Friday, March 8, 2013

Celebrating Women

I grew up disliking, disrespecting, and disempowering myself. I frequently put myself down, thought of myself as less-than, as unworthy. I looked at everything I was and I hated what I saw, what I felt, what I experienced. I was ashamed to be me. I lived underneath, lower, in the shadows. I slouched so I would not be seen, I tarnished my accomplishments so I would not shine. If I did something good or worthwhile, I made it seem like a fluke. I worked hard to undervalue everything I was. When I was thirteen years old, I took a series of IQ tests and scored higher than anyone expected me to - I left the testing area with my score of 155 thinking that I must have cheated somehow; there was no way my IQ could be that high. I was ashamed of that score, ashamed to have anyone know it. I believed that it must have been a mistake, I just got lucky.

I struggled with self-esteem that was non-existent. My life was a series of lows with flat plateaus between where things weren't quite as bad. I expected awful things to happen. I expected poverty. I expected difficulty. I expected poor health. I expected violence and mistreatment. And of course, because I expected those things, I received them - I was issuing the Universe an engraved invitation to join me in my self-hatred, and I got exactly what I believed I deserved.

You might be asking yourself why I felt this way. The answer is simple but profound. Because I am female.

I was born in the early 1970's, during a time when the second wave of the women's movement was beginning to take shape. I grew up in a very conservative, rural area, where women's roles were sharply defined and bordered by the walls of the kitchen, the bedroom, the nursery, and the edges of the garden. My own family was extremely traditional, and there was no questioning the predetermined paths we walked. I am the last of four children; one boy, three girls. It was a funny family joke that when I was born, my father said with disappointment, "oh, another girl" and often opined that until we reached puberty, girls were just as good as boys. Don't misunderstand me - I love and respect my father. He means the world to me. But his worldview colored my own and without any true mistreatment on his part, I came to know that I was second-class because of my gender.

Even though I accepted them without question, I struggled with the inherent restrictions my sex placed on me. Elsewhere in America, girls were dreaming great dreams - they would be doctors, or attorneys, or journalists. I remember talking about a future career with my mother, who told me that "the women's libbers ruined it for girls" by changing the cultural norms so that girls thought they needed to go to college and have careers. I was in the first grade then; later on, things had changed enough that she believed it was good for girls to be educated, but that the only careers they could - or should - aspire to were those of teacher, nurse, or secretary. My ability to see something greater for myself was greatly constricted by the narrow view my mother took; so much so that I have been or attempted to be all three.

Compounding the restrictions placed on me by my upbringing was the fact that my feminine self was attacked multiple times - I was barely pubescent when I was sexually assaulted. The ongoing molestation culminating in rape left me hating the sexual parts of my body. I spent over twenty years trying to bury myself alive, denying anything in me that was feminine, disrespecting other women to the point of having almost no female friends, and expressing disgust at any ideology that could have been interpreted as promoting equality or femininity. Then I became pregnant, and slowly, things began to change.

Pregnancy is an undeniably feminine condition. For years, I had managed to submerge my femininity, but pregnancy exposed it. My body metamorphosized into something new that was all about being female. Compounding these changes was the discovery that I was carrying a girl. I was shocked - I could not imagine myself raising a daughter. The very idea was frightening for reasons I could not - or would not - imagine. I reacted by becoming the quintessential stereotype of mother; June Cleaver had nothing on me. I immersed myself into a 1950's pre-liberation lifestyle. I stayed home, I cooked elaborate meals, cleaned house, played with my daughter. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. There is, however, something very wrong with forcing yourself into a role that no longer fits, losing everything that makes you who you are. I gave up everything I had formerly enjoyed; writing, gaming, even thinking. Thinking was dangerous - it made me want what I felt I could not have. I was more caged than I had ever been. I gave birth to another girl four years later. I felt that the tomb was sealed.

But ultimately, it was motherhood that saved me. It was watching my daughters grow and feeling total sadness that they would be repressed by the culture and society in which we live. It was like seeing two beautiful young trees growing free and wild uprooted, placed in tiny pots, then brutally pruned and twisted and shaped into bonsai. I know that most people find bonsai beautiful, but all I can see when I look at bonsai is the unrealized potential of the tree. I knew I had to find a better way for myself, for the sake of my daughters.

The journey toward self-acceptance has been long and difficult. I have worked to overcome the disdain I felt for my own gender. I broke down the structures of misogyny that culture and upbringing had erected within me. I became free to appreciate women for their strength and ability. I cultivated friendships with other women and found in myself a deep need for these connections, which I had never enjoyed outside my family.  I learned to value my womanhood, to appreciate my femininity. I have stopped slouching, stopped tarnishing myself. I shine.

Today is International Women's Day. There was a time when I would have scoffed at the very notion, but now I celebrate it. It is a beautiful thing to be a woman; to be strong and flexible, tough as deep roots, with undeniable grace, keen discernment, and sharp intuition. To sway and bend with life's storms, but not break. To realize my own potential and know that as much as I have grown, there is more - more life to embrace, more love to share, more words to shape. More to create. More to receive. More to give. I hope that all women, everywhere, celebrate themselves today. I hope they realize their potential and see how much they can grow, what wonderful things they can give and receive. I hope they shine.

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