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.

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A Black Woman’s Thoughts on (White) Women’s Spaces

When I enter women-only spaces that are predominantly white, in person or online, small or large, I remember moments like the time a white woman asked me whether I thought the challenges Black female leaders in the military face were due to racism or sexism or both as if I could neatly divide the effects of racism and sexism on Black women. I remember white women in a class on human diversity and social interaction co-opting a discussion on racism with sobs about their guilt over their privilege while the handful of Black students in the room sat silent and impassive watching the Black adjunct allow it to happen. I remember growing up in small, predominantly white Christian schools where white girls who called themselves my friends told me directly and indirectly that I wasn’t Black enough to enjoy Black culture or alternatively that Blackness was something that anyone could put on to add entertainment to a space and thus shouldn’t be an important differentiating factor between my view of the world and theirs. I remember, and I am immediately fatigued at the thought of being in a space where any of those moments (or similar moments) could happen again.

That is why women’s spaces are not inherently safe or healing for me. Too often, generic women’s spaces (i.e. spaces not specifically for women of color/Black women) have been draining and silencing. They have made me fear speaking my truth because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or ruin my interracial friendships. And when I have dared to speak my truth despite my fears, they have made more space for white women to speak out of their entitlement than for me to speak out of my personal experiences.

I wanted for so long to believe that intentional women-only spaces, especially feminist ones, were near utopias where regardless of race, class, ability status, sexual orientation, etc. women could bond in universal womanhood and be protected from the oppression of mainstream society, especially in the form of patriarchy. But the more time I’ve spent in predominantly white women’s spaces, the more deeply I’ve understood how unjustified that belief was. White women are just as likely as white men to put their interests, wants, and needs ahead of the needs, wants, and interests of Black women. In the past three years, I’ve seen white women turn the aftermath of almost every racism-based tragedy in America into a moment to prioritize their feelings about race relations over Black women’s (and honestly Black people in general). I have seen numerous white women discuss feminist issues without making even a small space to consider how race plays into those issues. And each time these things happen, I have found myself alternating between staying silent or treading ever so carefully with my words lest I shatter the glass cage of white fragility protecting women’s spaces.

That is tiring work, and I am finally fed up with it. I have been disappointed by predominantly white women’s groups too many times to keep hoping for the best. At least, for now. Which is why I’m taking a break from these spaces in person and online. Not because I hate white women or because I don’t think I can form any honest, deep emotional connections with them. Not because I don’t believe any good can come from predominantly white women’s spaces. But because I’m at a point in my life where I can neither be silent in the face of white entitlement nor waste the precious emotional resources I have fighting white privilege in spaces I sought out for rejuvenation.

God truly bless the Black women who have the energy to fight that fight. I don’t expect to be joining their ranks any time soon.