By Caitlin Magness
"I just don't know how to girl," exclaimed my friend in frustration, struggling to do her hair before an event. Watching her trying to beat her stubborn curls into submission, I couldn't help but sympathize with her and her statement. I've been a girl for almost twenty years, but I couldn't tell anyone else how to do it. It's one of the hardest, most complicated, most multifaceted things a person can do. Still, that doesn't stop the media from telling us how to do it on a daily basis.
We live in a world of conflicting messages about what constitutes a "real woman." Real women have curves. Real women have long hair. Real women are feminine. Real women are financially independent. A real woman doesn't need a man. A real woman, a real woman, a real woman . . . . Does she even exist? I don't think I've ever seen her. Not in the real world, at least.
We know we are called to embrace God's gift of womanhood, and to live out the vocation of womanhood with joy and submission. But it can be hard when you don't even feel like a woman-- when you don't, as my friend aptly put it, know "how to girl." You try to figure it out, taking cues from magazines, beauty tutorials, advice columns, other women, but none of them seem to have the secret. You feel like the Pinocchio of women, made in the shape of something you will never truly be. It's not right that a gift from God should be made into a litmus test. But that's the reality for most women today.
It's definitely been the reality for me, although perhaps in a slightly different way than usual. See, I've always been a tomboy. I don't mean in the stereotypical "tough, sporty, loves playing in the dirt" way--I'm one of the least sporty people I know, and while I liked playing in the dirt as a little girl, I was never tough. Still, I always felt different from other girls my age. I had trouble relating to them, and found it easier to play by myself or with boys. Because of this, I often imagined myself as a boy. Many of the imaginary personas I made up for myself were male, as well as the main characters in most of my stories. I remember thinking one day in kindergarten, before I'd fully grasped the physical differences between boys and girls, "Hey, maybe I'm a boy in disguise." I wasn't trying to make a statement. I wasn't trying to "shatter the gender binary." Nor was I "confused," mentally ill, or rebelling. I simply saw more of myself in the opposite sex than in my own.
Over the years, I learned how to better relate to my own sex. But my tomboyish side didn't go away, even after I reached puberty and truly entered the world of womanhood. I still love and relate to male characters in stories. I enjoy exploring different styles, but I still feel most like myself with short hair and neutral clothing. Girls still sometimes seem like a different species to me.
When you don't conform to gender stereotypes, you find yourself in the middle of a political crossfire. On the one side, you have conservatives fighting for rigid traditional gender roles; on the other, the transgender and radical feminist movements calling for rebellion against God's design. Neither side serves you well. You don't want to renounce your body or your vocation, but you don't want to repress part of yourself, either. You feel as if you can't be yourself--you must align with one agenda or another. What's a gender-nonconforming girl to do?
The answer, of course, lies in God's word. He knit you together in your mother's womb--it is because of him that you are who you are. Your sex, your body, your personality, your vocation-- they are all gifts from him. Being a tomboy doesn't make me any less of a woman. It just makes me a woman who happens to be a tomboy. That may seem like a very simple conclusion for me to have taken so long to arrive at it, but with all the confusing messages about sex and gender in the world, it's difficult to figure out how you fit in. This is true for all people, and especially true for women.
Maybe you're not a tomboy like me. Chances are, though, there are still times when you don't feel like a real woman. Maybe you look at the airbrushed images of women in the media and feel like a pale imitation of a woman by comparison. Maybe you're constantly comparing yourself to other women in your life, knowing you can never be that feminine, that graceful, that confident. Maybe you read Proverbs 31 and all you can think is, "Well, I guess I'd better turn in my woman card."
But that's not what God intended. He never wanted you to feel conflicted, repressed, or inadequate in you who are. Nor did he intend for womanhood to be a performance, or for it to prevent you from being your unique self. Being a woman has nothing to do with your personality, your appearance, your style, or your works. It's a gift, the same way salvation is a gift. It may not seem like one at times, but like all gifts from God, it does us far more good than anything we can come up with on our own.
Every culture, every time period, every person has a different idea of what a woman should be, but none of them completely describes the incredibly diverse group of individuals making up the greater half of the population. Neither can any of them reveal God's plan for us as women. Let's forget about society's definition of femininity and focus on what really makes us women: God's design and His plan for our lives.
Caitlin Magness is the daughter of a family of Lutheran musicians and church workers. She is an aspiring novelist, college student, and thinker of too many thoughts. She lives in Oklahoma with her family.
Image: "Woman in Gold" by Gustav Klimpt, 1907