to understand how you fit into the world, in the body of a woman

Olwyn Bartis

Note: 

(cover art done by Connie Dean, ℅ 2021)

 

To preface: this piece isn’t really a magazine article, and it lacks any sort of narrative arc that would guarantee a clear beginning, middle, and resolution. It’s more of a prose poem, as it’s meant to read as a stream of consciousness. 

The writing mirrors the flow of emotions that have characterized my experience with being female; the disarray, messiness, bitterness,  and vulnerability I’ve tried to convey throughout this editorial are sensations I’ve struggled to verbalize in “real life.” 

I’ve wanted to write about my own perception of femininity for a while, but lacked the words to do so until recently. And even now, there are still gaps; hence the rambling soliloquy style writing. 

Following through with this piece was difficult; I constantly questioned the content, direction, and tone that my writing took- fitting, given that this, in part, discusses how heavily women are conditioned to internalize external doubt and judgement. I left a lot unsaid, and I definitely glazed over tangents that deserve more articulation. However, I tried to be as honest and candid as possible, and the result was much more long-winded than direct. Anyway. Thanks for reading :)

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I exist within the body of a woman, but I cannot particularly recall the exact moment that I became one.

 

I had been, and always will be, female; I existed within that ambiguous frame society pushes forth; I wholly allowed for its gaping mouth to swallow me entirely. And in this space, after I had been consumed, I became quietly resigned- taking that which was inside of me and unraveling it; I stitched myself into those around me, our bodies and minds seamlessly blended together, melted, even, into a singular entity with a strained voice and yearning heart. 

 

I was not alone in my experience, or my suffering, but I felt as though I were lost at sea. Moving with the tide, I mirrored the motions of those around me- in and out, in and out- believing that the less I resisted, the easier things would become. Instead, my body was swept under; I thrashed and screamed and swam, but the cold water flooded my lungs and I began to drown, sinking deep into the heaviness that so fervently reached for me.

 

That feeling of suffocation, of being weighed on so intensely and without pause, becomes all-encompassing; every interaction and experience a microcosm of this void. It will ravage you initially, it will grab you by your skin and twist you inside out, leaving you hollow- so that when you are ready, you may be filled with all of the things that you are not.

 

I cannot particularly recall the exact moment that I became a woman, but this is how it begins. 
 

When we are young, there is nothing that we cannot do, nothing that we cannot be.

 

Sitting high on our fathers’ shoulders

Laughing as our mothers tickle our sides

Hopscotch on pavement and chalk on our hands

Popsicles and ice-cream on a humid night

Red-faced and sweaty from hours spent outside, running with friends

 

Simple, seemingly insignificant, moments that will convince us that this world is ours; naively, we trust in them.

 

It is not until we are told that One Day we will become Something More that we begin to realize how little we are supposed to do, how little we are supposed to be. Immediately, the veil lifts, and this childlike invincibility disappears; hereafter, we clothe ourselves in shame. The remorse born from existing in female form does not trail you as a shadow would; instead, it seeps through you, down to your bones- a stain that bleeds further into skin the harder you scrub. Maybe this is how to best describe womanhood- the trauma transforms you into a sieve, and you are run through, and then run through again. 
 

Truly, though, I don’t know. Even now, as I attempt to write this, I find myself unable to grasp the right words long enough to hold onto them. I am slipping; tumbling between all of the extremes of how I perceive myself and the other women around me.

The topic of femininity paralyzes me; how can one describe something whose every quality is dictated, manipulated, distorted? 

 

In this way,

 

To be female is to be categorized, checked, compartmentalized, controlled.

To be female is to be objectified, from the moment that someone else decides you are ready.

To be female is to nurture, to love and nourish until your skin has shriveled and your bones have brittled.

To be female is to empathize, to drain yourself of warmth and compassion in an act that will not be reciprocated.

To be female is to hold your breath, to anticipate violence for taking up space.

To be female is to be scrutinized, to feel small when it comes to all things but your body size.

To be female is to not understand who you are, for the world has predetermined what you must be.

To be female is to hurt, and to bleed from a wound that you cannot see. 

To be female is to experience intense shame, for simply existing.
 

I have immersed myself in this guilt, and the strain that comes with it, for an entire 19 years of my life. I’ve bit into this bitterness the way a bullet hole does skin,  permitting it to fragment me and tear me up inside. 

 

As a child, you romanticize your future, and you overestimate the space that you are allowed to occupy, the extent to which you are tolerated. In these precious years, your life is yours alone; and you are the person whom you perceive yourself to be- you are not yet the girl with “the nice ass,” or the girl who “needs to smile more,” not yet the bitch or the slut or the easy fuck. You are just you- a notion that is so overwhelmingly transparent, so straightforward, that it hurts all the more when your identity is ripped from your arms. 

 

And when the shroud raises, things shift so suddenly, so imperceptibly, that there’s hardly time to question whether or not it’s fair. You’re just floating, moving in and out with the undercurrent of those around you- trying to keep yourself from going under, all while wishing for the naivety that you once had. 

