I have spent more years of my life resisting my womanhood than I have embracing it. As a child, I received the message that femininity, which I was naive enough to consider a primary component of anyone’s womanhood, signaled weakness. This message was a byproduct of my upbringing as an only child, under the care of a divorced, over-protective, born-again Christian mother. My mother was the only woman I was given the chance to know for some time and the subtle femininity she modeled in my earliest years began to blur after my parents ended their marriage. I grew up in a heteronormative household and when it split, my mom became aware that her new role was to assume the position of both heads of the household, to carry that new balance within her body. Striking the graceful balance between masculine and feminine was difficult for my mom because the masculinity that was modeled to her by my father, as well as her own, was ferocious and unsafe. In her post-divorce position of authority, she began to embody the behavior of these men she knew, these heads of households she had long observed. The brand of masculinity she followed is the kind that snuffs out that which is weaker than it, and the marrow of woman inside of her suffocated. She became entirely hardened and unsympathetic, tough and critical, boisterous and always in control. I have flashes of memories of the way she was while my dad was still in the house and though the flashes are not bright enough to make out a complete image, they are bright enough to highlight a softness that didn’t exist when he wasn’t around anymore. In these flashes she is gardening and teaching me how to tend to the bulbs, she is digging into yellow bags of potting soil and tucking our snapdragons into a row along the red-brick flowerbox on our patio, she is making us a sandwich of vegetables and riding a friend’s horse around our desert yard, she is eating orange melon with a large silver spoon and wearing small running shorts on her tan, toned legs, in these flashes she is often laughing. My memories of her after my father left don’t come back to me in flashes. Though also brief and obscured, these memories of my mother play like a few intermittent scenes on a damaged VHS with distorted sound, a discernable image rarely appearing. In these images, she is angry at me and everyone, I have done something wrong, I have disappointed her, I have not cleaned my room correctly, I am lazy, she is losing her job, we are losing our house, she is taking me to church, she is taking me to task, she is crying, she is yelling, she’s retelling the story of my father’s abuse, she is asking god to let her die. There are no flashes around these images; there is no light in them at all.

 

My mom and I grew too close to each other after my parents divorced. I had a few friends from school and church, carefully vetted by her, who came to our house sometimes. I didn’t go to their houses due to my mom’s fear of fathers. If a friend of mine had parents who were still married, I was not allowed to spend the night at their house. She was convinced, and she convinced me, that all the faceless fathers of my friends were waiting for their chance to rape me. One time, I was permitted to sleep at a friend’s house whose father was not going to be home, but just in case plans changed, she taught me how and what to scream if he tried to climb into my sleeping bag. A lot of my time with friends at our house was interrupted by her fear of my corruption at their hands. Once, a carefully vetted school friend brought over an Ace of Base tape so we could make up a dance to All That She Wants, an activity that abruptly ended with my mom taking each of us into the bathroom for talks about why the song was sexually inappropriate and was not allowed in her house. Another time, similar talks occurred when a friend brought an Amy Grant tape, a Christian artist that my mom was not aware of and therefore didn’t understand that the love songs she was singing were being sung to god, and we were both scolded for listening to it. To avoid situations like this, it was easier for everyone if my mom and I just spent time alone, together. She still watched over everything I did and her brash disapproval was as consistent as always, but at least it didn’t ruin anyone else’s day. While other kids that are raised in an environment like mine often turn to books or music or movies or TV for escape, I was kept away from most types of most of those things. I hardly allowed to experience media or material that could not be found at the Christian Book store on Highway 18. All content was heavily monitored. The first secular television show I was allowed to watch regularly was Full House, which I watched hungrily every Tuesday night at 8 o’clock for a glimpse into a life that was unlike my own; for people to observe, for possible role models to emulate. I remember getting home fifteen minutes after the show had started one Tuesday night, and crying through the last half at the loss of the first, what if there was something new to be seen, something new about the world? I didn’t necessarily relate to any of the four young girls on the show, but I loved watching them interact. I soon discovered there was a Stephanie Full House book series, and since she was closest to my age and was a permitted figure in my house, I hungrily consumed those too. What stood out to me most about the books was that every time Stephanie had a crush on a boy, he had “a head of luscious, curly hair.” None of the boys at my school were letting their hair grow yet, so I found her taste in boys very mature, exotic even. Years later, my first long-term boyfriend would have a head of luscious hair, exactly like the curls described in the books.

