I heard things as a young girl that I only now question as a woman.
I was born into a decade of slut-shaming and Taylor Swift. But I grew up with cancel culture, striving to be woke.
During playdates, my friends and I would push toddler-sized shopping carts around in which our babies and our plastic fruits would sit. We would feign exasperation: ugh, it was time to change our synthetic baby’s nonexistent diaper.
Years later, those feelings of being overwhelmed and being a care-taker are what have stuck with me. The idea of what a woman should be. A good woman is always stressed out. A good woman is always doing, fixing. A good woman is always giving.
When I discuss the advancement of women in society, the fervor with which I speak depends on what is—I guess—appropriate. My scattered murmurs of I think and maybe leave a space for retraction that no conference or boardroom has a place for.
I often worry I’m not nurturing, demure, or dependent enough to be loved. Am I too chained by my need to be appropriate to do the things that I want to?
There’s a Billy Joel ballad, “She’s Always A Woman,” that comes to mind. He sings about his first wife and manager who exchanged the external validation of her womanhood for her own self-worth. But he iterates, chorus after chorus, that even so, she’s always a woman to him.
This song never fails to bring me great comfort, and that makes me uncomfortable.
I feel most feminine when confronted with, and validated by, masculinity. When I’m with a man who smells like aftershave and beer, a man who is so similar to the Bollywood heroes I grew up with that he feels familiar and safe. When I’m with him, I am timid. My voice may be soft, but he makes me feel sexy. Uncomfortable in my own skin, but sexy.
It’s exhausting to always be analyzing who I am and what my actions tell me about myself. Trying to first unlearn sexism and then internalized misogyny and now misandry. It feels futile to write over my pre-teen years and teenage years when I will be taught them again tomorrow.
Somewhere between my years of doodling cottages with two-car garages and who I will become, a woman comfortable in her contradiction, lays a no man’s land. A middle ground where if I can be both be an independent woman and dependent on a man, I will be appropriate.
It’s an inoffensive place, but I know better than to go back to it. I walk with my head held high when there are female rap artists blasting in my ears, telling me who I am and what I deserve. But when I think about tomorrow, all the things to do and places to see, when the overwhelming future pervades my thoughts, I seek refuge in what I’ve always been told. In the adjectives that are getting harder to squeeze into, but if I tug hard enough, still fit.
Mainstream feminism doesn’t teach me what to do, just who not to be.
Not to be easy, but to also reclaim being easy. To dress for myself. To not wait, suspended in time, for any man. To be confident, because beauty comes from within. To love myself; to believe in myself.
But instead of solutions, I am taught two-in-one remedies made of oatmeal and honey that’ll cure any pimple and self-hatred. There are no posts about the grueling work that is loving myself—the books I must read and the theories I must highlight and the history I must understand. Instead I am told of the bigger-than-life, one-size-fits-all self-care.
Where are the articles and tweets about the nausea that lurched through my body after first reading The Feminine Mystique and realizing that yes, I am afraid of my own orgasm! Ashamed that my sexuality, bold and powerful, is a point of emasculation for the men I want.
I’ve long been magnetically attracted to the archetypal man. He who provides, he who knows more than me. A strong, gentle force that will do for me what I cannot do for myself. For so long, I’ve wanted to meet a boy to calm down this little old frazzled brain of mine. To undermine my intelligence and power so I won’t be intimidated by it.
It scares me when people ask me what I want. Are they ready to hear what I have to say? Am I?
Maybe I’m a hypocritical feminist who bows in the face of heteronormative expectations. An advocate only for women to be whoever they want, while men remain trapped in the suffocating constructs of masculinity. Or maybe I’m a guilty feminist, an empowered woman who is secretly terrified that she’s not woman enough, and that this fear makes her not feminist enough.
It’s the confusing intersection of growing up with the overshadowing fear of being a seamstress, a running joke, and then continuing to grow up in 2019 when feminism has become more of an accessory than a movement. It makes me think a lot about the content I’ve consumed in the last 19 years of my life.
Is sexism like cocaine? Detectable in your hair follicles even 90 days after your last use? I’ve definitely consumed sexism in the last 90 days.
A few days ago I spoke on the phone with a friend. He talked about what he wants in a girlfriend: sexy but not overt. Smart but not smarter. Confident but not outspoken. I couldn’t help but note that I am the latter of each.
And yet even if I cut my hair and abstain from the outside world for 90 days, I won’t suddenly be free of the expectations that plague my mind. Even if I stop shaving my legs, stop squeezing into little black dresses in forty-degree weather, stop flipping my hair every so often to maintain its volume, I won’t be empowered. Because I want those things. They make me feel confident, and feminism is about choice.
I like when my legs feel smoother than my silky pajamas the day after I shave. I like dabbing on fruity perfumes and musky deodorants. I like waxing and getting my eyebrows threaded.
But I can no longer enjoy these things the way I did as a girl, because I know that if I grew up in a reverse society, I would be writing that I like when my legs feel fuzzier than my flannel bed sheets.
I don’t know how much of who I am is really me. If the adjectives I’ve been given to describe myself sketch who I am or what I want people to see.
Maybe I’ll take words like beautiful and fun and caring and change them. Beautiful will be replaced by figful. Fun by solient. Caring by lozengous.
And woman by Aashna.