 

Maybe this is how to best describe womanhood- the recognition that you are missing something fundamental, an aching for the sensations and experiences you once believed to be the rest of your life.

 

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I’ve returned to this piece dozens of times within the past few days, staring blankly at the computer and willing my fingers to fly; I’ve begged them to bury themselves deep within my organs, to rip out what’s inside and fashion something new. 

Only the words will not come, no matter how sweetly I ask; and I have bitten my lip until it’s bled, torn my fingernails from their beds like stitches out of skin. 

It’s like penance, in a way, this writing- or lack thereof. Yet I do not know to what, or whom, I confess, and I am unsure of how I will be judged. 

 

I do know that I want to say something sanguine; I want to create words that will inspire you with their cheer, their heartfeltness, their perspective. I wish to wipe the bitterness away, like a tear, and replace it with warmth, a blush whose glow beams from your skin. But right now, my hands are empty; I can offer no revelation, no insight, no spirit. There is only venom, and resentment- but perhaps there is power in this, perhaps there is strength in caustic defiance.

 

For our entire lives, from birth until death, are categorized, compartmentalized, controlled. The contents of who we are compressed into tiny pink boxes and packaged away by sterilized gloves. And the joke of it all is not so painfully glaring when we are young, during the years in which we possess both the tenacity and guilelessness needed to test the limits of our constraints. One foot at a time, we do so cheekily; we boast of our accomplishments, assertions, and adventures until a stern, almost anxious voice reprimands our curiosity, hems in our fearlessness. For we are children, and know nothing of the world; and oftentimes, the blaming stems from concern, is indicative of a greater awareness related to what girls can and can not do, whom girls can and cannot be. Regardless, the imprints resulting from these incidents are smudged across our memories; they discolor our self-perception and we come to view our surroundings with the wariness, the timidness, of something preyed upon. In this way, the speaker’s intent does not matter, when young girls are told what they should and should not do. This rule-setting is the first ribbon to be tied around your throat- and soon, you will have so many that hardly a whisper may escape.

 

But what if we murmured fervently enough; what if we sighed all of our sorrows into the vastness before and around us? What if we clawed at the strings around our esophagi until our hands wept red? What would happen then?

 

We are not supposed to stand tall; we are trained, socialized, bred, even, to bow our backs, to strain our shoulders, to hang our heads low and heavy to the ground. Don’t look up; don’t look around; don’t catch sight of all that there is to do and become in this lifetime, if you only occupied another body. 

 

The adolescent invincibility, the determined set of one’s mouth, and the eyes that hungrily take in the world and swallow it whole are peeled from us at an early age. Afterward, we are gutted over and over by labels and judgement and impositions, until we are left clutching that which remains to our sides, exhausted by a chasm that we feel as though we cannot fill. Kindly, society tells us how to fasten ourselves back together, how to sew up the gaping hole in our hearts; and we listen, not knowing what else to do. And so we pursue things that we really have no interest in, and we make ourselves feel dreadful for standing out; we cripple one another with spears that we ourselves are afraid of being pinned by, and we go, go, go, all in a fruitless endeavor to derive some kind of meaning. Desperately trying to pack the fissures that stretch across our spirits. And yet, we still feel a crushing sense of obscurity, a dimness whose expanse threatens to simply wash us away. As though we never occupied space, or left a mark, in the first place. 

 

This is something with which I have grappled immensely; I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, and allow all of the things that I am not to override that which I am, a black pen forcefully etched on top of reluctant penciling. 

And so I’ll sob; and the cracks will split a little further, open a little wider, until I am entirely undone. Until the anguish has taken an edge and turned into something ugly, something furious and outraged and resentful.

 

I used to think that this meant brokenness- that this horrible exasperation had leaked from the jagged edges of my being and tarnished the very air around me. That this acerbity would forever pin me underneath the weight of all the things I’ve been told not to do, not to say, not to be, because I am female. And, as women, we are told that anger is unbecoming. But this rage has begun to make me whole, because it emanates from passion. A burning desire to become more than the mold I’ve been coaxed into; an insatiable greed for all of the experiences, emotions, and sensations I’ve been starved of. 

 

At a certain age, women are planted apart from men; we are trimmed, whittled down, and decorated, while they remain unbounded, untempered, unconquered. These foundations will not change; the seeds will be scattered regardless, but what if we expanded in a different kind of way?

 

Because, 

As we grow up, the years fall the way that petals do

And we are meant to become summer flowers- blooms to be plucked and propped within the hardness of a vase

Intended to flourish, but only for a short while. Then, left to rot.

 

But if we must grow roots,

Would we not become trees?

Left to stand alone beneath an open sky

Unpruned, untamed, unmarked. Unkept.
 

Maybe this is how to best describe womanhood- seizing what you can, and flourishing in spite of it all- being something every second, every minute, every hour, of your life.


 

I EXIST within the body of a woman, and I am constantly becoming more.