years in sin before finally getting married. I don’t think they understand what bisexual means.

So anyway, this poor kid has been bombarded her whole life with messages that she needs to be more feminine. Every decision she makes–about what to wear, the activities she participates in, the friends she has–everything–is scrutinized and commented on. And now in her teenage years, those messages are sinking in. Fast. I am kept informed about her attempts at using makeup, curling her hair, wearing dresses, high heels–the whole nine yards. I know she needs to explore and experiment, but I am angry at my family for not just giving her the space and room to become who she is.

I know my own relationship with how I look, who I am, what I think, and the way I express myself was partially formed in response to the world around me. I mean, there is a basic personality component that goes into who you are, but many of my expressions throughout my adolescence were reactions to and against the boundaries, definitions, and input I received from my family. She needs her own boundaries to push up against and react to in order to begin to solidify her own thoughts and ideas. But I feel for her, because whether she wants to wear the dress or not, it will always carry with it this commentary from her family, the church she attends, her schoolmates, the media, etc.

And I can’t help myself. When they bring these things up, I am constantly reprimanding them for giving her praise for “being a girl.” As if there aren’t a million ways to be a girl. Have we learned nothing? And why is so much of it about how she looks? I am very conscious when I deal with her about being careful not to do the same thing they are doing, but from the opposite direction. I don’t want to discourage her from anything she wants to do and explore–even if it is dresses and makeup and high heels. I just want her to be comfortable. To feel like herself. To be happy with who she is. A dress isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s all about how it makes you feel. In the end, she’s a smart kid, and I really trust her to reason through all the messages she’s received and come up with her own approach to the world that she can feel good about.

I guess at the end of the day, we don’t live in a vacuum. Our ideas are not entirely our own. They come from the culture we live in, the messages we receive from our family, friends, lovers, schools, government, etc. The key is critical thinking and awareness of how certain messages (both positive and negative) influence us. There is nothing inherently wrong with me feeling beautiful in a dress. But there is something wrong with translating that into a message that says every woman needs one to feel beautiful, or worse–that how they look is more important than who they are or what they think.

This past week there was a rash of posts all over the blogosphere linking to an article in Newsweek, which profiled a group of geeky, smart nerd girls. Hot, geeky, smart nerd girls. The article is called “Revenge of the Nerdettes,” and don’t even get me started on the diminutive “ette.” What is so special about them, apparently, is not that they are smart, but that they wear high heels and makeup and short shorts or something like that, while they do smart, engineering things. LAME!

As I said above, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being beautiful, wearing makeup, putting on a dress, high heels (although I personally think those are the patriarchy’s worst invention ever). I am all about women being who they are and being smart, but why is there so much focus on how they look? Why aren’t we just talking about how smart they are? Why do we have to convince everybody that, “Hey, they’re smart, but it’s okay, they’re still girls. See? They like high heels!” Maybe it’s because the wave of feminism I rode throughout high-school and my early adult years was so fixated on destroying ridiculous and harmful notions of beauty and getting rid of the objectification of women, but I am not excited about this.

I want someone to focus on smart women, not their penchant for lip gloss and shopping. And while we are at it, it would be nice if it weren’t such a big shocking deal that there are women in engineering, math, science, and technology. I get that it is, because right now this is simply not an area women are encouraged to excel in. And I don’t want to be a big, overly serious jerk about the attention these women are getting, because younger women and girls need people to look up to. But why do they have to get the message that how they look is also going to be on the table? Be smart girls, but be careful not to end up like those ugly smart chicks. Is that really progress? Am I hopelessly outdated here? Do I need to learn to be excited about anything that gets more girls and women interested in traditionally male-dominated professions and industries? Is this a sign that things are changing–that you can be anything you want to be as a woman who is smart and intelligent? The answer might be yes. I mean, I love a hot geeky woman as much as the next person. And I think that having sexuality and being in control of it is critical to true equality. So maybe I need to be more excited about this than I have been. Food for thought.

