Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My father's son

          Recently a friend shared a thought-provoking ad, "Like a girl," directed by Lauren Greenfield.  It's a very moving social experiment which focuses on how girls in our culture are belittled by being told, "You run (hit, throw, fight) like a girl!"  While I watched girls on the playground at Glendale-Feilbach Elementary being taunted with this shaming statement many, many times, I was never the recipient.  In response to the video, I wrote my friend yesterday, In the seventies, I had the opposite experience by being told I was my father's "son" because I did everything "like a boy."  
          From the time I was little, I worked hard cutting the grass and washing the cars.  Washing the windows and sweeping out the garage.  I cleaned the basement and hauled the garbage to the curb.  I shoveled snow and raked leaves and did it all with a raw determination to get the job done -- and do it well so I wouldn't have to do it again.  My sisters worked, too, but they were more inclined to do the dishes and clean the house.  Neither of them liked to get dirty while mowing the lawn, so that job was given to me.  It helped that I earned $3.00 each week and an extra dollar if I trimmed nicely.  In this way, I learned the value of hard work and was often obsessive about it, tackling each job with a focused intention. 
          But back in the day, that wasn't very ladylike.

          When I was in first or second grade, my mother sent my older sister and me to a white glove course.  I was supposed to learn how to answer the phone properly.  How to sit with my legs crossed at the ankle.  How to walk with a book on my head to encourage good posture. How to set a nice table with the knife facing toward the plate.  Each week Mom drove us to a downtown department store where I sat with a bunch of other girls and learned how to eat like a girl.  How to talk like a girl.  How to walk like a girl. 
          Not that it did much good.
          A few years later, one of the neighborhood parents laughed at me and said, "You sure are your father's son, Katie."
          I felt both complimented and confused.  At the time I was wearing a tank top and cotton shorts.  My shins were banged and bruised from climbing on the jungle gym and hanging from the monkey bars.  My hair was cut into a short pixie and dirt covered my cheeks and chin.  I was proud to be tough like a boy, but I wasn't a boy.
          I was a girl.
         A few weeks later my family was visiting an elderly relative in a nursing home.  She was in her late eighties and barely remembered my sisters and me from visit to visit, although she never forgot my parents.  As I stood shivering next to my mother in the overly-air conditioned room, the woman squinted at me, then cocked her head.
          She called my mother by her name adding, "I didn't know you had a son."
          Tears beaded in my eyes, but I said nothing until we were on our way to the parking lot.  "Will you perm my hair before I go back to school?" I asked Mom.
          "Of course," she replied, taking my hand.
          From then on I paid more attention to what I wore, how I spoke, how I behaved.  At home I was still rough and tumble, but in school I tried to figure out how to be a girl in a confusing swirl of pre-teen anxiety and self-loathing.
          All through junior high and high school I wore make-up.  Curled my hair.  Tried to behave like the popular girls who had boys following them everywhere.  I always had friends who were boys, but no boyfriends.  The guys I hung around with often told me, "You're really not a girly girl."
          At the time I figured that was code for "you're undesirable."
          It wasn't until just recently that I discovered they were acknowledging the real me beneath my veneer of lip gloss and mousse.  I realize how lucky I was to have such great fellas in my life back then - and even more so right now.

          Yet for most of my life I've been told that I'm too something:  too independent, too articulate, too intimidating, too self-possessed, or too honest.  All of these sound like masculine traits to me, and while I'm not ashamed to embody any of them, I'm still learning how to dial down the volume and breathe life into the woman I am becoming.  Not an easy task.
          When I lived in Big Sur, I worked hard to tap into my femininity, donning dresses to work in the garden, painting my fingernails and wearing a little make-up, just for myself and no one else.  This year I'm letting my hair grow and wearing a lot of pinks and purples and nurturing my softer side.  It's been a long journey to find the passageway through trying to prove myself in this world and simply allowing my work to stand for itself...all the while learning how to go with the flow of life. 
          Even now, I'm only just beginning to experience my femininity as something strong, sensitive, and whole.

          So here's to all the women out there who've had to prove themselves beyond their limits.  To women who are moving past being teased and taunted and made to believe they are shadows of their authentic selves.  Here's to the young girls who are embarking on the often-painful journey of adolescence.  May you all be blessed with loving and courageous support so that you, too, can know the joy of being whole.
          I'm not my father's son, but I'm very proud to say I was a girl who tried her best.  Who didn't always do it well.  Who yelled and screamed and fought to be heard.  Who fell again and again and again, but always got up to try once more.  I was a girl who spent decades trying to figure out how to be a strong woman in a world that is only just beginning to value them. 
          As I was back then, I'm still beautiful the way I am...and so are all of you.

Click here to watch "Like a girl" on youtube