In my few years in the corporate world, I’ve learned many things – the difference between looking busy and being busy, the fact that how a PPT looks is often more important than what it says, the value of a well-written, short email, the importance of knowing where the other bathroom is.
One thing I still haven’t learned is how to be a woman in the office. And I have a sneaky suspicion it may be because I’m unclear how to be a woman in the world – particularly this American world.
At the risk of tossing out gross generalizations, I’m going to toss a few out there anyway. We live in a world where grown mothers shop at Forever 21, where a jeans company called “Not Your Daughter’s Jeans” exists, where youth is embraced and age is shamed, where plastic surgery spending is considered an economic indicator, where Sandra Fluke is called a slut for using birth control, where women should be sexy but not sexual. And don’t even get me started on the prevalence of eating disorders and the quest to stop growing in any direction…
We live in a world built for girls. And yet here we are. Despite our best efforts. Women.
Growing up, we had girl power (yes it even has a website!). We had the Spice Girls. We had Britney Spears. We had Foudy, Lilly and Hamm of the front-page-news women’s national team. We had Kerri Strug. We had Buffy.
Of the people in my world, it’s the very rare few who are comfortable even describing themselves as a woman. Just the word itself carries some sort of stigma. Being a “woman” is dangerous. Threatening. Too commanding and forthright. Old. “I’m a woman” carries some sort of feminist statement. “I’m a girl” feels youthful and exciting. Even pretty. If I’m brutally honest about it.
This is all screwy and maybe it will pass. Maybe it’s just part of growing up. Maybe it’s a Britney “not a girl, not yet a woman” moment (Britney, you slay me with your words!) and I just need to shave my head once as some rite of passage into womanhood.
One of my heroes, Tina Fey, has a particularly poignant passage in her book Bossypants (read it! you’ll laugh). While writing Mean Girls, she attended a workshop led by Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes). Fey describes what happened when Wiseman asked the group to explain when they felt “like a grown woman and not a girl:”
The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.
Is it really true that a woman’s sense of self – as a woman – is contingent upon the actions of a man? Do boys not feel like men until a woman says so? For whatever reason, most of the guys in my life seem quite comfortable and adjusted to being men, as opposed to boys. While the theory goes that girls mature, emotionally, earlier than boys. Seems we become women much later than boys become men.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic and there’s no clear problem, let alone solution. So we’ll need to revisit it again. But my last, leading thought is that girls becoming women has a lot more to do with women than it does with guys. It’s us being uncomfortable with ourselves, competitive and critical of each other that holds us back.
A man loves a woman. Just not so sure girls do…
The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique