Bodies, Autonomy, and Feeling Like a Woman

CW: non-graphic discussion of periods

For a year or so when I was a kid, this was one of my favorite songs. My dance teacher loved this album, and when my mom bought me my own copy, I soon fell in love with it too. For me, the whole album felt like a proud declaration of womanhood. Shania Twain was sassy, sexy, independent, and full of love and I wanted to be like that someday. I wanted to understand experientially what feeling like a woman meant. I couldn’t wait until I reached that point.

But then I turned nine. And a few months later, my period started which I was told marked my entry into womanhood. Somehow, the fact that my body could now prepare to have children made me more of a woman than I had been the day before regardless of the fact that I still didn’t feel like a woman at all.

This kind of womanhood didn’t seem accurate or fair. Why was my body the final authority on my womanhood especially when it was doing things I had never asked it to do? Why was this child-bearing focused womanhood being forced on me when I didn’t want children now or possibly ever? And why wasn’t it okay to not feel proud or happy that my body was trying to coerce me into a womanhood I’d never agreed to?

I hated this womanhood and I hated my body for pushing me into it, but as resentful as I felt, I couldn’t let go of my yearning to feel like a woman someday. I struggled with the idea that maybe conceding to what my body seemed to expect from me was the only way to truly feel like a woman and, as I increasingly cared about, to be seen by others as one. As much as it didn’t seem right, I considered that maybe the peremptory messages I began noticing after my period started, messages asserting that my menstruating body would produce an unavoidable desire to have somebody’s baby someday, were true. Maybe, I was just too young for those feelings to have kicked in yet. Eventually, when my mind was more mature, I would enter into the next stage of womanhood, the complete stage.

As I got older and started seeing pieces of the womanhood I’d yearned for as a kid forming in me, I didn’t feel any closer to the womanhood my body was endorsing. Many of my girl friends showed signs of that womanhood – cooing over any baby that came into school and daydreaming out loud about having a baby of their own someday – but I could never get myself to feel those things. I still felt trapped by my body and the messages equating true womanhood with mothering and child bearing which only seemed to get stronger as I aged, but as I heard more of the messages, I also began to feel a little broken.

What if I couldn’t appreciate my body’s ability to create life because something was broken inside of me? What if, as some boys had claimed throughout part of middle school, I wasn’t really a girl/woman, at least not a full one? What if I could only ever attain a partial womanhood because something was missing or unbalanced in me?

Sure, womanhood included more than having children. My teen years had made that clear. But my teen years had also shown me how much less other aspects of womanhood counted in the world at large if that one aspect was missing. People disagreed on a lot of aspects of womanhood and on a lot of the things that could “prove” a woman’s womanhood. But I had heard very few people disagree about the connection between having kids and womanhood. Wanting and having kids was considered fundamental to womanhood, and if I didn’t want that for my life, than what kind of womanhood could I have really?

Seven years out of high school, three years out of college, and a three week women’s studies program and countless hours of reading and discussing gender and bodies in between, and I still sometimes feel all these things. I still feel frustrated that my body can reproduce when I’m almost certain I will never want biological children, and I now also feel guilty knowing some of the countless women who wish their bodies could give them the children they desire. I still wonder if the type of womanhood I’m trying to live is good enough. Will anyone love a woman who refuses this “fundamental” aspect of her body? Will people I love still consider me a full woman if I take every step possible to make sure I never have biological children? Is conceding to my body’s ability my only option eventually whether I like it or not?

I can’t answer any of my questions. I can’t even optimistically declare that one day these questions and worries will all go away.

But today, I can say that despite all of this, in many ways, I do feel like a woman. Not necessarily the woman I imagined when I was a kid. Not necessarily the woman society has told me I should be. But a woman nonetheless.

Perhaps, in the long run, that feeling will be all that really matters.



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