Nature, nurture, or both: what makes me a “real woman”?

I was born a girl. And except for some long ago summer days at the age of 11, when my too-short haircut and my play clothes of blue jean cut offs and a white t-shirt made me appear confusingly gender-ambiguous, I have always presented as female.

As a teenager and fledgling woman, I often felt inadequate. Even now, as a supposedly fully matured woman, I sometimes struggle. I’ve never been especially girly. I lack many of the talents, skills, and interests associated with femininity in our culture. According to what many teach regarding “Biblical womanhood”, I fail miserably. I’m not domestic enough. I’m not sweet enough, soft-spoken enough, gentle enough, or submissive enough. Instead of finding fulfillment among the pots and pans, I’d rather be teaching kids to hit and kick each other in the dojo. Instead of urging girls, “Stay sweet”, I’m more often heard urging them to “Be fierce!” Instead of going into raptures of delight over cleaning products, make-up, cute shoes, or whatever it is we women are supposed to get all giddy with excitement over, I’m far more likely to get excited about my favorite hike, a good cup of coffee, some techno-toy, or sensible shoes. (Although I do own a few cute pairs for when I want to clean up, put on a dress, and look semi-presentable.)

I didn’t fit in as a girl. I often don’t fit in now.

But I’m a real woman.

Only I’m not. Because, after all, “real women have curves”, and I’ve always been sorely lacking in the curves department…well, except for the more recent “curves” of added fat in all the wrong places.

Then again, there’s my trump card. The fact that I’ve had six kids should grant me entry without question into the ranks of “real women”.

Except that men can supposedly give birth. Or at least women who decide to have partial sex reassignment surgery so that they can live as men, claim they are men, but still get pregnant and have babies. So now, someone recently informed me rather heatedly, giving birth is not just a “woman thing”. Men can do it too. So there.

So what makes me a woman?

I think genetics and biology are not meaningless. Yes, I know that “Biology is not destiny!” was a rallying cry in the 1960’s. I don’t believe that our biology, as women, should be viewed as a limitation, prison or trap, any more than the same should be true for a man. I would never tell any man that he is good for little else besides sex and fathering babies, and therefore he should not trouble his handsome little head over important things, nor should he do anything dangerous, given how delicate and vulnerable his reproductive organs are. The truth is that, as both men and women, humans are far more than our reproductive systems. But those very systems are an important part of us, whether they function properly or not, whether we delight in them or not, whether they cause us grief or pleasure.

I was born a girl. My parents raised me as a girl who would grow up to be a woman. I went to school and took part in communities where I was treated as were girls in my day and time — for good and for bad. My experiences shaped me.

Even the common, shared experiences of childhood were not exactly the same for me as for my brothers. For instance, when teachers would say, “Boys will be boys!” to a classroom full of children, it meant something entirely different for us girls than it did for the boys. We were being told we were being overly-sensitive tattle-tales and needed to stop; the boys were being given permission to go right on doing whatever it was that had upset us so much. Sometimes it felt like we were being raised in parallel universes.

Puberty was, to vastly understate the obvious, very different for me than for my brothers.

I could go on and on… Nature and nurture, my biology and my life experiences, have molded me, shaped me, formed me, given me identity. I am a woman. I am more than a collection of body parts, more than a shape, more than my appearance, more than my sexuality, more than my talents or lack thereof, more than a social construct.

It cost me to become a woman. I have literally bled. The transition from girlhood to womanhood was not easy for me, not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually, not mentally. There were times when I feared I would not arrive, whole and happy, on the other side. Not every girl’s adolescence is so tortured or troubled, nor do boys sail into manhood without a worry or problem. However, the worst pains of my teen years were suffered because I was a girl.

There was not one experience that made me a woman. It was not my first menses, nor did a sex act “turn me into a woman”. It wasn’t even when I had my first baby. Being a woman is the sum total of my mind, body, memories, and experiences. I’ve spent my entire life being female, and it’s the only life I know.

At the same time that I love being a woman — it has been the source of some of my deepest joys — I can also enjoy, perhaps a little too much, ignoring or overturning what I regard as silly cultural stereotypes and expectations. I may not measure up to your idea of a “real woman”, but I’ve put in the time and I’ve definitely earned the stripes, even if I don’t look as decorative or act as demurely/sexily as you think I should.

Putting on a dress and high heels doesn’t make me more of a woman. Neither does cooking a delicious meal, or keeping silent in a church meeting, or crying at sappy movies. I don’t become less of a woman when I’m in my sweat-soaked gi, pounding the heavy bag with all I’ve got. Adding or subtracting body parts would not make me any more or less a woman than I already am. Womanhood is not something you wear, something you put on and off, some set of actions you do or don’t do. Womanhood is who you are, all of it.

I was born a girl, with female chromosomes and body parts. I grew up as a girl. I was taught how to be a girl…and how not to be a girl. I’ve lived as a woman all my adult life. It is the sum total of my existence and the very essence — inside and out — of who I am. You don’t get much more real than that.

I refuse to trivialize womanhood, refuse to reduce it down to outward appearance, refuse to suggest that it is a commodity than can be bought or sold, refuse to believe that surgery can make or undo it. I’ve had friends and loved ones who have lost breasts, uterus, and ovaries to cancer — but they were still very much women, no matter what our culture might say.

Womanhood is worth celebrating. Worth honoring. Worth valuing. Worth respecting.

Even if I just started laughing over my sudden urge to start belting out, “I am woman, hear me roar!”

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