Life Skills Unlocked: Being a Girl

I can still remember the exact moment when I decided that being a girl was bullshit.

I had spent my first few formative years generally unfazed by gender roles. Sure, I had to wear horrendous dresses on special occasions, and that seemed unfair. My brother wore shirts and shorts and ran around like a loon while I wore dresses with collars that could have doubled as bibs and faced instant restrictions.

“Don’t sit like that.”

“Don’t get dirty.”

“No, you can’t climb trees in a dress.”

My best friend was a boy we’ll call P, and together we would spend afternoons watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and made dramatic explosion sounds as we mashed his Micro Machines into the carpet. We rollerskated in the church carpark beside his home, falling hard and getting back up again, wincing when we had to brush the grit and gravel out of our grazes.

As we grew older, things started to feel different. I remember trying not to be upset when P’s older brothers told me I couldn’t play football with them because I was a girl*. I didn’t really understand it at the time. We were the same, after all. I could do all the things P could do. I could do some of those things better than P could. I didn’t understand being made to sit on the sidelines – literally – to watch the boys. It annoyed me.

I spent long summer evenings scrabbling in the dirt with my brother and our friend A, making a ‘den’ in the bushes by the train tracks. We cleared the area with all the finesse of adolescent gorillas, then swept it clear of leaves with “brushes” made from branches. We dug seats into the slope of the earth, and sat under the canopy of Rowan trees to talk about films or music or school or cartoons. I didn’t feel any different most of the time…

But still.

I noticed that in general there were expectations of me that didn’t extend to my brother. I was expected to be quieter. More patient. More obedient. More gentle. More pleasant. I couldn’t sit cross-legged or sprawled out on the floor, I had to sit with my knees together. I couldn’t laugh as hard. I couldn’t shout as loud. My clothes were less comfortable. My pockets were smaller.

It annoyed me.

For a long time I thought it was because my brother was younger than me. I thought maybe he was allowed to have more fun because he was the baby. It didn’t cross my mind that he was allowed to have more fun because he was a boy.

I was sent to an all-girls school. I collected worms at break time. I made friends with the groundskeeper and followed him around until my teacher, probably concerned about impropriety, pulled me away and told me off. I made friends with a quiet French girl with an apple orchard in her garden, and spent a lot of time after school hanging upside down from the trees until my head felt both heavy and light at the same time.

I started to notice double standards. When boys talked about each other they were “venting”. When girls did it they were “gossiping.” When guys did something funny but malicious it was “banter.” If a girl did it she was “being a bitch.” The expectations I’d noticed when I was younger seemed to spread. The clothes got tighter and less comfortable. Some of the pockets disappeared altogether.

And then one day, I woke up feeling terrible. Every part of me hurt, and I felt heavy and sad, as if I’d had an awful nightmare that I couldn’t quite remember but that had left behind an emotional hangover of epic proportions. After breakfast I still felt strange. I went to the bathroom and closed the door. Taking a deep breath, I pulled my trousers down and found blood. Just… a lot of blood. I stared blankly at it. I didn’t know where it had come from or why it was there. I supposed I was probably dying. I didn’t know what to do, so I cleaned it up as best I could and then carefully folded up some toilet paper and put it in my underwear.

I walked around in a haze for about five minutes, wondering how I should break the news to my parents. I was pretty resigned to this fate of death by unexplained blood loss; my main concern was how to bring it up with my mother. Eventually I decided I had to tell her, and I caught her elbow as she was going up the stairs.

“Something is wrong with me,” I said.

“What?”

“There’s blood…” I trailed off uncomfortably.

She looked at me and then pulled me to the bathroom, where she told me that actually this is just something that happens and handed me a sanitary pad from the top of her wardrobe.

My mind was exploding. This was a thing? I had always thought bleeding was bad, but now I was being told that sometimes bleeding was just a normal occurrence. I unwrapped the sanitary pad and stared at it. It looked like it had been cut out of a baby’s nappy. I put it in my underwear. I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. I tried not to cry.

Half an hour later, I was out on the street, bursting with questions for my mother. Why did this happen? Why hadn’t it happened before? When would this happen again? How long does it go on for?

She was very matter of fact with me. She said it would last a few days.

“A few days?!”

She said it would happen every month.

Every month?!”

Every month for the rest of forever, pretty much.

“FOREVER?!?!?!”

She told me not to make a big deal out of it, that it happened to everyone. That made me feel better, briefly, until she added, “Well, not to boys. Only to girls.”

And as I walked uncomfortably down the street with tears of self-pity pouring down my face, trying to absorb the fact that I was going to be in pain and bleeding for a few days every. single. month. for the rest of my life. I just remember thinking:

‘It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not FAIR.’

…Which was a succinct representation of how I felt at the time, but if I’d had the vocabulary back then, it would simply have been:

‘Being a girl is bullshit.’

