Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues
6.2.1 The literacy of womanhood (argument from experience)
English 102, September 2020
In high school, I was always the odd one out. The only place I actually felt comfortable in was the art room, where I took AP Studio art. This is the space where I felt I belonged, far away from any other student, and safe from any judgement. For my AP portfolio, my concentration was the complexity of femininity. I was inspired to make femininity my focus because of the way I had experienced, and still am experiencing, the perils of womanhood. I was surrounded by girls who I believed I was inferior to because of the way I refused to conform to the typical standards of beauty. I shaved my head the summer before junior year in an attempt to reinvent myself. It was a jarring experience, looking myself in the mirror with no hair for the first time since I was an infant. There was something liberating about it; my hair felt like a mask to me. I used this mask to hide my features, like a safety blanket. I realized how having long hair, simple as it is, has such importance in the common notion of femininity. Long hair, in my cultural experience, is like wearing a tag that shows you are a woman. Boys I went to school with who had long hair always complained of being mistaken for a girl. I had begun to feel this barrier between myself and the other girls I knew. I channeled those feelings into my art, exploring the ways I isolated myself in fear of being seen as ugly, which is the worst thing a woman can be in this world. Many of my pieces included locks of hair from girls and women in my life. Giving up this lock of hair was symbolic of olden times when a woman would give a piece of their hair in a locket or letter to a loved one. To me, it also represented giving up a part small part of your sheath, your shell, your femininity. I also made many collages that depicted how I felt fragmented, and not like a “real” woman. Ripping apart magazines and putting pictures and words into new contexts was cathartic to me. I was creating new meaning; I was writing my own story now. I found myself coming to realizations about why I felt so separate. I realized that I was the one separating myself, because that was what I had been taught to do. Suddenly I felt my love and appreciation for the girls and women around me grow, and I felt this new understanding that I wanted to share with the world.
The particular piece that I want to discuss is a commentary on the high expectations that women face on a daily basis. The collage is titled “Sweet Thing.” The name comes from a sugar packet I found at a local diner, which is included at the top left corner of the piece. This item represents a common experience for women, being called things like “sugar” or “sweet thing,” especially when being cat-called. Women are expected to be sweet and docile, and to never challenge anything, we are supposed to take whatever we get and be happy with it.
In the center of the work is a little piece torn out from a vintage Sears and Roebuck catalogue, which reads, “Do you want to be beautiful? Spotless skin, matchless complexion, the envy and pride.” Put into the context of this collage, this quote highlights the reality of womanhood that we have lived through since the beginning of time. We are pitted against each other, taught to compare and judge and compete with every woman we meet. And after time, it becomes instinct, and we can’t even help that ingrained need to be better, prettier, cooler, more desirable than any other woman we meet.
On the bottom left there is a cutout from a magazine of a woman being held by a man, but the shape of the man has been deliberately cut out. This is meant to represent how women are seen as incomplete without men, how our whole lives lead up to marriage, finding “Mr. Right” and settling down to fulfill our real duties. Having any other life-plan is seen as irregular and not normal, it surprises others if a woman prefers to live alone and not have children.
The broken butterfly toy in the center represents the loss of childhood that women experience so early in our lives, due to being sexualized at such a young age. Many of us do not get to fully live out our childhood, as we are given so many expectations and roles to fill even as a little kid. We are dress coded for having our shoulders out, starting in elementary school. From the day we are born, wrapped in that little pink blanket, there is a path laid out for us.
To be a woman is to live within a certain language. There are some things that cannot be explained, are only felt and shared with glances across the room, smiles of solidarity, offering tissues or tampons in the bathroom, there is a connection that goes beyond words. The commonalities of the female experience span across communities, cultures, and continents. We have all experienced some form of oppression, small or large. Ironically, this gives us a stronger connection. We band together, forming packs. We take in lone wolves, even without knowing them. There is a trust thicker than blood. Society wants to break us apart, make us hate each other. But when we come together, we find power we never knew we had. We look to each other, catch eyes, and send that light of courage, saying “you will get through this, you are not alone.”
We are taught to make plans, our mothers ask “what will you do when you are walking home at night?” and we answer, as if practicing for a test, “hold my keys and pepper spray, pretend to be on the phone, put my head down and avoid eye contact with anyone.” We offer to walk each other to our cars, say “text me when you get home so I know you’re okay.” We know to call each other while in taxis or Ubers, just in case, just in case we are actually in the car with a kidnapper or sexual offender. We bring each other to Planned Parenthood. We go to each other for support during times of distress. We read hundred years old poems from women, from Sappho to Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath, and we think, “me too.” Though the world has changed in infinite ways over the span of human life, the connection between women has never and will never cease to exist. In fact, I believe it will only get stronger as time goes on. There is a certain feeling of safety that comes with being around another woman. We feel that instinct to protect each other. This is what makes us special. Womanhood is a curse, a beautiful curse that I would not trade for anything. Through these words I extend a hand to the women of the world, we are in this together.