 

Beyond my mom and Stephanie Tanner, the final place for me to look for examples of womanhood, of femininity, of an identity to emulate in my formative years, was to the women of our church: All of them over 55, divorced and dour, in poor health and keen on writing disapproving letters to Carl’s Jr. over racy ad campaigns. They brought their personalized bibles in their personalized cases with them to lunch and they ordered sides of ranch dressing no matter the contents of their meals. They attended weekly bible studies, forbade the use of the word “gosh” because it was “slang for god,” sang in the church choir, and boycotted Disney movies. These were Women of God and they were who my mom was breeding me to become and there was nothing about them that I wanted to be. My list of female examples to emulate left me confused by and resistant to the whole institution; my mom’s renouncement of her own femininity as she segued into her position of power led me to believe that if I wanted to be powerful, I couldn’t also be feminine. The women at our church led me to believe that if I wanted to be a woman, I’d have to downplay my femininity so as not to tempt men and devote my life solely to pleasing the lord. Stephanie Tanner didn’t lead me to believe anything in particular, but I was grateful that my mom allowed her in from the outside. I had a sparse image of what womanhood was and a strong desire to avoid growing into a woman altogether, except, for the periodic and promising days I got to be around my cousin Stacy.

 

If my cousin Stacy was on the road to womanhood, then I had reason not to veer off of it entirely. Stacy was a young woman unlike any I’d ever seen before, everything about her mesmerized me. She was younger than I was chronologically, but older in every other way because she had been granted total adolescent freedom and was an expert at putting it to use. She had neither a curfew nor any perceivable insecurity. When she entered a room, she spoke proudly and loudly, immediately. She made everyone laugh and she made everyone listen and she made everyone a friend, right away. She was godless and fearless, commanding and curious, warm and she lit up all rooms. Her femininity was potent in her dress but down-played in her demeanor, she had mastered the elusive balance my mom had tried to strike. She was naturally influential and I was only allowed near her at all because of familial fate–Stacy’s mom is my mom’s twin sister. Her family lived in Los Angeles, the hell-bound wasteland two hours south of Apple Valley–the conservative Bush-pushing town that I came from. Every member of Stacy’s family was physically adventurous, terrifyingly experienced and completely unafraid to offend my mom with their deliberately blasphemous candor. My mom routinely turned down skiing and dirt bike riding invitations, fearing exposure to alcohol consumption and filthy jokes and using the introverted, indoor tendencies she had imbued both of us with as good reason to say no. But she had no good reason to turn down holiday invitations, so once a year, I got to step out of my hyper-controlled, god-fearing, Full-House-loving, Red-Hat-Lady-laden little world to observe Stacy, an entirely free-spirited and experienced, bona fide Young Woman of the World.

