When the word “woman” makes you squirm.

International Women’s Day. I’ve never paid much attention to it in the past. In fact, for most of my life, I’ve intentionally avoided anything explicitly feminine.

For some women, the idea of normative femininity is fraught with tension and discomfort, even though they identify squarely as women. I’m one of them.

My relationship with femininity has been complicated my entire life; for a long time, even the word woman made me squirm because it represented so many things that made me uncomfortable. In the 90s, I would’ve been labeled a tomboy. I wore my brother’s clothes, played mostly with boys, and declared my hatred for the color pink often and loudly. I don’t even know if I really hated it. I just knew girls were supposed to like it, and I didn’t want to like girly things because I thought that meant I’d have to dress and behave “like a girl” and that felt weird. I’ve spent lots of time trying to decipher the reason for that, but I’ll save it for my memoir. 😉

A little to my folks’ chagrin, I think, I had few girlfriends. I didn’t fit in very well with most of them, and when I tried to, I came up feeling inadequate and like an imposter, so most of the ones I hung out with were like me in that way. The thing is, when you’re a girl who’s afraid of other girls and so are the girls you’ll probably get along with, it’s hard to find each other because you’re all hiding. I am undeniably a social creature, though, so I had lots of friends, but they were mostly boys.

During my sophomore year in high school, I decided it was time to step up my girl game. I started by shopping on the girls’ side of the store and donating most of my “boy clothes”; I realize there’s nothing particularly dramatic about that change, but at the time, it felt huge. I bought low rise jeans and fitted t-shirts, then spent most of my time tugging on them and “sucking it in” because everything felt too short or too low or too tight. Being disabled exacerbated the issue; sitting in tight jeans was uncomfortable and I was convinced that it made me look fat, and my stomach showed when I walked because my back arched with each step I took.

I was committed, though. I asked my mom to make me a dress, bought some makeup I had no idea how to use, waxed my muppet eyebrows, and went to the Snow Daze dance. There was no magical transformation. I couldn’t walk in the shoes I’d convinced myself I needed to wear with my dress, the stylist removed all but a single row of eyebrow hair, leaving me looking surprised for weeks, and I spent most of the evening feeling out of place. In my experience, going to a dance as the only wheelchair user was a drag on account of the fact that I was eye level with the body parts other kids were grinding on each other. The only things that went well were that I did an ok job on my very sparse makeup and I got a little attention from an upperclassman I had a crush on.

After that, I stuck to my new wardrobe for the most part, continued to feel insecure around girls and women, and had no idea how to talk about it, or if there was even anything to talk about. I had no idea why femininity was so awkward for me, but I had an intense, crippling fear of being judged for it. It manifested as hostility toward the idea of having girlfriends—something I’m still paying for in the currency of isolation. As a mother, I find that my understanding of my own femininity and need for other women have both grown exponentially, and I was ill-prepared for that. Now I know that I simply don’t fit the social construct for femininity, and I’m ok with it, but it’s been a long and often lonely road, and it’s one I hope I can help Arwen avoid.

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Arwen, darling, you can wear a sparkly pink tutu one day and sneakers and overalls the next. Wear your tutu over your overalls if you want. You can play football (ok, maybe not because of head injuries, but you get the idea) and take ballet. Scrape your knees and elbows and don’t worry about keeping them pretty. Bodies are meant to be used. You can play with dolls and trucks. Hell, your dolls can drive the trucks. You can pig out on pizza, beer, and donuts in your sweats on Friday night, then get a manicure in a pretty sundress on Saturday. You don’t have to suck it in. Don’t let anyone tell you that your feistiness or strong opinions are unladylike. Your body is perfect, and you have the right to love it. You need to. You also have the right to be happy. Your daddy wants you to know that. You can have long hair or short hair or no hair or blue hair. Bows or baseball caps or mohawks or all of the above. Play the flute or the drums or sing. Spend more time thinking about others than you do yourself—that’s the best antidote for insecurity. Whatever you do, march or twirl or cartwheel to your own beat and know that you’re cherished.

Women, allow International Women’s Day to remind you that your experience of femininity and womanhood is valid, regardless of what other people act or look like. Go forth and be your most authentic yous, and remind the women around you that you’ll love the authentic versions of them, too.

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