Maia Miller-Lewis explores the definition of womanhood for TWSS #16 ‘Crossing the Border’.
Growing up was never going to be easy, but it was not until recently that I really questioned how easy I had it. After watching Grayson Perry’s latest documentary ‘Rites of Passage’, I was forced to hide behind a pillow whilst I witnessed the ‘coming of age’ ceremony of Amazonian Tikuna girls on the brink of womanhood. To complete the right of passage, adolescent girls have their hair forcibly pulled from their heads by their female relatives, in front of their entire community. As you are probably aware by now, there is nothing as physically extreme as this practice in white Western culture to mark the transition between girlhood and womanhood. But this doesn’t mean that becoming a woman is straightforward. In fact, the absence of a ritualistic ceremony that marks a binary between youth and maturity arguably makes this transition a lot more complicated.
We are constantly bombarded with different narratives about how, when and why we become women. It is very easy to become confused and overwhelmed. Forging your way through the word fog, the significant events that become identified as marking your womanhood are usually relatively ‘painless’. The first time you get catcalled for example. Yes, it’s not a particularly nice experience being shouted at across the street for wearing some skinny jeans. But incidents like this rarely stop us from going about our day to day lives. I like to see it as character-building. I now have a litany of prepared responses to fire off at any given moment!
Your first bra fitting is also a key rung on the maturity ladder. Walking into one of those intimidating, fluorescently lit dressing rooms only to be clinched by a cold measuring tape can make you feel pretty grown up. After all, you have no idea what a 28 A means when you’re thirteen. Seems like a pretty big number, right?
But within any discussion about the transformation from girlhood into becoming a fully-fledged lady woman, there is one event that undeniably stands out. Getting your first period.When I used to work at a supermarket, one of the women who the checkout told me the story of her first ‘bleed’ (her words, not mine). Upon being informed of the momentous event, her father went out to the shops and came back with a huge box of chocolates and a big bunch of roses to congratulate her on, you guessed it – ‘becoming a woman’. My first reaction: Umm, why didn’t I get any chocolates?! My second: A lovely warm feeling. What a nice gesture, a wonderful way to recognise that your daughter is growing up, transitioning from a girl into a beautiful, strong woman.
But does this innate, biological process really signify anything other than physical maturity?
Think about it. How young were you when you first started menstruating? I had friends in school as young as twelve, panicking in the toilets thinking they have inadvertently hurt themselves, or that they were somehow dying. Would you really look at that girl and instantly think ‘Look! A woman!’? I think not. Our first period is not something we can control. Menstruation doesn’t wait until we feel ready to embrace the fact that for at least the next twenty years, we are going to have to go through a spectrum of uncontrollable emotions, experience cramps, headaches – maybe even fainting! Need a ray of light? You can eat as much chocolate as you want fully supported by the other women around you. Promise.
It is paramount that we have an ongoing conversation about menstruation, drawing attention to the issues of period poverty and persecution in society. However, the stress on periods as being a definer of womanhood can inadvertently alienate period-less women in an ultimately damaging sense. Speaking from experience, chit-chat surrounding the most insignificant things like what kind of tampons everyone is using makes those who are missing out on this natural phenomenon feel isolated and abnormal. By putting too great an emphasis on periods as the transition point, period-less women are left in an identity limbo. They are no longer children but do not make the cut to be classed as women.
I would argue that there is no hard border you need to cross to become a woman. It is a long, drawn-out process of evolution, defined by socialisation and experience. It is different for everyone and I don’t think it ever really ends. I reflect on my nana who, at 79 was in so many ways still a girl. As a result of her upbringing, she spent her whole life afraid of womanhood, constructing an impenetrable bubble to protect the ‘little lady’ inside. According to biology, she would have been considered a woman. But in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t really count for much.
If we are honest, the prospect of becoming a woman is actually quite terrifying. The media is always telling us about all the roadblocks placed in front of us: sexism, assault, objectification. Many women will suffer setbacks: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, incited by the pressure placed on us to live up to the ideal of a concept that in no way should be universalised. There is no singular definition of what it means to be a woman other than perhaps our right to inherent individuality.
I still haven’t figured it out. I feel like it was only yesterday that I was five years old, running around my back garden. I don’t feel I have yet to become a woman but I know that if anything, I am on my way.
Illustration by Danni Pollock.