At Stacy’s house, I had escaped my cage and because I knew my observational privilege was fleeting, I made strict and detailed mental notes. I noticed everything about her there was to notice. I noticed the consciousness she employed when choosing her meals and how she put mascara on and then rubbed it all off before leaving the house. I made note of what juice bar she preferred and how she cursed openly in front of her parents. I noticed the rasp in her voice and the weightlessness of her model’s body and the lovely dichotomy in those two things. I noticed her taste in music and how she taught herself the lyrics of Biggie songs by recording them from the radio and pausing to write them line-by-line in her large-lettered handwriting. I noticed how close she was with her brother and how even though he was older, he seemed to look up to her too. I noticed her boyfriends and how her confidence didn’t falter when they were around, she never made herself smaller for anybody. When she started to drive, I noticed the stickers she put on her car and how she told me that because she never had enough money, so she’d always only fill her gas tank halfway. I noticed everything about her bedroom. Her bedroom was the first Young Woman of the World’s bedroom that I’d ever seen; this was not a typical bedroom I’d seen from the friends approved by my mother. Stacy’s walls were painted baby blue with a very thin bright orange border near the ceiling and the baseboard, which I found to be a bold choice. Baby blue and bright orange were two colors I had never seen combined in the bedrooms of the Christian community. Her dad, my uncle, had made the border lines as straight as they were by using painters tape, I know this because I couldn’t believe how thin and straight they were, so I asked. I came from a world of one wall color and I came from it with questions. I pictured my uncle spending time making her room look the way she wanted it to, fascinated by a father’s dedication to a frivolous need of his daughter. I wondered what she did while he painted her walls; I wondered if he’d made her help him but I figured he probably didn’t. She had colorful mosaic nightstand lamps that accompanied the wall colors perfectly, on either side of her tall queen-sized bed. She kept a large plastic makeup caboodle decorated with Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove near her closet, on the floor. It was one of the ironically juvenile accessories she owned, another being a box of colorful plastic barrettes she bought at Rite Aid and wore clipped near her face, her long, blonde hair parted down the middle and reaching her lower back. Anything juvenile about Stacy’s life existed ironically and added to my perception of her maturity, somehow. All along the blue wall adjacent to her bed, she’d taped torn-out magazine photographs of Angelina Jolie, floor to ceiling. I admired the dedication it took her to search for and find so many. On her nightstand, she had stacks of Teen Beat and Tiger Beat, two magazines as of yet unknown to me. She told me that when she got sick, her mom brought them home for her in order to make her feel better. The first time she showed me a gifted stack of magazines, I experienced nauseating bewilderment at the thought of her mom knowing what she liked and encouraging it, doing something for her that had nothing to do with herself, supporting her need for a day of rest, increasing her comfort, allowing her to fawn over neon images of boy idols. It wasn’t the nausea of desire, it was the nausea of awareness, of knowing that experience and all the things it represented about the relationship between a mother and her daughter, would never be my own.

 

In and out of Stacy’s room, walked her intimidatingly beautiful girlfriends–each with Liv Tyler hair and Liv Tyler lips and Stacy’s trademark confidence–to try on clothes and talk shit about their boyfriends and parents. They all had exotic names like Sinta and Nai and I wasn’t sure if those were their full names or if they were nicknames based on their even more exotic full names. Stacy and her friends tried on outfits from her closet and drove around in her ’66 Fastback Mustang, getting high and listening to Sublime when those things, done by these girls, made a strong statement and the statement was I’m cooler than you by comparison, don’t you even look at me. Her closet though, her closet was the extension of her that I remember most vividly because it was astonishing. It was carefully organized into neat sections: patent leather mini-skirts, mini-skirts of other materials, patent leather shorts, shorts of other materials, mini-dresses, tank-tops, regular tops, printed tees, long-sleeved tees, and animal-printed coats. In the regular-tops section hung a shirt from a Girl Scout uniform complete with two badges. I asked about it, confused as to why she’d have it. “Oh, Sinta, Nai and I share that, we all wear take turns wearing it to school as a joke.” Ironically juvenile, again. I pictured them, each of them, smoking cigarettes on the school steps in the green Scout top and a patent leather skirt, long hair covering one eye, long bare legs in baby doll shoes and felt even more intimidated by her, due to the image I myself had imagined. I also felt intimidated by her white, thigh-high go-go boots which were not a pair of white thigh-high go-go boots that she bought for Halloween and never wore so there was a dust ring in the shape of the soles on the shelf—they were a pair of white thigh-high go-go boots that she did wear, routinely, to parties on the weekends with her gorgeous girlfriends and her older brother’s older friends, with an animal printed coat from the animal-printed-coat section of her closet, smiling as she owned the room, her teeth made whiter by her surfer’s tan. She frightened and encouraged me; she embodied a fully formed and beautifully balanced womanhood that was achievable on the other side of freedom. She was the only appealing female example I had ever known and she gave me a lot of hope and a few ideas.

On the calendar in Stacy’s room, she wrote what she wore every school day so she wouldn’t repeat outfits too often. Years later, during P.E., a girl at the locker next to mine told me she’d never seen me wear the same outfit more than once and in that moment, my eyes widened and I thought of Stacy. I thought that must be a comment she had also, at some point, received. That afternoon, I picked up a pen and walked up to my calendar and I wrote, “Overalls, white tank, iridescent Skechers.” I was thrilled to have a reason to use this new trick, a trick I had picked up on the outside, an action to emulate that didn’t come from my church or my mother or my mother-approved friends. I felt a little like Stacy and a little like a Young Woman of the World and I really liked that feeling. Years later, when I got my driver’s license, I filled up my gas tank halfway.