[This is one of a series of posts on Caitlin Moran's book How to Be a Woman. Click here for other posts in this series.]
In the book How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran says, “- just as with winning the lottery, or becoming famous – there is no manual for becoming a woman, even though the stakes are so high.”
How old were you when you last felt completely like yourself without checking in with the rest of the world to see if you were “acceptable”? I felt most like myself when I was nine. Obsessed with horses, sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut, wearing a navy blue sailor dress that my mom made me, and devouring Trixie Belden books by the stack full, I couldn’t have been any more my true self. I didn’t give a shit whether I was cool or not, whether my socks matched, whether boys thought I was cute. I lived for my weekly horseback riding lessons and loved to hang with my family. Life was good. It was simple. I had no doubt who I was or how to behave.
And then came this strange cocktail mixture of estrogen, cultural expectations, Mormon culture gender roles, and feeling intensely compelled to catch up with my older sister. I remember being in Fifth Grade and asking my friend Julie – the cutest, most stylin’ girl at school if she would go school shopping with me before Sixth Grade. There was a part of me that looked at my knickers and sad t-shirt (Remember knickers in 1982? I’m not talking about those “British knickers” that Moran refers to.) that knew on an completely primal, animalistic level, that I was about to get socially eaten alive in Middle School. Julie said, “Oh! Just go to the stores and see what there is a lot of. Buy that, and you’ll be fine.”
And so I did. I tagged long on a shopping trip with my big sister to the Esprit outlet in San Francisco. I spent my babysitting money on a turquoise layered mini skirt with matching top that said ESPRIT really large on it (so everyone would know what BRAND it was… the first rule of being cool) and plastic beads to match. It was so 80’s. And so was my new haircut… feathered short on the sides, longer in the back. And that was just the start of a succession of other equally awful haircuts and perms-gone-wild and tacky clothing concoctions in my flailing attempts to just be normal – normal being something that I could never quite figure out.
Gone were the days of confidently knowing who I was. I was more obsessed with who I wanted to become. And, the problem was that who I wanted to be would change from day to day, year to year. Layer on some cultural expectations, both at home, at church, at school – and it was a God-awful mess. I was a rampant disappointment to somebody at all times and thus birthed the crazy girl in my head who began to whisper… “you’re doing it wrong.”
And don’t get me started on boys. In a house with no brothers and three sisters, I had no clue how to behave normally around boys – especially the cute ones. I don’t have a flirty bone in my body, despite failed attempts to find one. All I had to guide me were the examples of those around me, and some very limited pop culture. It seemed that the girls who got the cute boys were… well, cute. They were petite, they were stylish, they were dumb and giggly. And try as I might, I’ve never been any of those things.
All of that shifting and trying on new identities and rejection of the world had its way of slowly strangling and starving that little girl inside of me. The crazy girl in my head was taking over and catching every reflection in every window I passed, comparing the width of my hips with the cute girl’s next to me. “Damn”, she would say… “your hips are much wider.” In the days of Kate Moss’s flat-chested, heroin-chic popularity, I was also trying to hide other curves as well. The solution to all of my problems was simple, said the crazy girl in my head. “Eat less. Exercise more (Helloooo Jane Fonda!), lose weight, squeeze yourself into the shape of a boy again, no matter what it takes. Eat even less, and if you fail at that, spend a little time over the toilet. If you fail at that, exercise more. If you fail at that, well then – you are just a complete lazy-ass. And – whatever you do…. Don’t act naturally.”
Stop acting naturally long enough, and you’ll just get pissed off. Enter my most self-destructive phase of female development. My dark phase… which I now affectionately refer to as my “fuck it all to hell” phase. This is the stage where I refused to wear anything with color… just black. Black clothes, black eye liner, men’s shoes. Whatev. I don’t care what you think about me. Except that I’m cool and dark and I write really bad poetry about how the world sucks. And nothing is fair. And world – I am noticing how you treat women and I’m not sure I want to be one. But I’ll sure as hell tell my Sunday School teacher that he’s sexist, and that I have no intention of buying into that crap. And any boy who is cool will like me anyway, and if they don’t I’ll be fine alone forever. Perhaps nobody fully understands the musical genius of Morrissey more than all of us pissed off, dark, brooding teenage girls from the 1980’s. Thank God for Morrissey.
I lit a bit brighter in college and slowly climbed out of that hole. I suppose I gave in to the pressures around me a bit and began trying out the whole “mainstream human thing”. Yet, the first thing I did at BYU was head to the University Mall – straight to Claire’s Accessories where at every visit I was compelled – as if by some unseen force – to get a new set of earrings. Multiple earrings were something forbidden by both my mother and my culture and my current school. By the time I came home from Freshman Year to attend college in California, I had seven studs running up my ears. Not a big deal by today’s standards, but it was big for me in my world.
So when I read this passage from Moran’s book, I finally understood what THAT was all about:
“But the problem with battling yourself is that even if you win, you lose. At some point – scarred and exhausted – you either accept that you must become a woman – that you are a woman – or you die. This is the brutal, root truth of adolescence – that it is often a long, painful campaign of attrition. Those self-harming girls, with the latticework of razor cuts on their arms and thighs, are just reminding themselves that their body is a battlefield. If you don’t have the stomach for razors, a tattoo will do, or even just the lightning snap of the earring gun in Claire’s Accessories. There. There you are. You have just dropped a marker pin on your body, to reclaim yourself, to remind you where you are: inside yourself. Somewhere. Somewhere in there.”
I am still getting over the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the pain of losing myself in my adolescence and the attempt to mainstream myself into “normality”. That crazy girl in my mind has now matured into a crazy woman living in my mind. I’ve been putting her in her place more, but she does like to make a subtle, sneaky appearance on a daily basis.
I dive deep now to find that little nerdy nine year old girl living inside of me. She’s so cool. She keeps telling me to swear, because she’s an adult now, and she can do that. She tells me to buy a t-shirt with a picture of a horse on it again, and a pair of moccasin boots. Yes… moccasin boots – the kind with multiple layers of fringe on them. The crazy lady in my head has been trying to talk me out of it. She says, “Oh honey, you can’t pull that off.” But I’m older and wiser now. I’m on to you, crazy lady. So I just tell her, “Oh, you just wait and see!”
I’ve spent most of my adult years just trying to connect with my center. That center part of me that doesn’t change, and doesn’t care about what others think. The center part of me is kind, and funny and confident. At my core, I’m tender hearted and wise and simple. I DO love horses. The inner me moves from a sense of wholeness and loves her curves and really had no problem growing into a full-fledged woman. (But oddly, hates the word woman.) I like spending time at the heart of who I am and I’m happy to reclaim myself more and more every day. I planned it subconsciously, way back in 1990 at BYU when I couldn’t stop dropping marker pins on my body so that I could come back someday and fully reclaim myself, like a coat checked and tagged at a large venue. “I am in here…”, is the constant whispering from deep within. “Over here…. H7… remember?”
Please excuse me – I need to sign off to go find some moccasin boots with plenty of fringe.