As facebook will have undoubtedly told you, it is International Women’s Day. This means that all this week I have been delivering an assembly in primary schools called “Girls Going for Gold.” It is about equality, gender perception, and very basically, how we should all be able to wear whatever we want to school and do whatever we want (within school guidelines!) without getting picked on by our classmates. Delivering it has shown me how much of our ideas about gender are entrenched from an early age, and are very westernised. I showed the children pictures of Jeong Kwan, a female Buddhist monk, Rain Dove, an international model, and G-Dragon, a member of the popular K-Pop group, Big Bang. In each case, the individual simply dresses in a way that is suitable for their culture but is counter to the stereotypes of gender we expect in our western society. Buddhist monks all dress the same and shave their heads regardless of gender, the androgynous look is an important part of the high fashion scene for women, and K-Pop boy bands often all have a highly stylised, well-groomed aesthetic. Even with these explanations, the children initially struggled to understand how someone who did not look like a girl/boy to them could possibly be identified in that gender. It reminded me that this is where sexism begins; when young children believe that there is a certain way they must behave in order to be accepted. But I also saw flashes of the future. By the end of the assembly the I overheard boys in one of the classes taking on board my challenge to tell an awesome girl she was awesome by doing just that. One boy also named his teacher as the awesome girl he could think of that deserved celebrating. On top of that, For world book day, two boys in a class I taught came dressed as Dennis from The Boy in the Dress. They were boys and they wore dresses to school. Voluntarily. One of them stuck up his hand as soon as he saw me and proudly shouted “Look Emma! I’m wearing nail varnish!” In a class full of little red riding hoods, Hermione Grangers, and another Boy in a Dress, no one batted an eyelid. I told him he looked great. It was amazing. Because he did look great, and everyone thought so.
It reminded me how important it is that we hold onto our own narratives of who we are. It is international women’s day, and my experience of being a woman might be very different from the next woman’s, but it is mine, and it is important that I own it. So today I have been thinking about what it means to be a woman. And I’ve come up with a few things. (!) Being a woman is positive and negative, an experience patterned with dark and light moments. To me, being a woman is so many things. It’s the socially accepted practice of being able to draw on one’s face in the morning and then go outside without wiping it off. It’s the fear of leaving the house without it, and that comment, “You look tired today,” when you do. It’s having private stalls in toilets, and having a multi-billion dollar fashion industry uncovering new and exciting ways to not be naked that is aimed predominantly at people with bodies something like mine. It’s also the crushing blow to your self-esteem, time and again, as you grow up measuring your own worth and beauty against that of photo-shopped models and movie stars. It is glittery nail-varnish, the horrifying/awe-inspiring potential to carry human life inside of you, and a strong pelvic floor that means you can manage a long train ride without using a dodgy loo. It’s blood-curdling cramps that your male teachers never take seriously, and hiding a sanitary product up your sleeve so your classmates don’t see. It’s sitting in that small room in the pharmacy waiting for the morning after pill alone, feeling like the only person in a decision made for two. It’s frenetically counting the days of your calendar, seeing dates fly by in your sleep. It’s having that question in the back of your mind, every month; “What will I do if…?” It’s being super focused for three days before your cycle and feeling like a superhero. It’s those sweet back rubs your best friend gave you in homeroom because she, like every woman, knew just which spot to rub. It’s hearing “Of course you’ll have kids, just give it time…” again and again and again.
It’s the beautiful process of having a strong, intimate group of friends from a young age with which you could be open about your feelings. Holding their hands and knowing the soft smell of their hugs because society doesn’t frown on physical displays of affection between women. It’s those teenage boys who asked to see you kiss your best friend and those adult men who jeered at you for holding hands in public. It’s that crushing expectation that you need to act and behave a certain way to be accepted. It’s the kindness of open doors, the smiles of people when travelling, making friends with new mum’s and their babies on buses. It’s the painful laugh and awkward smile when a stranger makes a joke or compliments you and you don’t know how to respond, and he might be a serial killer. It’s the way you hold your keys tightly in your hand when you walk home, aware of how many steps behind you that man is walking. It’s a creepy guy asking you to take off his trousers at a bus stop, it’s the strangers who pinched and slapped you and your friends’ bums in Rome, it’s the wolf whistles, it’s the driving instructor whose hand drifts from the gear stick to your thigh, it’s the story you hear in year eight about that girl who got touched up by that boy, that girl who had to give the bus driver a hand-job, that girl, that girl…. it’s that feeling you have inside that it’s only a matter of time before that girl is you. And one day it is.
It’s the professional delight of being asked to contribute to an academic work. It’s the sting of watching all the young men walk up to preach at the front of your church, and never being asked to speak. It’s the pride of holding your degree in your hand, despite all the trouble it caused you. It’s the embarrassment of everyone assuming your husband was the one studying. It’s the excitement of being a bride, the joy of finally walking down the aisle. It’s the pressure to wear white. It’s the confusion when people don’t accept that you didn’t take your partner’s name. It’s the excitement of good feedback from professional writers, the burst of happiness with their praise. It’s also the devastation when that professional believes that your protagonist desired her own molestation and that girls don’t carry swords. It’s the anger at being type-cast as a woman writer, or a woman anything when you know you are just a human trying to do your thing.
It’s staring down the barrel of depression. It’s the doctors who told you it was hormones, and that your eating disorder was a phase and self-harm was attention seeking. It’s being called a slut. It’s falling hard on the curved sword of the purity teachings. It’s waking up every day and wondering if you are ever going to get there, wherever there is. It’s buying flowers for yourself. It’s voting, and protesting, and shouting and rejoicing because we can. It’s the sorrow of the knowledge that for the longest time, we couldn’t. It’s the fury of knowing that in so many places, we still can’t. It’s being a feminist. It’s being called a feminist. It’s being told time and time again that feminism is a dirty word. It’s the sensation of standing on the shoulders of so many other women before us, who have put up with so much crap so I could get here; wearing my trousers and going to my job and picking up the pill from the pharmacy in Sainsburys’. Being a woman is fun and exciting and joyful, but it is also perilous.
This is and has been my experience of it. Almost none of these experiences are exclusive only to women, and not all women have these experiences, but this is the large, awful, glorious tapestry of what it means to be a woman to me. I’m sure for many people, this might be all the things that being a woman ISN’T to them. And that’s fine. Because we can all choose a different outfit for world book day, and some of us might come as the boy in the dress. But today is the day that we celebrate and share our experiences with other different and wonderful women around the world.
So let’s listen to their voices.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Here are some of those stories, experiences, and voices. Enjoy!