I was nine years old when I “became a woman,” as my grandmother would say. That concept in and of itself sounds paradoxical, a nine-year-old woman, but at the time it seemed logical because the world around me had always held me to a higher, more mature standard as a young black girl. My family never taught me about what it really meant to be a woman or to possess this obscure organ known as a vagina between my legs. That, among many other miseducations, is likely why I was shocked to discover on Christmas Eve of 2007 that periods do not leave a literal period (like the punctuation) in your underwear as a reminder that you are not pregnant. No, they are in fact much messier and more complicated than my previously anticipated pubic punctuation mark. In my mind, that rude awakening that life is always messier and more complicated than you expect and that it is my responsibility to be prepared for it was my true introduction to womanhood, not my menses.
As a little girl, I had incredible confidence for someone who looked like I did. I was fat, short, snaggle-toothed, and had the hair of the lovechild of a chia pet and a troll doll, but in my eyes, there was nothing wrong with any of this. This unabashed pride in my natural self was something my parents tried to gently guide me away from, nudging me towards healthy snacks and flat irons rather than chocolate pretzels and afro puffs. It wasn’t until I entered puberty at the exceptionally early age of eight and began to develop a “woman’s body” that my carefree nature shifted.
I would argue that for many women, puberty is the thief in the night of the little girl confidence that we as adults long to regain. It wasn’t until I became aware of my womanhood that this confidence became a burden. And too often for women, this awareness of one’s womanhood doesn’t arise organically. For me, it was when I was eight years old and a man commented on my “womanly figure.” At that moment, I became aware of the way that my appearance was constantly being consumed and analyzed by the people, specifically the men, around me.
Regardless of what is between your legs, the common thread I have found between all women is that our womanhood is too often defined by others, rather than our own perceptions. We become concerned with our femininity because a boy in class points out how hairy our legs are. We become obsessed with our weight when our mother informs us that curves are only acceptable when they settle in the “right” places. We lose our little girl confidence in exchange for grown woman anxiety. And for many, it takes years for us to unlearn these insecurities and self-conscious tendencies.
It takes effort for us to embrace that little girl confidence that once came naturally to us, especially in rooms filled with men. It takes a conscious push for us to speak up in boardrooms and classrooms, to share our thoughts without immediately following them with a “but I could be wrong” or a “but that’s just an idea, I don’t know.” Where we once as little girls had the confidence to proclaim to the world (which in our childhood was often only as big as our living room) that we were princesses, scientists, or anything else that our minds could imagine, we now question if we have the qualifications, intelligence, or personality to be the person we want to be.
Womanhood is far too dynamic an identity to be defined by the insecurities we have been socialized to take on. Some level of self-awareness or caution may be good; as an adult, I am definitely grateful that my mother made me conscientious enough to care about brushing my hair and putting on fresh clothes before presenting myself to the world, but we cannot let ourselves be defined by these internal doubts. Becoming a woman is a complicated and shocking experience, regardless of how you come to be one, but in this process, we must work to ensure that we, and the young women who come after us, never lose their little girl confidence while living in a world that tells them that girlhood is something to be ashamed of and womanhood is something to be critiqued. We must learn from the lesson that “becoming a woman” teaches us, that life is always messier and more complicated than you expect, and make the active effort to always be prepared and cautious women like our mothers— whose purses are filled with everything from snacks to first aid kits—, but more importantly, to always be confident, just like the little girls we once were.