It’s a new year. Perhaps all of your friends are also changing their Facebook (TM) profile pictures? One of my friends updated her photo to a head shot of herself and her husband, perhaps sitting on their sofa, in nothing-special, everyday clothes, smiling at the camera in the joy of being alive, and being together, and having a healthy family: the simplest things that are also the priceless gossamer of dreams.
I had several reactions to the image. The first was to check in with my memory about my friend’s husband’s name. The second was that sort of sigh of empathic contentment to see a friend’s happiness. This was followed by the comfort of something so wholesome: happy family made as whole and vibrant by their struggles as by their triumphs. And then I thought about my friend who I have known since middle school, and how grown up she looked. And relaxed. And lovely. I thought, “She looks like a woman who feels she has everything she needs.” And that was the realization for me. A fully realized woman looks like something to me. And what she looks like is my friend in this photo.
I am overjoyed for her. I can only hope that everything captured in that moment and everything I imagine of that moment is true. I hope she feels as realized and whole as I am painting her. But that image made me realize that if she is woman, I am not.
I am genetically and anatomically a female of the human species. Socially, I have been treated as an object of desire by those who find women desirable. No one has ever questioned my choices to wear clothing traditionally reserved for women. My presence in men’s bathrooms has caused surprise. My presence in women’s bathrooms has never had this effect. I have utter faith in the biology of my sex. Yet, there are these moments when I see what a woman is and understand so clearly that I do not belong in that space.
I am not married, nor have I ever been married. It would be ridiculous to argue that marriage makes a woman, but it is a part of the whole. Millenia of human existence has revolved around pair bond mating, primarily between a male and a female of the species, that allows for practical needs to be better met by sharing work and resources; typically leads to offspring and thus perpetuation of the species; and provides a bond that offers some sort of fulfillment that is poorly characterized. I am arguing that that fulfillment is one aspect of what makes a woman.*
I do not have children. In this argument, biology is in my court. Scientists (perhaps with ulterior motives) have defined four stages of breast development in the human female. The last stage is the pregnant breast. A woman who never carries to term never has fully mature breasts.
Of course I know the square-peg/round-hole sensation I got from this image is not really related to the social perceptions or the biological realities of my sex. Though anything I saw beyond a smiling woman and her husband is a complete construct of my imagination, the photo truly boomed an adult human who is utterly confident and fulfilled in her partner, her home, her family. This is a woman.
And more than any of my vital statistics, I do not match that idea(l) of womanhood because I have never tried to be any of those things. For better or for worse, I have spent most of my life being the only something. Sometimes the only female, often the only person of color. There are a lot of ways that being the only can feel: unique, isolating, proud, terrifying, lonely, ambitious, accomplished. I mostly found that feeling any way about it was draining and inconvenient. And so I did my best to obliterate it. To be merely and quietly human. Forget trying to be fulfilled and confident in husband, home, and heritage, I’m not sure I knew what fulfilled was until a few years ago. And if I have confidence I have acquired it quite by accident. I was just trying to be alive, and mostly beyond notice. There’s another one. Nothing about being a woman should be beyond notice.
So I am not a woman because I have chosen to spend most of my life trying to be invisible. I will spare a tablespoon of regret for not being more flamboyant at an age when most would have thought it more ‘appropriate.’ But I am actually rather happy with this realization. Even though, by my own definition, I may never be a woman, I am delighted that my defining woman is my contemporary in age. She doesn’t wear make up. She works for a living. She cleans her own house. She likes to look nice when she has the time and the energy. Her partner loves her whether or not she has the time or the energy. She has let her body do the things a woman’s body does when it bears the heavy fruit of new life. She has accepted the changes and made them into her new body, her new self, her new life. She is a woman, where I am not, perhaps, because she has done these womanly things, so visibly. And yet, their fulfilling sum is merely the stuff of being alive. At least we have some common ground.
*That fulfillment may also make a man, but because I am most likely to try to be a woman, I am not offering that side of the argument.