‘Being a girl is BULLSHIT. What kind of a hellish design flaw is that? I have to be okay with feeling like my insides are being pulled out of me with a rusty coat hanger every month like clockwork for about the next four decades? I have to be uncomfortable and in pain and bleeding almost 500 times in my life and I have to expect it, and prepare for it? And I can’t even go swimming because of the weird nappy thing, and who the hell designed this anyway because I HATE it, this thick, squishy, crunchy piece of plastic that makes me feel like I’m walking around with a pool noodle between my thighs. And the reason I have to deal with this blight on my life is so that one day I can experience the “miracle of childbirth,” which is to say that someday I will get to feel like I’m being ripped apart as I squeeze something larger than my own head out of myself? Am I crazy to think it is TOTAL BULLSHIT that boys don’t have to deal with any part of this? Who came up with this plan anyway?’

I watched boys my age running around, blissfully ignorant of my predicament, and I burned with jealousy. I lay in bed that night crying, thinking, ‘I just want to be a boy. Can I just be a boy? Please make me a boy. I just want to be a boy.‘ If I’d known about people being transgender at the time I think I would have jumped on that in a heartbeat, such was the level of my distress. I felt incredibly hard done by. All along someone had been picking teams and somehow, without my noticing, I felt like I’d ended up on the wrong one.

And then… adolescence. And breasts. And boys. And when I was sixteen walking home from a temp job, a man in his thirties stopped his car in the middle of traffic to jump out and give me his number and I felt simultaneously flattered – because I had never felt pretty before – and frightened. I bumbled my way through this part of my life by testing limits and pushing boundaries. Can I do this? Yes. And this? Yes. And this? No, too far. Okay, roll it back, let’s go back to the beginning.

I came to terms with things eventually. I discovered the soothing effects of maximum strength ibuprofen, and the undetectable magic of tampons. Later still, I came to recognise the wonderful world of back-to-back-to-back birth control packets, which allowed me to live my dream of almost never having to deal with the horror of periods. I grew past the age of having to wear dresses and reached an age of actually wanting to wear them every so often. I developed a fondness for eyeliner.

I still prefer jeans to dresses, though. I still think girls get a raw deal biologically speaking. I miss Micro Machines, especially the ones that changed colour in the bathtub. I miss baggy cargo pants with multiple pockets. I have feminine moments, but I suppose for the most part many would call me a tomboy. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, but I like to keep up with rugby and romcoms and Formula 1. I like glitter, but I don’t like bows. Yesterday I made a tray of blondies because baking is my therapy, and the day before that I spent six hours taking sixteen ball bearings apart, cleaning them, degreasing them, lubricating them and then putting them back together. I’ve kissed some boys. I’ve kissed some girls.

I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think there’s a right way to be a girl. Or a boy, for that matter. I am who I am, and no knees-together seated situation in a floral dress is going to change that. On balance, I may like traditionally “masculine” things more than “feminine” things a lot of the time, but who decided on those categories anyway?

The idea of “being a girl” brings with it a whole wheelbarrow’s worth of stereotypes. Being a girl means being sugar and spice and all things nice (because that’s what little girls are made of), and wearing pink and frilly things and ribbons and bows and manicures and elegance and ladylike behaviour and a slim figure and a sweet voice and a pleasing manner and NO POCKETS and uncomfortable clothes and no-make-up make-up and being a smart (but not too smart), clean and tidy human who always looks lovely and is kindness personified.

The whole idea of “being a girl” is bullshit if you buy into those tropes and compare them to the freedom of boys to be comfortable and have roomy pockets and be loud and adventurous and competitive.

Happily, it turns out that you can be a girl without any of that. Or with only some of that, if you prefer. OR all of it if that’s what makes you happy! You can pick and choose your interests, your lover, your wardrobe, your life. You can mix it up and try all the different forms of being a girl if that brings you joy. You can be flexible. Despite how it may have seemed to a younger me, there are no rules. That’s the great thing about it; it’s all optional!

Except periods.

Unfortunately, those are still pretty mandatory.

 

*To this day there are few things that make my blood pressure spike as much as when guys go silent or hold their tongue because I’ve suddenly joined the group, saying “Oh… I don’t want to say… I mean, there are ladies present.” WHAT IS THAT? As if somehow because I have different genitals I couldn’t possibly hear a sex joke without swooning, or allow my tiny delicate ears to hear an interesting story without thinking those involved are perverted deviants. Is there anything more obnoxious? It’s like the adult verbal equivalent of a ‘BOYS ONLY’ club…

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23 comments
  1. Hear, hear! I’m still trying to figure out the pros of being a girl… more of a selection of clothing wear to choose from…? But then there are so many options, it becomes hard to pick. I just don’t know.

