Woman is a title that comes with too many consequences shoved into the spaces between each letter. I have worn it proudly, not fully understanding the heaviness it carries, or exactly what it means. I still don’t.
Summer camp teaches me how to shave my legs when my mother neglects to. I am eleven, with hair on my skin barely long enough to pull out when my bunkmates coach me on how to erase it. “Boys don’t like girls with prickly bodies,” my counselor tells me confidently. I soon understand that to be woman means to be bare, stripped, and clean, always. Being woman means catching the changes of your morphing body before anyone else can point them out.
I am raised to keep secrets. We call the parts of ourselves that we aren’t supposed to talk about private. I learn to be silent in more ways than one.
A woman I love too much has smoked a pack of Newports everyday since her early 20s. I warn her about her how tobacco is a catalyst to disease. I tell her about the lines of family history I have drawn in connection to the woman in ours that have died from weakened hearts. She nods. I ask if she wants to stop. She always says,
Haley is my best friend. Together we uncover the mystery of womanhood untold. She loves a boy two years older than us and gives herself to him in his parked car outside her house during one of our many sleepovers. I listen as she confesses the details to my eager ears. We learn more about sex from each other than we do health class. The information given out is too much and not enough at the same time. We are taught enough to do it, but not enough to ease our unknowingness.
Condoms are given out for free. Tampons are not.
Virginity was a concept we are told to maintain from early on. At 14 I want to get losing it over with so I do, with a boy two years older, in between his childhood sheets. I am high enough to blur the details, but not high enough to forget it happens.
I learn how to cauterize undesirable memory with substance, the way too many women do.
When a sophomore girl comes to school with a broken face, everyone is quiet. We all know about the fight, the pushing down the stairs, the bruising that swelled violently like her love for him. “I think he’s even hotter now,” I overhear someone say.
The first boy I ever love treats me like shit. I let him because that’s how it works in the movies.
I love a straight girl with curly brown hair and a smile too much like summer. She kisses me and then tells me about whatever boy she is pursuing that week. It confuses me to no end.
Mia meets her first love when we are 17 and gives him all of her too soon. When he dumps her, I come over ready with a box of popsicles in hand.
We play with Polly Pockets well into our teenage years. The dolls live out dreams impossible for us to reach.
I realize vulnerability is not an option, but something we are born wearing.
A friend shows me how to keep my keys peeking through my knuckles at night. I hold them through scared fingers as I navigate the side streets necessary to get home.
Mom buys me glitter covered pepper spray, “because it’s cute.” I know her unsaid words and what she really means. “There are too many bad people in the world to not be cautious, you can never be too careful.”
When a girl I don’t know well is attacked in a back alley by strangers, we sit nervously the couch and talk about the terrifying reality, how bad we feel for her, and how awful it must be to go through something like that.
I call my best guy friend immediately after someone I know takes my body without permission. I explain the details to him of what happened, still shaking from the shock of it. I wait for his response, hoping for open arms ready to hold while I shatter. He sighs and says, “you should have been more careful.” I don’t counter. I shower three times in a row, tuck myself into the same bed where it happened, and pick up the cracked pieces of myself in the morning. I tell no one else after that.
Rape is the punch line to too many jokes.
I don’t laugh.
In an anonymous thread, I read as people discuss the topic of sexual assault. My eyes lose count of how many times strangers say, “just because you regret it, doesn’t mean it is rape.” I have seen doubt cripple too many faces hearing the stories of survivors with dull eyes from telling theirs over and over again to people who will never believe them. Their truth is taken with a shot of uncertainty.
They ask, “Why survivor? Why not victim?”
They say, “It doesn’t kill you, you’re not a survivor.”
I want to answer that survival is a choice made in the aftermath of destruction, that we either chew our way through the broken glass or swallow it whole, letting it break us from the inside out. I want to say survival is not as simple as we didn’t die. Survival is consciously refusing not to.
Instead I say nothing.
I know girls with too many piercings and tattoos because they had run out of room on their small bodies to let out any more anger. I watch darkness fill their skin with its reminder, young girls who know pain all too well.
A man on the street calls out to me. I shake my head quietly because I’m afraid of the bomb my response could set off. I have seen too many ticking men explode for me to want to fight back.
I learn about abortion when I am too young to understand it, too self-centered at the time to try to imagine the fear of unwanted growing inside of her. I have grown to understand the importance of choice.
A guy tells me that if a woman has sex with more than five guys in her lifetime, she’s a whore.
Someone I hook up with shares with me about how his friends audio record their girlfriends during sex. He laughs, I shudder.
“Guys don’t like it when..” is a tip I hear almost daily.
School dress codes mark my shoulders unholy, my shorts too miniscule. I am sent to the principal’s office in 10th grade when I refuse to change into a top that doesn’t show my lower back. I ask what my body did to have to learn this kind of shame. I am suspended for the rest of the day.
Beauty pageants teach me that perfect woman is exactly what I am not.
My ex boyfriend calls me a cunt.
My other ex boyfriend calls me crazy. I’ve learned that crazy is synonymous with “she had an opinion that did not align with mine.”
In my college lecture we talk about the origins of hysteria, remembering how women in history had their voices twisted into insanity. I think about how often “calm down” is used as a modern-day-tranquilizer.
Us weekly tells me every week, in one too many advertisements, how to lose weight.
My campus paper posts an ad for breast augmentation deals. “Get spring break ready.”
I don’t fit into the bras at Victoria’s Secret, I never will. There is too much thick to fit inside their mold of beauty.
The size of my chest is too much a reflection of my brain’s capacity.
My brother says he will never be a feminist. His knowledge of what the word means is a shallow pond.
My mother does not want to quit her bad habits. She feeds her anxiety like a tumor.
My loving father’s own words, “our privilege is equal.” His blindness to the unbalance I have been trying to hold up with two hands my entire life. I am still lifting with the same force. I have carried too much, for too long, to let go now.
Being woman means too much in a language I do not fully understand. It is skin and bones, it is raw and blood, it is a mouth filled with words unsaid, it is fear and worry, it is an unspoken connection between us all, it is 75 cents to a dollar, it is censored body, it is pornography, it is being too much to handle, it is being equated with less, it is we are the same but we are not treated so, it is we are human in a world we call man’s, it is we have been struggling under the waves for years but we not drowning, it is we are still swimming, it is we will never stop, we cannot.