The other day I spent time with a young girl I use to mentor. She’s ten years old and doesn’t yet fully understand the challenges of being a woman in this society (slash world) that values masculine qualities. She is in the tender, final moments of her life before she begins the initiation into womanhood.
As we drove to Coldstone Creamery for a scoop of ice-cream (our favorite), I heard her in the backseat tell me that a girl in her class recently started her period. When her friend has to go to the bathroom, she said, she’ll tell them “the red pen leaked” as a sort of code-phrase that lets the girls know but keeps the boys from understanding.
I sat in the driver’s seat, knowing this was a perfect opportunity to impart womanly wisdom about what it means to get your period – that commonly-believed nasty, bloody thing that sneaks up on little girls. Part of me wanted to stop the vehicle immediately, turn around to look into her eyes, and beg her to listen. I wanted to give her all the tools she would need to navigate the warzone of womanhood, and then send her off with affirmations and inspirational words that made her believe that getting her period is a gift, a sort of invitation into the magical realm of feminine power.
Rather, all I managed to say was that becoming a woman is a beautiful thing. I said it twice to make sure she heard me. But even I know that words are helpless against the army of cultural messages and societal cues that she, and all the other girls around her, will soon find themselves up against.
The day my red pen first leaked was on a day during the summer before 6th grade. One morning I awoke and went to the bathroom across the hall from where my brother and his friend slept. I cried when I saw blood in the toilet. Rather than an initiation into womanhood, getting my period was like an initiation into a frightening world that preyed on women. Everything I loved about being a young girl fell away from me, and I began to hate the new womanhood that I wanted no part of.
I developed breasts and pubic hair before the other girls around me. I started wearing uncomfortable bras, my face became oily, I grew taller than everyone else, and my emotions introduced themselves in abrupt and embarrassing ways.
Pre-period, I played flag football with the boys at recess. I was good, too. I was competitive and a fast runner. But the development of my body slowly and painfully transformed me from their competitor and friend to sexual prey. Beforelong, I stopped playing football. While boys entered their own process of navigating puberty and understanding their newfound desires, myself and other girls around me realized (not always in pleasant ways) that we were the source of those desires.
In the years before my period came, I’d sometimes stand in the shower and pretend my rib cage represented breasts hanging from my body. I looked forward to the day when I looked like the older women around me. But the reality of having boobs and being treated differently for it quickly made me hate my body with its awkward new additions, although I quickly learned it didn’t matter as much how I felt about them as the boys around me did. Like a fruit tree in summer, my goods were to be taken and enjoyed by someone else.
I began wearing makeup and presented myself like art hanging on a wall, waiting to be observed. I flipped through Teen and Seventeen Magazine and admired the beautiful, made-up, thin women on its pages. I took mental notes. I became more aware of my bodily flaws and always wanted to be prettier and especially thinner.
My mom had digested the same messages as a young girl, and so she treated her body in similar ways which only reinforced my beliefs that I needed to constantly prune and prime my body. She hid her body from me, and so I hid mine. I covered my feminine features with loose gym clothes and I changed for gym class and after-school practice behind locked bathroom stalls. I was even too shy to let my best friends see the front side of my naked body. Since other girls and women rarely changed in front of me (all of us were always hiding), I was rarely exposed to other natural, unedited female bodies.
On the days when I’d look at my acne in the mirror, feel the heavy weight of the curves of my body, notice boys feasting on me and the girls around me, feel shame for my sinful and sexual body, and get caught in the chaos of my emotions, I’d blame all of it on the day my red pen leaked.
My period began the painful and long process of both becoming a woman and rejecting myself as a woman, including my body, my sexuality, my emotions, my intuition, and my insights and creative urges. I began to see myself the way a masculinized society saw me, and I viewed other women in the same way. The feminine attributes I rejected in myself I also rejected in other women, and together we stepped into a world where femininity was devalued and masculinity was prized (not just in women, but for men as well who learned like the rest of us to suppress their feminine qualities).
Although issues like breaking the glass ceiling and female equality are certainly problems, they never felt like the primary roadblocks along my journey as a woman. I never questioned whether I was capable of doing what men did. I never doubted my potential as a woman. Rather, the greatest problem I’ve faced is learning how to take back everything that makes me feminine and find power and pride in the characteristics that make me different from the men around me. The challenge is reasserting ownership over myself and granting permission to rewrite the stories of my body, my sexuality, and my feminine characteristics.
How could I possibly explain all of this to my ten year old friend in the backseat of my car? How could I warn her of the potential dangers of being a woman? How could I tell her that being a woman is a beautiful thing without also confessing the years of challenges and insecurities I worked (and am still working) to overcome?
I wanted to tell her that her menstrual cycle will match the cycles of the moon because she is as powerful and beautiful as the universe around her. I wanted to say that her feminine curves will resemble the outline of a hillside and the arc of ocean waves and will be just as beautiful as natural landscapes. I wanted to share that her sexuality is a powerful energy to own and use without shame, guilt, or reservation.
Oh, my friend, I didn’t say any of these things. I sometimes get caught in my words and struggle to know what’s best to say. But I often wonder if the power is in our actions and not in our words, and that maybe the most influential thing we can do for each other is to recognize the power of our own femininity and proudly embody everything about ourselves as women that we have learned to reject.
Until we see it in ourselves, women collectively will struggle to find value in their femininity. We watch each other. We learn from each other. We teach each other what it means to be a woman. The power is in showing rather than telling, and so it is the best we can do to find confidence in our own curves, to love our breasts that feed all of humanity (regardless of their size), to trust our innately intuitive senses, to give life to the creativity in our souls, to respect and allow our emotions, and to find pride in our “red pens” that, amazingly, give us the ability to develop a human being from egg to beating heart.
I love you. I will write again soon.