March 19th., 1979. Passaic, New Jersey. USA
I’d been feeling weird for several days, with no real idea of what was going on. That morning, Saint Joseph’s Day, Father’s Day for Spaniards, I knew that it was because I had left behind my childhood. I Was a Woman Now.
My body had begun changing a few months after my tenth birthday. Strange hair had started growing in strange places like my armpits and my legs and between my legs. Of course, I knew about the changes I would eventually experiment and why. It was called ‘becoming a woman’ and all I could think is that it would really be scary. I envisioned a process similar to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly overnight
I already had acne, which did little to improve my self esteem. I wasn’t the prettiest or the brightest in my class. I was more a tomboy than a little princess. Riding my bike was far more interesting than playing with dolls because I could get out of the house and explore. I had never had much in common with most other girls so I wondered (and secretly hoped ) if when I finally ‘became a woman’ , I’d also be allowed into the Secret Female Club that taught you how to be a Real Woman, whatever that was supposed to be.
I’d heard about it very often.
A Real Woman was immaculately clean. You could not be a Real Woman and be untidy. This included your house, your children (because a Real Woman is a mother, always a mother and nothing but a mother from the second she gives birth, which she must think of from her twenties onwards), your husband (and/or your significant others, because you need a significant other), and of course yourself. Always clean, shaved legs and armpits (not shaving equals being slovenly) and smelling of sugar and spice and everything nice. I wondered how such a feat could be achieved by the likes of me. It seemed inconceivable at the time.
A Real Woman must complain about men but comply with all they wish. She must not form any deeper relationship with a woman than she has with the men in her life, for they are the measure of herself that matters. She should criticise them but always making excuses for their shortcomings and the times they let her down. However she should expect more from herself and other women, and feel guilty and responsible for other people’s behaviour towards her.
A Real Woman should be better than a man but believe herself to be worse. She should not accept compliments but brush them off. She should not think highly of herself but ‘make men respect her’, meaning being ‘hard to get’ for men and denying them access to her body.
In all, I found it hard to understand and quite illogical.
A couple of years before I ‘became a woman’, I had an incident with a classmate on the school playground. I was standing, hands on waist, looking towards my friends with whom I was playing tag when one of the boys from my class came running past me and flipped my skirt up, revealing my leotard clad legs up their entire length. Then, to my surprise, he just stopped by me and grinned dumbly, as if pleased with his feat. I was angry and shocked but still I reacted lashing out my hand towards his face. I am truly clumsy, so I was surprised to feel my hand collide with his nose. I had no sooner lowered my hand when he stopped smiling and his nose started bleeding. He went running over to where the teachers were and complained to them that I’d hit him. I caught up with him and explained the case, that I had slapped him because he had lifted my skirt in front of the whole school for no reason. He was taken to the nurse. I was taken to my classroom and lectured about how wrong I had been striking my classmate. I said that I wasn’t happy about it but that I had only done it because he had lifted my skirt and then gloated in front of me.
I was told I must apologise, to which I agreed. I thought I had explained my case and that we would both apologise. When he returned to the classroom, I was made to apologise in front of all the class. He magnanimously accepted and sat down.
I looked at him in disbelief and then I looked at the teacher. I asked her why he hadn’t apologised to me. She looked at me and shook her head. Apparently, I hadn’t suffered any damage while he had had a bloodied nose. I answered, a little too loudly it seems, that he had ridiculed me and lifted my skirt up for no reason. She took me aside by the arm, told me to pipe down and explained that I had not been physically hurt and that I should be flattered because the boy had done it because he liked me. I was sure I had heard wrong.
So I learned a lesson: if a boy liked me he would tease me, make fun of me and even ridicule me. Was that what I could expect of men? I thought I must have misunderstood.
The following school year, I pushed a boy I liked and was consequently told that it was very unkind of me to push him. When I replied that I liked him and we were pushing each other, just playing, I got a strange look from the teacher along with some useful advice: girls that are too loud and too rough will never be liked by boys. This was said in a tone that implied that being liked and valued by boys was a very desirable thing.
Things were uneven for me, as for other girls, from the school playground up.
But back to The Day I Became A Woman… In a way, it was a relief to know, once and for all, that the uneasiness and physical tiredness and the minor aches and pains (luckily for me) were only a sign of ‘the waxing and waning of hormones’. That was the definition I found in a biology book in the school library. My mother had explained it to me around the age of nine, along with the admonition that sex was out of bounds until I was married. I remember asking her if boys had to wait til they got married to have sex. She looked at me shaking her head and said that if a man reached a certain age without having ‘sown his wild oats’ he would be useless, as he was more probably than not, gay. So I learned the lesson: boys could do what they wanted.
They could have sex with the slutty girls or -gasp- with other boys, but the good girls had to keep away from them even if we loved them. Especially if we loved them. A man would lose interest and respect for you if you slept with him before having a ring on your finger. So I asked her what was so good about being a good girl. She said that it was the best thing because a good girl didn’t need a man, only as a father for her children. So women are better than men? No, of course not. We need men.
Gosh, this was a mess. I needed men but I couldn’t/shouldn’t ‘give in’ because they wouldn’t respect me. This would all change when I got one to put a ring on my finger.
I wasn’t too interested in boys at the age of eleven, which made me think that I could, at least, learn about other aspects of being a Real Woman, like makeup and high heels to camouflage my acne and elevate my 5 foot frame a little higher. When I asked my mother about using lipstick and buying a pair of high heeled sandals, the look of disbelief and disgust I got back was enough to make me understand that this was, again, something out of bounds.
And then it got really weird. She told me that I was just a girl, that I’d have to wait til I grew up. My jaw dropped. Wasn’t I A Woman Now? Wasn’t bleeding five days a month tribute enough to pay for wearing a dash of lipstick or a pair of heels? I had to be wary of men, but men didn’t look at girls, did they? What was all the fuss about, then? I couldn’t play like I always had but I got nothing in exchange for my new status, for my lost days of exploring and hanging out with whoever I wanted?
In the end, my dad bought me a pair of black leather pumps like Olivia Newton John wore in ‘Grease’. I tried to ride my bike with them. I fell off a few times, so I ended up giving them to a friend of mine who was three years older than me and who everybody considered old enough to do the heels justice.
Some things were out of my reach in spite of Being A Woman Now.
There were things that I could do now that I Was A Woman, though.
I could speak more softly.
I could mind my manners and sit like a lady.
I could wear a bra to keep my breasts covered, although I barely had any, and I wore oversized clothes most of the time.
I could learn to be less impertinent, ask less questions, learn to do more housework…
Wait, what? MORE housework? I could cook, I knew how to make beds, sweep, dust, mop, use a washing machine, wash dishes… which I did on a regular basis. But now I had to learn how to organise a house. This, in case you don’t know, means being able to do all of the above tasks with a smile and making it seem easy. So easy it almost seems like magic. Clothes get washed, dried, ironed and folded magically. Dishes get washed with a snap of the fingers. Chores get done and people get fed without a blink, while you remain perfectly dressed and coiffed. This is the ultimate sign and aspiration of A Real Woman: making everything function flawlessly without letting on that you’re dead tired and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If you must, cry at night when you’re alone, but don’t let your husband hear you. You are the strong one. Men must revere you for your spotless house and gourmet meals, but no mushiness.
Because I Am A Woman Now.
End of Part One