    1. Yeah, the boys’ shoe section is very grey-navy-black-brown. There’s definitely a lack of fun colours there.

  2. Exactly this. Boys get everything easier. Also what’s with the lack of pockets. I want pockets. Pockets are handy! And why if trousers don’t have pockets do they pretend to have pockets? This baffles and annoys me especially when I get my shopping home and find out the truth.

    1. Right? It’s a conspiracy to make us buy handbags.

      1. and THEN guys ask us to carry stuff in their handbags for them. NOT COOL. Why dont you carry my purse, bruh?

  3. About those pockets. I have refused to buy trousers without pockets and will make a point of telling a clerk that is why I am not buying. Probably does no good, but I feel better. And the periods do end. . . eventually.
    gender roles are maddening and unfair to all.

    1. “A few days?!”

  4. I started my first period before a martial arts class…..wearing that white uniform……yea.

    1. Oh wow, that sounds…… ideal. Did it at least scare the heck out of your opponents?

      1. Like one of those roads toads that shoot blood from their eyes 🐸 haha!

        1. Where are these toads so I can avoid them because that sounds HORRIFYING!

  5. Brilliantly written. And straight from the heart. But thankfully that journey of life showed you something that we all struggle with for a long time. That ability to love ourselves regardless of our circumstances, and that is no mean feat. Whether you’ve got dirt on your elbows, perfume in your hair or your uncles brother on your mothers side wears a dress matters not. It is that one thing we struggle with, those fears that are built into us through childhood, and only breaking free when we truly see on what they are built and understood so that we can let go a lifetime of guilt, negativity or shame because we can finally see that they are built on a lie. That life has pushed at you all your life. But that is important so that when you do break free you will appreciate what you have had to endure and in great compassion and empathy, love you, the one person that we block by those walls we build to protect us from life, not realising we are trapping ourselves behind them.
    Great story. Hard, long and painful…but that is just the signal that you are going in the right direction. And within all that hard slog there is much beauty too. But wait till you finally see whats hidden underneath, it will blow your ball bearings out of their casings and you’ll never have to grease them again, everything will just flow so smoothly and beautifully and an acceptance will replace the hard abrasiveness that went before ❤

  6. IMO this is one of your better posts. The writing is strong, lots of personal stories to illustrate your points and a good rant to boot. I was simply going to leave a short comment that I thought was funny but I’m certain I would have been tarred and feathered and worse, unfollowed.

  7. Thank you Quinn. Every time I read one of your posts I learn something. I appreciate your perspective and the way you lay things out…I guess what I mean is that I get it.
    As for not wanting the boys to stop talking when you’re around–please come to my workplace. Very few people have a filter, the sense of humour is ….well wicked comes to mind…we’ve got diversity in all its forms. Probably because we spend all our time filtering for the students (not smut or crudity, but just making it simpler) the staff room is a place where we let it all go.

  8. Quinn, you might feel like you got a raw deal when the genitalia was doled out, but I think you are a fabulous person! I wouldn’t change a thing about you! Hugs!

  9. Yes, yes yes, YES to this!

  10. Yes. So much yes.

    1. “FOREVER?!?!?!”

  11. This. All of this. Society has put so many unrealistic expectations on women that frankly let men get away with a lot more. I think you’ve got it on the mark: there is no one right way to be a girl and a woman. And I think at times men underestimate what we women are capable of handling when it comes to jobs or conversations. I’ve told a dirty joke or two and I’ve heard a dirty joke or two.

    However…I do think men need to suck it up when it comes to buying period products for their wives/girlfriends/daughters/sisters/any sort of women in their lives. I don’t get what squicks men out so much when they have to buy pads or tampons for a woman. When I do the grocery shopping, I make sure to get a pack of pads once a month and I do it without a second thought (then again, I’ve been menstruating every month for almost two decades, so I’m used to it). Are they scared that they’re gonna bleed out their bums if they so much as touch a tampon? They’re not that scary, I promise!

    (And something I learned from watching “Sex and the City”: it is unwritten girl code that women should carry a spare pad and/or tampon in case another woman is in need of one. Girl Rule: No girl lets another girl go without suitable period protection products if said girl is in emergency need of them.)

  12. Love this! So happy I read this today as yesterday I sneezed so much my tampon came out (it wasn’t in my nose) hay fever is bloody awful!!!
    I also was distraught when my period appeared and I’m still annoyed about the pocket situation, I hate carrying a handbag!

  13. “FOREVER?!?!?!”

  14. All the ‘fun’ of being a girl wrapped up in one awesome post. I agree with what someone else wrote – this is one of the best posts of yours that I have read. And yes…seriously…what is the deal with pockets? Us women want pockets!

  15. “I couldn’t laugh as hard” was my favorite line. Bc same.

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