Sunday, March 8, 2015

What it means to be a woman

I was standing in line for hot tea at an airport the first time anyone ever called me a woman. A new baristo was coming onto his shift and as he transitioned into his position, he turned to the woman who had previously been working the register, asking if “this woman” had been helped. It took me a moment to realize he was talking about me, and when I did, I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I was seventeen, not even legally an adult, and standing there like a deer caught in headlights, trying to act like I hadn’t been deeply alarmed by being called a woman. Shaking off my discomfort, I placed my order and waited, mulling over why I had been so shocked. Why had he called me a woman? Was I, in my Forever 21 leggings and high school debate team sweatshirt, finally and at last just that? I decided it was a silly question since there’s no real way of determining when you’ve finally crossed the invisible threshold between girlhood and womanhood, but as I walked away from the counter I could feel the beginning of a new form of confidence taking hold of me, one that’s been growing ever since.

            Being a woman in this world is a lot to ask of someone. A simultaneously wonderful and treacherous experience, being a woman at a time where gender equality is still an illusion but more attainable than it used to be involves a lot of trial and tribulation, but also a lot of joy. For me, I have been lucky enough to grow up with opportunities to achieve and excel in athletics, arts, and academics to and to exercise my agency as an intellectual, a friend and family member, and as a citizen. But tons, if not the majority, of women around the world have not been so lucky. Today, many women are persecuted simply on account of their gender, being barred from political, social, and religious activities and institutions. Women are the victims of domestic and mass abuse, politically disenfranchised, and objectified all around the world. Even in the United States women are underrepresented both politically and in the media, and women still only make seventy eight cents for every dollar a man makes, even though more women than men are graduating with college degrees. Indeed, all it would take to discover that sexism is still alive and well is a brief conversation with any woman who’s ever been cat-called, belittled, publicly sexualized, or discouraged from achieving something usually obtained by men. These aren’t even the women who have been physically and sexually assaulted. The point should be clear. Sexism is still ubiquitous, both in malevolent, and in its more insidious and “benevolent” forms. Being a woman, despite its many joys is still a difficult, difficult task.

            But as I have gotten older, I, like many others, have had the privilege of crossing into the world of womanhood at a time at which the world is becoming more ready than ever to let us in and lift us up. I wrote a post several months ago detailing many of women’s most amazing feats this past year so I won’t rehash it here, but I believe that now more than ever, it is the best time to be a woman. Because now, more than at any time in the past, we have the ability to connect with each other, align with each other, support each other, and empower each other to become stronger, better women. It may be a long time until the world recognizes our full potential and power, but now is the time that we can start recognizing the strength in each other’s womanhood: unapologetically and publicly.

            Today I sometimes still feel awkward thinking of myself as a woman, someone who has to advocate for myself and sometimes others, and someone who simply has to bear that title in a world that dispositions itself against it. But as I emerge out of my awkward not quite girl but not quite woman phase, I am thinking more than ever about what it means to be a woman. I am a daughter and a sister, a friend and a girlfriend, a debater and a student, a coach, an advocate for younger girls, and a feminist. I am strong, decisive, intelligent, and powerful. I am a lot of things. I am, as I finally begin to embrace the title of woman that I now feel ready to wear, proud to be a woman.

            Being a woman means being strong, in whatever way your strength manifests. A strong business owner, a strong athlete, a strong caretaker, or a strong artist. Women show strength in their ability to be themselves, relentlessly and without remorse, even when others tell them not to. Women are strong in the face of obstacles because we know we will be faced with many. Being a woman means facing obstacles.

            Being a woman means being kind, to others and to yourself. It means being forgiving to yourself and others for making mistakes but not allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. It means empowering yourself and those around you because we are all capable of so much. It means ignoring the things the world tells you to hate about yourself and remembering how much there is to love. It means cutting yourself slack but pushing yourself when you need to and you know you can. It means being a friend, a companion, and the love of your own life.

            Being a woman means being powerful. It means always wielding your weapon, whether it’s your favorite lipstick, your voice, or your picket sign. It means knowing that there is space for as much room as you can take up in this world even if you have to dig out that space yourself. It means saying “no” because you are always entitled to, and it means knowing that your “no” deserves respect. It means knowing that not just your consent, but your lack of consent is powerful. That you should not have to walk through the world afraid and that there will be people who will keep fighting until you no longer have to. It means expressing your sexuality in whatever way it grows, in whatever colors, quantities, and ways you feel like expressing it, even if that means not expressing it at all.

            Being a woman means identifying as a woman. End of story.

            But to me, above anything, being a woman means being part of a family of women, of friends, role models, and leaders who will always be there for you. Being a woman means being part of a community of women who know that when the world is hard we can always turn to each other, and in each other we will find the strength to overcome, excel, and expand. I identify as a woman because to me it is a sign of strength, and I identify as a feminist because I don’t see any other option. Being a woman means being whoever you want to be, and I want to be the type of woman who lives in a world where my gender cannot stop me from doing anything. I am a woman because I am proud to be. No matter what the world things, I will always be proud.

            Happy International Women’s Day. Don’t forget to celebrate the women in your life.  

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