There have been a number of other related ideas floating through my head on this topic, but this has gotten much longer than I intended. I think I’ll save a few of my other questions and general musings for another day…

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6 Responses to I Enjoy Being a Girl?

  1. Rachel,
    If you haven’t got it or heard it, you need to listen to Lojo Russo’s Girrrl. It’s one of my favorite songs written by Lojo (which is saying a lot) and she introduces it by saying that she “recently realized that she was a girl.”

    Here’s the song from Lojo’s Website: http://lojorusso.com/mp3/Girrrl-hifi.mp3

  2. CountessZ says:

    Ken, did you read my mind?! That was the song that was playing in my head all morning as I thought about what I wanted to say and started typing. Thank you so much for bringing it into the discussion. How perfect 🙂

  3. CountessZ says:

    The other song in my blogging soundtrack was Phranc’s tongue-in-cheek rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl”

  4. kaizerin says:

    Amy sounds like that rarest and most wonderful of things, a true friend. I’m so glad you got quality girlfriend time together. There’s such relief in being with people who really know you—-you can drop your social personae and turn off your filters and say and do whatever you feel like, not having to stand on ceremony or keep up any sort of front. It’s relaxing to be able to talk freely, in the shorthand of friendship, and know you’ll be understood. (It’s very much how I feel when we’re together, and it’s a precious thing.)

    Interestingly, Sister Light, this is one of those topics that reminds me how different we are, for all our similarities. We are so much mirror-images (refering to personality, not physical appearance—though, that too!) We are so very similar, except for the ways in which we are exact opposites—the reversal of the mirror. I started out from the position of total girly-girlness, and found my way into a more realistic and feminist self image from there. Ramona can tell you stories about me refusing to wear anything but dresses when I was little—-I would cry and struggle when she tried to put pants on me. Later on, I went through the radicalization of the college years, the rejection of stereotypical femininity, but I didn’t want to put aside ALL things girly to be considered a legitimate voice. Some might use it pejoratively, but when I first heard the term ‘lipstick lesbian’, it was empowering. Yep, I’m a femme, and proud of it; I like pretty dresses and lacy lingerie and make-up and shoes. I’m also a femme who will happily ruin her manicure kicking your ass, if you make that necessary. I found I can be pretty and soft, and tough and independent and competent, all together, but it was a long road getting there.

    To me, that’s the power in Lojo’s song: in giving the butch girls permission to connect with their femininity, she’s also giving girly-girls permission to connect with their tomboy side. It works beautifully both ways: what ever kind of girl you are, remember that you’re free to be all kinds of girl, as the day and your desires demand.

    As to the messages your cousin gets at home, and that other young women get in the world: sigh. I don’t know how you get around it all. It’s so pervasive. But it seems to me that most people find their way to being who they are, eventually. People are pretty good at taking what works for them and leaving the rest. You’re absolutely right, what’s most needed is the room to experiment, to try out ideas and personas and find out who you really want to be. The all-pervasiveness of the media is combined blessing and curse: on the one hand, negative messages are unavoidable; on the other, it’s easier than ever to find voices in keeping with your own inclinations, if you don’t have them in your immediate family/friend circle. When I was young, I felt different from the people around me, and thought I might be the only one. Then I heard David Bowie and Adam Ant and Soft Cell and their like, and knew there was a tribe out there I belonged in. So instead of giving up or giving in, I held on to the idea that I just had to get to college, and there would be people I could really relate to. And OMG, there were SO MANY people there who thought and felt the way I did! It was so liberating to drop the conformity camouflage I’d worn throughout high school and finally explore who I was and what I wanted to be. I wonder now how much different it would have been if I’d had the internet and could have found the kind of community I craved before I went away to school. I imagine it’s easier for girls like me—like us—to find lifelines to hold onto until the day they can get free and take charge of their own lives.

