I can’t sleep, most nights. It’s been this way for as long as I’ve known. But, unlike the sleepless years of my childhood spent relentlessly tossing and turning, I now have the joy (and absolute pain) of a best friend on a year abroad in America. Her nights are my days. Talking through each other’s lives together at 3am, I realise that even from opposite ends of the globe, our experiences being 20-year-old girls — or women, God forbid — are so utterly similar. From the drunkenness (glorious), to the academic expectation (relentless), to the pressure to be attractive all the time (ghastly), our experiences and emotions elbowing our way into our twenties are mirrored. We’re in it together.
Chatting to her, I’m sometimes reminded of Suki Waterhouse’s fantastic remark “if you’re a young woman in your twenties … you know, it’s the trenches”. There’s a reason it weirdly resonated with so many of us. Through her flippancy, she taps into the war-like chaos that is crawling through whatever this ‘womanhood’ we’re supposedly entering is. What does it mean to shed our girlish skin and step into being grown? How do we process it? Perceive it? Give it meaning?
There’s a long and turbulent history behind popular perceptions and meanings of womanhood. In the 18th century, owning a female body, one understood to be that of a mutilated and inverted man’s, home to a wondering womb, constituted womanhood. Throughout the 19th century, the constituents of womanhood transcended the body and was cut up into pieces. New images of the woman emerged; ‘true womanhood’ — symbolic of morality and decency in the home was set against the emerging ‘real womanhood’, ‘public womanhood’, and ‘new womanhood’.
Looking to literature, nothing is much clearer. Studying Much Ado About Nothing for my GCSEs, I never quite understood if I was a Beatrice or a Hero or somewhere in-between. At 14, Dickens’ Great Expectations had me wondering, at which point do I stop being an Estella and start becoming a Miss Havisham?
The emergence of film and media didn’t clear this up. I recently read a fascinating piece on Dazed magazine, detailing the way in which 1970s Hollywood went through a phase of spitting out films centred around the devil coming to manifest in teenage girls. This was literally representative of the actual fear of God that the women’s and sexual liberation movements put into right wing politics — what would our girls grow into? I’d also like to bow down to the chick flicks of the 2000s for really hammering the perception of women as mini-skirt clad fountains of cattiness. Mean Girls is good enough, though, that I just don’t care. Clearly — relentlessly — the meaning and perception of womanhood is constantly changing. It is depersonalising. To become a woman is to become a kind of prism; through and onto our bodies, the cultural landscape is projected.
Perceptions and projections and understandings of whatever the hell becoming a woman means is ever changing. À la Suki Waterhouse — it’s the trenches. Personally, I find that the most defining and sacred feature of young womanhood, the thing that gives it its meaning, is (almost paradoxically) the connection that it brings with other women. It is the only constant. It is a wonder. It’s in the small moments — braiding each other’s hair, wearing our grandmother’s rings, sharing red wine, and hoping the pigment smears into our lips and makes us rosy. I’m writing this now perched tenuously on the kitchen counter as my friend Emma makes me pasta. She has taught me so much about love. Boys come and go, she tells me — maybe they’ll stay — but I have a sense that this love is forever.
I feel that this womanhood is also felt in shared experience. It is in being catcalled for the first time, or being sat next to a boy in class to “make him quiet down”. I remember distinctly turning 16 and realising that older, bigger, ‘real’ men found me attractive. I thought it surely meant there was something real and big inside of me too. It takes the aid of other women to unlearn that.
I feel the same way about catcalling as my grandmother did. She spoke little English, and I even less Greek, but we still managed to sneer at the builders outside her windows, girls — women — together. Suki Waterhouse is right. But maybe it’s time for us to climb out of the proverbial trenches and into the sun.
Illustration by Lauren White