“Aspire to be women. Not girls.”
My friend Lulu recently tweeted the above and it really struck me. A simple message, stated perfectly. It refers to a larger theme that I’ve been recycling in my brain for a while now (I’m talking two plus years here), but that I’ve been afraid to tackle simply because there’s so much to say about it.
Luckily for me, she mastered the art of summing it up succinctly, and, in doing so, egged me on to finally unpack what I believe to be some of the differences between being a woman and a girl. I’m not talking about your biological clock, as many technical “women” stay stunted in the girl-sphere forever, whilst some younger chicks seem to come out of the womb purely for the sake of providing Little Women with an IRL counterpart.
I’m pretty sure I’m neither of the above–I wasn’t a Tavi-level adolescent, nor am I a stuck-in-her-ways lady-child. While I’ve probably always harbored a few mature qualities, they were subsumed by some epic girlishness growing up. I’m not referring here to swaths of pink and tea parties (although the latter did occasionally take place), but more an attitude. Depending on the age we point to, this involved a combination of the following: insecurity dressed up as something else (usually faux-confidence), sexual confusion/fear, meanness and cattiness, the yearning to assert myself—whoever I am—without knowing how, or even feeling comfortable with that self.
Before you scold me for potentially buying into gender stereotypes, I should make it clear that I don’t believe girls are “born this way” a la Gaga. I don’t think the Mean Girls script is embedded into our X chromosomes, but instead a societal construct that we’re born into and nearly forced to inhabit after images of women behaving badly and competing endlessly are shoved down our throats. Everyone else with a vagina is competition, doing something or everything better than ourselves—this is made clear to us from the start. “There are only so many nice, attractive mates in the world, only so many A pluses to give out and plumb career spots to receive,” we’re told. So while we certainly befriend other females as we age, it’s hard to shake the sense that we must keep them all at a theoretical arms length.
For me this manifested itself in many ugly ways, and I had the tables turned on me painfully often, too. There were plenty of tug-of-war situations over shitty guys, where instead of reflecting on the usually manipulative role of the dude in the situation, we women ripped each other apart instead. To use an irritating phrase, it was “bros before hoes,” not the other way around. On days when I felt particularly unworthy of love, filled with some kind of self-loathing that I projected onto various body parts—say, my nose or scar—I would try to lift myself up by taking others down a few pegs. Of course I didn’t realize what was going on at the time, how blatantly I was projecting my issues onto innocent bystanders.
And like I said, the shit-stream flowed both ways, with many girls tearing both my anatomy and my character to shreds. Woe is me, I often thought—and while it stung, and sometimes paralyzed, it’s too bad I couldn’t realize the hypocrisy in my discomfort.
But if there’s anything I know I’ve really succeeded in overcoming, it’s that caricature of being a girl. Perhaps going through a few truly life-altering struggles of my own allowed me to empathize more, to view other ladies with a softer lens. I just can’t get off to tearing other women down, and while I’d like to say this goes for everyone else, too, I know that’s not the case. I still see many girls-not-women who seem to spend all their time playing a cruel game of Operation with other females, poking and prodding at any noticeable setbacks or purported flaws. These are the girls who still find other people’s boyfriends fair game—in fact, the ideal game—and those who follow up references to their “best friends” with a stream of insulting put-downs.
Feminism is still a dirty word to them, even if they don’t quite know it, because instead of trying to make our space on earth a safe one, they are simply trying to carve out a platform for themselves, above the rest. It’s a shame, because asserting your own femininity holds little weight if it’s used to bring down other members of the XX club.
I don’t mean to say that I am some perfect specimen of woman now, hear me roar and all that jazz—but simply that I know to check myself whenever I feel my own insecurities beginning to manifest in unproductive ways. I find myself much happier for the successes of other women than I once did, wanting to help them all kick the world’s ass in whatever small way I can—even if it means they’ll be winning at the life game a little sooner than I am. I’ve stopped looking at the collection of women in my life as running some invisible race, and started to think about what’s beneath that warped idea altogether. I want to dismantle that phenomenon, rather than dismantling any pseudo competitors.
Of course, I’ll never be singing kumbaya with everyone I meet—I’m not perfect, despite any absurd efforts to will that into being. I find it difficult to hang out with those who are still stuck in girl world, but I don’t dislike them or send vague bad vibes in their direction. I feel for them, because I know what it’s like to walk around in that headspace, and it’s awful. I want to shake them and show them the proverbial light, but it’s probably best to let them find it in their own time. And, of course, it’s hard to work on everyone else if I’m still very much working on myself, too.
But I am proud of having overcome a lot of those barriers, which may seem like the smallest feat, but you’d be mistaken because they’re so ingrained. The reality that there are women in the world that are apparently prettier, smarter, and more successful than me—and that that will always be the case—no longer sends me into some sort of bitchy, apoplectic tizzy. I want to get to know these women, pick their brains, let them inspire me, and better my life simply by their awesome presence.
It’s about rethinking the narrative we’ve been born into, laughing at Mean Girls rather than recreating our own version. It’s about baking a great, gooey pie, not merely perfecting one rigid, self-absorbed slice. That’s how I spell out the difference between girls and women—the latter are consciously working to overcome all the nasty barriers that have been put up in our midst, viewing the others as part of a home team instead of as travelers who exist purely to be beaten.
Image c/o badass French babe, Jeanne Damas