So Reader, a lovely friend and co-creative peer of mine, Monty, asked me a very interesting question today, that I think I could probably write about till the end of time. He'd read an article in Shortlist this week asking a broad range of men 'What does being a man mean'? and although he'd very much enjoyed the article, he had struggled to answer it, finding it difficult to differentiate between being a male and being a human. In light of this, he asked me
What is your perspective of 'being a woman' or 'to be a woman'? What does it mean to you? Does
that differ from 'being a man'?
Now there's a question and a half. As I said to Monty, there is no right or wrong answer to this, because the outcome will be highly dependent on a huge variety of factors; sociological, cultural and educational. Every woman you ask will give you a different answer, as I expect men would if asked the same question. But this is my personal opinion-I'm not speaking on behalf of all women here, just myself.
In a number of ways, I agree with Monty. We are all human, we deserve the same rights and will have a lot of similar experiences. Saying that, I feel that there are a number of things that help shape us as women and mark us out as being (for want of a better word) different.
So first and foremost you have the obvious differences. Fat settles on us in different ways, we have ovaries, a womb, Fallopian tubes, periods and the ability the bear and feed children. We do not (with the exception of certain genetic minorities) grow facial hair, nor much in the way of body hair. Our hormonal structure is different, which lends itself to us experiencing emotions in a slightly different way to men. There is an old stereotype of women getting sad rather than angry, and it could be said that this is due to us having more estrogen than testosterone in our make up. I am a very good example of this, I am far more likely to cry than shout and can count the times I've been hot ruby red furious on less than two hands. However (and this is a big however) I have spent years on first, the contaceptive pill Yasmin (which alters your emotions), and then the contraceptive implant (which has less of an effect but still can have emotion altering qualities). I was also badly bullied as a kid and standing up for myself usually led to getting either beaten up or taunted, so anger rarely gave me desired results. As I've grown up, I've found that this happens a lot less and I am far more able to deal with anger as an emotion, although I still feel it to be a largely negative one which achieves less results than calm, measured discussion. I do, however, get very very angry on behalf of my friends. I have only slapped two people in my life. One was on a train in Paris, where a teenage boy groped me (completely unprovoked and with no one to stand up for me), the other time being when a dear friend's boyfriend took advantage of another, very drunk friend. I do not condone violence and am far less likely to resort to it these days, preferring instead to use the skills learnt from my mother (a strong, smart woman who uses her words like knives when she needs to) to undermine and defend.
Being a woman is not always a wonderful experience. Being a woman means to be constantly aware of the effect your body may be having and the need to dress in a way that may not create unwanted attention. Or to use your body to create attention. But with that comes guilt and negative connotations. Being a woman means fear of being called either frigid or a slut. Being a woman means a higher level of worry about contraception, as although men would still run the risk of impregnating their partner, they would not have to deal with the physical impact of pregnancy, abortion or childbirth. When you look at a man who is expecting a child, you would not be able to tell, wheras we may as well be wearing a sign that says 'LOOK! I HAD SEX AND NOW I'VE GOT A BABY IN ME!'
Being a woman means we have been told to 'get back in that house young lady' when we wear a skirt too short. I was told at college (a catholic college to be fair) that if we wore revealing clothes and the male teachers had impure thoughts which they acted on, it would be our fault. I have listened to men talk about rape and say 'I'm not saying she asked for it, but...'
Being a woman means that losing my virginity was a huge deal. It meant hours spent in underwear shops talking with my housemate what she could wear for her partner on valentines night. It meant furtively hiding the bags before we left so that no one thought less of us.
Being a woman meant not being allowed to play football for P.E. in primary school. It meant being told trousers were 'unhygenic' in high school.
I was aware of my body very young. I have essentially been on and off a diet since I was 16, although I have never been what would be classed as 'large'. I was flat chested at college and barely got glanced at by boys my age, then suddenly 'blossomed' in my first year of university and had no idea how to deal with the male attention, for the most part not even noticing it had happened or that men were interested in me.
Being a woman means walking past a group of men, having them say something sexually obscene to you, then calling you 'an ugly bitch' when you do not respond.
