Attempting to button summer jeans over the extra padding gathering around my waistline (to provide sustenance over the winter months?), I paused in the struggle and looked in the mirror: girl, you’d better cut out the eggnog and get to that tai chi class Monday morning.
And then it hit me. Girl? What girl? I looked around. There weren’t any girls hanging out in my bedroom. Just me. Still youthful-looking on a good day. Maybe. In the right light. From a distance. But hardly a girl. I studied my reflection (relatively) dispassionately. Yep. Definitely an aging woman was standing there. No one else.
So who was this girl I carried around in my head? And why was she still there?
Walking (briskly) that afternoon, comfortably dressed in sweats, taking a break from work, a cascade of even more disturbing questions arose. If I still thought of myself in girl terms, where was the woman I was supposed to be? Had I ever even met her?
Where had she been those long years in between the self-obsessed, hormone-crazed nineteen year-old and the… um… mature woman who no longer had to frequent the feminine hygiene district of the grocery store? I was well into my mentoring/wise woman years, and thinking of myself as a girl at this point was ludicrous.
But even worse was the possibility that this frozen-in-amber inner identity meant I’d somehow missed my womanhood. And what was that anyway?
My earliest image of “woman” was the 50s ideal of wife and mother portrayed by June Cleaver (“Leave it to Beaver”), Harriet Nelson (“Ozzie and Harriet”), Margaret Anderson (“Father Knows Best”), and Ruth Martin (June Lockhart in “Lassie”), stay-at-home moms all. A cloistered vision of femininity I rejected even as I unconsciously enjoyed the benefits of having my own stay-at-home-mom to guide me, I quickly gravitated towards the “liberated” model of womanhood. Alternately dressed in pants and slender to the point of emaciation (think Twiggy), or glam and sexy almost to the point of pornography, I gladly embraced the 1960s Cosmopolitan image besieging me in magazines and television.
Eternally and flawlessly beautiful, these women had no waistline bulges, no bad hair days, no varicose veins, and certainly no stretch marks. Their endless youthful “look” of vitality and sexuality equated a certain kind of power in my mind. That these women only existed in a tabloid/celluloid bubble created by airbrushing and hype was beside the point. Like imprinting a baby goose, the size 5 combination hoyden/sex siren quickly established itself in my brain as my womanly ideal.
Was this ideal image fostered by the media even a woman? I never even considered the question. But my subconscious knew and interpreted her correctly. It saw the image for what it really was, naming her/me in my head as just a girl; an untried female, unlined, unused, in perfect just-out-of-the-box condition; a female Peter Pan who would never grow up.
Mind spinning, I finished my walk, made a cup of tea, and phoned my best woman friend. “What do you think a woman is?” I asked. Flummoxed by the question, for a couple minutes she stammered around, trying to put her finger on a definition that eluded her. I tried making it easier. “Okay then, let me ask you this. Do you think Susan is a woman? Or is she somehow still… unformed in some way, despite her years? How about Mary Jane?” I went through the list of girlfriends we had in common. “Annette? Janet? Eileen?” I laughed. “Me?”
She had the good grace to pause for a satisfyingly long moment before dismissing me as a candidate. Then, after due deliberation, she named the women she considered “a real woman.” Every single one had had children.
What did that mean? I agreed with her assessments and the conclusion unsettled us both, although exactly why, neither of us was certain. After another half hour spent mulling it over we finally hit on one female candidate we both agreed was “womanly” who wasn’t a mom, and several moms who didn’t seem womanly. With no real conclusions to draw from the conversation, we hung up.
That was a week ago. I still haven’t drawn any conclusions – if by conclusion you mean the end of the story. Hell, I’ve only just discovered there is a story.
So far the best I’ve come up with is that the “real women” I know seem to have a certain quiet maturity and wisdom about them that, for lack of a better way of putting it, seems other oriented. They exude a certain level of caring and seem to have capacity. Not necessarily capacity for any one thing in particular. It’s more like they just have capacity… conscious room for whatever is needed: responsiveness, compassion, gentleness, for being utterly present with whoever they’re with… you name it.
Certainly they are not defined by the self-centeredness that characterizes youth, or the shallowness that seems to dog the word image.
Hmmm. So… what, then, is a woman?
I don’t know for sure yet. But after 40 years missing her, I’m glad I’m on my way to making her acquaintance.