Claiming identity: gender and how we name ourselves
I have been meditating recently on my decision to brand Quaint Magazine as being “for ladies”. Really, it wasn’t a decision so much as it was a natural reaction, a knee-jerk to my own personal feelings about the word “woman”. I didn’t want the magazine to be “woman’s writing” because I had not yet – still have not fully – reconciled my complicated feelings about the word “woman”. “Girl”, however – up until recently my gendered noun of choice – seemed suddenly inappropriate for the depth and scope of what I wanted Quaint to be. I feared that branding the magazine as “girl’s writing” or “girl words” was to trivialize and make juvenile something that had to be, at least a little bit, grown-up and serious. That’s not to say I thought there wasn’t a place for being youthful, care-free and the other attendant things we associate with girlhood in Quaint. I wanted there to be space for that – to be space for, dare I say it, sometimes, a little immaturity, or at least the brashness and silliness and humor and narcissism that are often associated with girlish immaturity – but there had to be space, too, for something more refined and mature. Something the word “girl” failed to conjure, for me.
I settled on “lady” without much thought at all to its classist overtones. I did not think how the word “lady” might, for many people – most, even – be far more exclusionary than the term “woman”, which I had such a personal dislike for. I went with lady not because I necessarily identified as one, or even liked it that much, but because it was the word I drew out of the ether that did not imply either age and decay or immaturity and silliness. I mistakenly thought that, in using “lady”, I was choosing the more inclusive term.
But then I read a number of articles about how female-identified people felt about gendered nouns. How they felt about “woman”, but also “girl”, “lady”, “female”, “chick” etcetera. Their feelings ran the gamut, and many voiced the same uncomfortable feelings I held for the “w” word. That it was matronly. That it conjured up images of someone much older than them, someone misshapen in body, decaying in mind. Someone who had more maturity, more control than they felt they had. Someone like their mother, or grandmother. A real grown up. But the resounding theme was that “woman” sounded old.
I can now acknowledge to myself that my discomfort with the word “woman” stems from my fear of placing myself in a category of older people. I am scared to get older. I am scared to be old. I am scared of my body failing around me, either through physical illness or through a change in shape, size, consistency that will make me hate it, hate its shape and its texture, even more. When I thought more on this, I realized what I was really responding to – where that fear was coming from – was a deeply ingrained social training that had conditioned me to believe that female-identified people were only valuable so long as they were young, pretty, vivacious, flippant, compliant: good breeding stock, in other words. Viable mates.
Society values virginity. It upholds youth. It tells women that they must embody both these things to be relevant, because ultimately it doesn’t matter if you are mature. Maturity of the woman’s mind is of no consequence to our society. Frankly, we would all be easier to deal with if we were less intellectually, emotionally and psychologically mature. And physical maturity – well, to a culture that worships eternal youth, it goes without saying that this form of “growing up” is not desirable.
The funny thing is, as much as I’ve clung to the word “girl”, toted it around with me like a mangy stuffed animal from my childhood, I haven’t really embodied the concept myself for some time. My body was never girlish in the way that we are taught girl’s bodies ought to be: not since puberty, at any rate. I was never the sylph-like, ethereal teenager with the flat, unblemished, petite form that spoke of innocence, of being untouched and pure. Of course, we know that characterizing teenagers of this body type as any of those things is fundamentally ridiculous: people of all body types are all sorts of things, and to ascribe notions of morality to anyone’s body is absurd. But it happens. We deify “girl” bodies. We tell ourselves the lie that female sexuality is less threatening when its wrapped up in a child-like form – where it is rendered immature, burgeoning, more easily controlled.
In truth, I probably gripped so tightly to “girl” because I felt so insecure on the inside. My body, which is/was/will forever be curvy and prone to being overtly (and often incorrectly and offensively) sexualized by the outside world, particularly men, screamed “woman” from the time my mother trotted me into the lingerie store at the age of 13 and the woman fitting me for a bra commented that it was fortunate I’d come in, or my breasts would be around my ankles by the time I was 20. 13. 13, and my body was “woman”, and woman was old, was round, was ugly, was unclean and impure and did not reflect the scared little person I was inside, who wanted more room, more time, to grow into what that word meant.
I have had time now. I am finally beginning – only beginning – to feel better about calling myself a woman. Because there is a time and a place to be a girl, but I think we, as a culture, need to recognize that the notion of girlishness is a tool of oppression. It is so easy to dismiss a girl. She is small in so many ways. She takes up so little space. Keep your smart, sassy, bright female-identified people at odds with this word woman, this word that means to be grown, to be in some sense actualized, confident, more fully oneself – and you keep her quiet. You keep her compliant. You make her afraid to grow up, and by doing so, afraid to open her mouth.
I love things that are considered “girly”. I love some of the trappings of what we might consider immature: I love to stay up all night, love glitter and kittens and children’s books. I love cartoons, I love dying my hair increasingly stupid colors, love the kinds of outpouring of unreasonable emotion we tend to pin solely on teenagers (as if teenagers are the only people entitled to these extreme feelings – another form of self-gagging that we all engage in). I like the color pink, playing dress up, trying out new identities and forms of self-creating and self-expressing – I’m only 27! I can play at being myself for the rest of my life and never figure it out totally, never get bored, have a great time doing it.
But I realize now that none of these things are necessarily reductive. They do not necessarily signify immaturity, and are not intrinsically at odds with being a woman. That is what the patriarchy (yes, there’s that word again) want us to think: that we cannot be grown ass adults, can’t own our gender identity if we like certain things, if we look – or choose to look – a certain way, dress a certain way, behave a certain way. They want us to nervously cleave to the concept of “girl”.
I’m not going to do that anymore. I am going to make a conscious effort, for my own peace of mind, to give up my fear of being old, of being unpretty, of being reproductively irrelevant or undesirable (and thus, somehow, less of a person). Life is too short for that. There’s women’s work to be done, and while my inner child is a little beast who I will continue to nourish and explore and be perplexed by, she does not have the reigns anymore. Society does not get to dismiss me in that way anymore.
So Quaint will be dispensing, I think, with “lady” in the near future (though I haven’t explored at all in this essay, really, the truly problematic nature of that particular word). We need to feel comfortable, as a generation, with identifying as women (if we don’t already). So, women words it is. Up yours, patriarchy.