Not long ago, if someone asked me what it feels like to be a woman, I would have thought they wanted to explore metaphysical reality. Increasingly, though, the concept that one can “feel like a woman” has been presented as a self-evident truth. I struggle to understand what one means when they say they “feel like a woman,” despite being one, so I tried to parse it myself.
What does it feel like to be a woman? Let me explain.
There is a photo of me at seven or eight-years-old, grinning in my favourite red outfit — short shorts and a crop top with a little tie over my belly button. My skinny kid-legs are tanned by a long summer. I’m wearing pink and white flip flops — I still recall the squishy foam feeling under my toes when I wore them. There’s a backdrop of sunny pines.
When I look at the photo today, I also see the end of childhood looming in the dark spots behind the trees.
One of the first times I felt ashamed of my body was three short years later, when my breasts began to develop.
Seemingly overnight, I was no longer a girl or a child.
I realized — without understanding why — that my choices and actions were now subject to scorn and criticism.
Then — at around 11-years-old — I had a similar crop top as the one from the photo. I loved the top — it was comfortable and let me move freely. But when I wore it, I garnered comments from adults that made me bristle with perplexed shame.
“That’s not appropriate for a girl your age,” they said. “You could expose yourself.” “Why do you want to grow up so fast?” “Girls these days want to be women way too early.” “Oh, you’re wearing that top?”
I mulled over each comment and wondered what was wrong with me. Slowly and in vague terms, I understood my body had become sexual without my knowing or intent.
How could I be so disgusting? Why was I cursed with such an inappropriate body? Why could the neighbourhood boys still skateboard down the street with shirts off, staying cool, while my crop top now signified something else entirely? I didn’t have sexual feelings yet (I had played spin-the-bottle and felt no thrill; the desire I felt was only to fit in), but sexual feelings were being imposed on me.
To be female is to have your childhood cut short unfairly, I later learned. But not before learning an unshakeable, dysphoric shame.
Previously, I thought I would undergo a “coming-of-age” type process ending in the dawning feeling of womanhood. But this never happened.
Instead, the lesson of early female puberty was that my body was a sexual vessel sending out messages that were not within my control.
I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. The way I felt about my body made me too humiliated to utter the words I so desperately wanted to say. It felt like forever before she offered to buy one for me. (I still remember the horror I felt at the department store as she clumsily grabbed at a “training” bra while I stared at the floor, my heart pounding in my throat.)
In the meantime, I hunched my shoulders, wore double layers and baggy tops, and grew accustomed to pulling at the front of my shirts so the fabric would not cling to my budding chest. I felt that having a bra would lessen the vulgarity of my chest and allow me to feel less “wrong,” but exercise and gym class became unbearable nonetheless. I was incredibly self-conscious that others might interpret my running or jumping as a sexual display. I carried the burden of wanting to apologize for my indecency.
I never asked for menstruation products, so getting my period was another secret shame. I bought products whenever I could afford them; if I couldn’t, I just used toilet paper. My mom asked me once, when I was about 15, if I had my period yet, and I refused to answer. I hated leaving the house when I had my period. I hated my body for betraying me and for being uncontrollable. I made excuses to get out of gym class or social events when I had my period, often because I didn’t have pads or tampons.
To my horror, my breasts kept growing, and became large. I garnered a mix of positive and negative attention from teenaged boys and grown men.
Around the age of 14, my best friend and I were walking home from the movie theatre in our city one evening. We stopped at a small restaurant to go pee. The manager was a seemingly jovial middle-aged man who welcomed us to use the facilities. I stood at the bar while my friend used the bathroom first. The man asked what high school I attended and made some other small talk. He pulled out a shot glass and bottle of liquor, and filled the glass to the brim. “Here,” he said, and slid it towards me. I looked him in the eyes and he winked.
I drank it, happy to be treated like an adult, trying not to pinch my face into a sour expression at the burning taste.
“Now you have to show me your tits,” he smiled.
I didn’t respond. My friend arrived a moment later, and I sprung away to the bathroom with a mix of fear and confusion clutching my heart. (I know, I never should have left her with that man, but I was afraid to react with anything except false bravado.)
On the way out of the bathroom, I grabbed her arm and shouted, “Thanks, bye!” as we took off. Outside, I told her what happened as though it were a funny story. We laughed as though it were a funny story.
As all females know, this is but an example of a not-uncommon experience. There are too many stories to describe in detail; some of my own are worse, or violent. Men have asked me to do things, forced me to do things, threatened or done things to me. For too long, I silently agreed that my body was an invitation.
I was angry when I lost control of my body. When my breasts appeared and my uterus bled. When this foul and mutating vessel made everyone around me think that I, too, had somehow changed. Or — painfully, in hindsight, because I believed it was true — that I was using my body to send messages of desire or consent, when I was still only a child.
Of course, there are women who suffer more, and in more terrible ways. I can’t speak for them; I can only understand how womanhood is too often an imposition.
Earlier, I described having learned an unshakeable, dysphoric shame. Bouts of shame plague me still, in my mid-thirties. I want an androgynous body I will never have. (Though I recognize, in the rational part of my mind, no variation in body type would be an escape from the female sex.)
I have bridled with rage and self-hatred after seeing male colleagues glancing at my chest. Breastfeeding was a months-long nightmare of intense dysphoria, on top of the typically associated pains and struggles. The triggers are plentiful and often mundane.
I don’t know how to overcome this, just yet. There are balms, including radical feminism and radfem communities.
It has been healing to openly share the ways our bodies move us through this world. And to discuss how our female bodies — from which there is no absconding — often dictate our treatment and well-being.
After all, what do I know about how it feels to be a woman, apart from what I’ve learned while others — largely men — react to my being one? Nothing. I only know how it feels to be treated like a female-bodied person.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a woman. I don’t believe this feeling exists. I have yet to hear a satisfactory or sensical answer to the question.
Without a female body, there is no equivocating oneself into womanhood. There is no incantation or initiation that can transcend our bodily reality.
“Woman” is not a feeling. “Woman” just is.
Amy Eileen Hamm is a mom, a registered nurse educator, and a freelance writer.