Being a woman means being told to 'get back in the kitchen', that you're only interested in geek culture to impress men, being told you're a bad driver (even though women statistically have less accidents on the road than men), getting cross in comic book shops because all the women look a certain way, of struggling to find a film where the central theme for women is not a man.
But it's not all bad.
Being a woman means your first experience of buying a bra. I got mine in Dunnes in Ireland with my grandmother and excitedly called my mum to tell her (although there was no way I needed it for a number of years after that). Being a woman means being allowed to be more fluid with your sexuality (we are actually very lucky there, men get far more flack even now for being experimental or coming out as bi or gay). Being a girl means being able to cry without being judged. Being a woman means cosy conversations with your friends where you talk openly about everything under the sun.
Being woman for me in particular means remembering all the women that have come before me. My grandmothers (one a very traditional English housewife who taught me to bake and told me hilarious stories about setting her kitchen on fire, the other a matriarchal Irish woman full of affection and generosity to all she encounters), my amazing mother who worked full time throughout me being a kid, came out with two degrees, travelled the world and found true love with my wonderful dad (who has set me incredibly high standards for what to expect in a partner) as well as always standing up for the rights of women and the belief that anyone can reach the stars. Every woman who comes into my life teaches me something new and leaves me a slightly more built up human being.
Being a woman means singing into a hairbrush, buying too many nail varnishes, discovering and then swiftly rejecting thongs, finding empowering female role models at a young age (Spice Girls anyone?), totally identifying with Anne of Green Gables when you're 13, Jane Eyre when you're 16, Dita Von Teese when you're 18, Lake Bell, Olivia Colman and Rebecca Hall when you're 25 and Bodecia the whole way through your life, knowing how to wear stockings but still having an awkward moment where one falls down halfway through the day.
Being a woman means knowing that what you wear and how you do your make up isn't about pleasing men, it's about who you want to be that day, about wearing the right pair of shoes can make you walk with confidence (like Nigella going into the courtroom of late), about the importance of really good undies, about the joy of not shaving your legs for a while, knowing exactly how long it'll take you to get ready (but somehow always needing another half hour or so), knowing that when you vote, you're not just doing it for yourself but all the women out there who can't vote still and who fought to get you where you are today.
Being a woman means wanting your period for YEARS and then when you get it, freaking out and thinking you're dying because 'that can't be NORMAL?!?! WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!'.
Being a woman means having friends you would kill for, dancing like an idiot, not being able to cope without a handbag to store the essential day to day bits and bobs we could probably live without, naming your boobs and occasionally having conversations with them when you're bored, coming up with rude poems, putting ice cream cones under your top and pretending to be Madonna, being able to talk for hours with the housemate you only saw yesterday, hating, hating, HATING it when people call you 'babe' when they don't know you and loving seeing someone look shocked when you swear really really fucking well when they expected you to be a 'lady' (piss right off, wank faced twat-o-matic).
Being a woman means thinking you want to be a nun for 3 months when you're 14 and then actually going to confirmation lessons and realising that organised religion isn't often very nice to women. It means having HUGE arguments with your nun/teacher about sex before marriage, gay people and contraception and leaving feeling very cross but very proud that you stood your ground.
Being a woman means dealing with your body telling you it wants babies, when you're not ready for them, with having a strange fixation on tiny versions of things, with a sense of great pride when you succeed in a male dominated career, when you stand up for other women, when you perfect applying liquid eyeliner and when you can do more DIY than any man you know.
Being a woman is not a race to rule men-all we want is to be treated equally, but it's still worthy of great pride. Because we work hard, because we are still dealing with prejudice, of stereotypes and negative attitudes. Being a woman is fighting against female circumcision, honour killings, enforced marriage, legal rape (did you know it is still legal to rape your wife in India and many parts of the Middle East?) and lack of independence.
And that, to me, is what being a woman is all about. And that's not nearly half of it. Seriously, I could go on forever.
Thank you to Monty for asking me such a provoking question, and thank you to all the women who have helped form me (and to the men too, because it wasn't just women who got me to where I am today!)