…and I’m growing up to be me!
So it was recently my birthday, and my very imaginative and passionate husband bought me a slew of gifts, all under the theme of self-care and self-development. The gifts related to all aspects of the person – gifts to encourage my flourishing physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Magic.
The gifts to encourage my intellectual development were three recently published books of popular feminism.
One of them is Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan. I’m a big fan of Flanagan and have been reading her superb articles in the (wonderfully high quality) Atlantic Monthly magazine for years. Since I no longer have a subscription to the paper version, I actually do this sad dinosaur thing where I print out Flanagan’s articles and save them for a time when I can sit down with them comfortably and savour every word. I was pretty excited about receiving this book, as I didn’t even realise she had been preparing it for publication.
But this isn’t a review.
Girl Land refers to the time in a young person’s life when she is not a child and not yet a woman. Girl Land is that dark, cloudy, mysterious bit in between that none of us fully understands.
Flanagan makes a point somewhere just after halfway through that staggered me. She tells the story of how her mother would try to surprise her with conversations about men and sex at unexpected moments when she could not get away – the example she gives is when she might be washing the dog. Her mother had an urgent message that she needed to get across to Flanagan: don’t marry a man just because you want to sleep with him – just sleep with him. Flanagan found these types of conversations unbearable and would do everything she could to escape them. Her mother, also, was profoundly uncomfortable and between the two of them they managed to communicate with amazing ineffectiveness. After these awkward encounters she and her mother would retreat as quickly as possible to the safer territories of Flanagan’s girlhood, with mother preparing a special meal for her, or taking her to the mall for a new pair of sandals. The bit that struck me was this: during these post sex-talk treats, Flanagan would feel like a fraud – as though she was deceiving her mother. She had, as all teenage girls do, a private fantasy life – the stuff of burgeoning sexuality in a young woman – and she was considering when and how she would begin her own sexual activities. She felt strongly that she could not have it both ways: the tender love and pleasure of being cared for by a parent in a clearly defined role, while simultaneously becoming a fully developed sexual woman.
This point hit me like a ton of bricks.
I recalled with a sudden clarity all of the discord I experienced between myself and my parents during the Girl Land years, as some kind of incoherent battle raged between me being their little girl and me becoming a young woman, with inconvenient sexual appetites in tow. These appetites were beginning to express themselves, from their point of view, presumably in the long-haired tattooed boys I was bringing home. The sad part is that I did insist on growing up, thus excluding me from the previous parental affections of my girlhood. They simply could not cope with my transition into adulthood. Parents are terrified of their teenage girls becoming women – what if they get pregnant? I now realise that this withdrawal of my parents’ affections in the face of my impending adulthood was the reason why I was such a fiercely and uniquely independent young person. By leaving my childhood behind and becoming a young woman, I had given up my right to parental guidance and care, and therefore I had to learn to fend for myself.
In this moment of recollection, I remembered many other stories – the stories of my female friends – who in one way or another (and particularly those raised in religious households – which I was not), were given powerful messages that they were to either remain firmly in girlhood, or they were to quietly reach adulthood with a kind of sexual purity (and preferably disinterest) of which no teenager is really capable. I think of one person in particular who was harshly excluded by her family in her decision to date a non-religious young man. Their relationship was obviously screaming !SEXUAL RISK! !SEXUAL RISK! to her family, and so she was subtly shunned until the relationship ended. The irony here is of course that religious teenagers are no less sexually active than non-religious ones – they just tend to have more guilt…or be more selective in what’s sexually permissible and what’s not…or be late starters. :)
Anyhow. This is all just a little food for thought. I may well come back to this subject at another time. Suffice to say, Flanagan is worth reading.