    There’s no winning the Geek Girl image wars: either you have the “smart girls are ugly/awkward/ungainly” stereotype, or you get the “she’s smart, but that’s OK, ‘cause she’s HAWT, too!” stereotype. It’s the new virgin/whore dilemma. Women still aren’t people in the mass culture; we’re objects. We’ve made big advancements, and I’ll take my right to vote and own property and be something other than nurse/teacher/wife at the price of sniping at my non-conforming body shape and life goals (by which I mean to say: I’m a nearly 40-year-old single, childless woman, and that suits me fine, even though popular culture would tell you I can’t possibly be happy with my life. Really, deep down, I must be desiring a quick trip down the aisle and an impreggening before it’s too late! Right? Right?!)

    In fact, there’s no winning at all when you make your choices based on the external noise. Not wearing a dress you desire to avoid the disapproval of the Sisterhood is the SAME THING as wearing a dress you hate because Church-Daddy said you had to. True feminism means leaving women free to make their own choices; we don’t need a condemning Matriarchy passing judgment on us for not living up to an image of Ideal Wymynhood anymore than we need the Patriarchy trying to make obedient chattel of us all. Feminism, freedom, means living your life your way.

    PS: Pictures of pretty you in the pretty dress, please! 🙂

  5. kaizerin says:

    Also, can I just add that I’m sorry it takes me days to respond to your thoughtful postings, but that’s because you really make me THINK, and I so love you for it!!

  6. CountessZ says:

    Darling, you never have to apologize for taking your time to post your thoughts. The extra care, attention, and weight we tend to give to the comments is part of what makes this space so amazing and special for me. I feel like sitting down to go through the comments on any given post is like settling in for a good cup of tea and a chat with my dearest friends.

    More on what being a girl means to me has been surfacing over the last week or so. I was talking about all this with my therapist last weekend and I started off by telling her about my mom who when I was growing up seemed like a movie star to me. She was (I thought) stunningly beautiful. She always wore Channel perfume and men would stop on the street and whistle or just watch her walk away. She seemed to enjoy this type of attention, but I was absolutely mortified. I also noticed early on that she “played dumb” a lot. I found it infuriating, and I vowed that when I grew up I would never be like that.

    Instead I focused on my brain and my creativity–being smart, competant, artistic–these were the goals. When I moved into young adulthood, and I began to get attention for the way I looked, how I was developing, etc., I had no idea what to do with it. I just wanted to be liked for me. I rebelled. In between all that, I tried on different personas with varying degrees of conformity. The conformity never lasted, and like you, I always knew I was different, but I heard or read things or caught glimpses that made me hold on expecting to find those like-minded souls. And I did–many of them in high school, very few in my strange college years, but there were a couple. Thank goodness that in reality people are a much more varied, multi-faceted, complex collection of oddities and quirks than they seem to be on the surface.

    And now I am thinking of that scene in Harold and Maude where Maude is telling Harold she would like to be a sunflower most of all and then asks himwhat flower he would you like to be. Harold says “I don’t know. One of these, maybe.” and points to a bunch of daisies. “Why?” she asks him, and he says, “Because they’re all alike.” Maude, never missing a beat, says “Oooh, but they’re *not*. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All *kinds* of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are *this*,” she points to the individual daisy, “Yet allow themselves be treated as *that*.” and she gestures to the field where they all look the “same.”

    The older I get, the easier it is to identify me under all the layers of reaction and the messages I have received about who I am supposed to be as a woman. I know that at the end of the day, what matters to me is knowing who I am and being comfortable with that person, even (especially) if that person’s favorite color is pink, she obsesses over small dogs, and Cute Overload is her homepage. Oh, and she also happens to look really nice in a dress and likes the way it feels.

    Also Kai, I too always loved the term “lipstick lesbian.” I thought it was a great way to remind people that sexuality is never limited to static, one-dimensional definitions of what it means to be gay or a woman or a feminist or whatever. Of course, I suppose people used it to try and put people in neat, well-defined categories. The only thing you can do is just be yourself–really and truly yourself. I think people are always surprised by that.

    Anyway, I have rambled enough for now, but I do want to give you props for identifying the Geek Girl Image Wars as the new Madonna/Whore complex. Ha! Brilliant!

    Love you muchly.

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