On feeling like a woman

What does it mean to ‘feel’ like a woman?

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.

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  • BeeWall

    Ah, this article made my heart ache with familiarity. Thanks for it’s telling. I wish you, I wish all of us, peace within our bodies.

    • Addy

      Yes, this is so relatable. I have a tale of 2 bikinis, my first at about 6 years old, that came with a long, hooded coverup that I used to wear like a cape, running around the neighbourhood like a superhero. Six years later, every picture of me at a beach or pool, my arms are crossed over my chest in the orange terrycloth bikini that my Mom bought for me. The bikini that she bought, then sewed gathers into the top to make it a little less revealing. So many mixed messages with that bikini…

  • therealcie

    I can relate to being ashamed of my developing body. As a teenager, I was subjected to cat-calls by grown-ass men every day. My father told me I should feel complimented. I didn’t. I felt gross.
    I didn’t want my body to develop, because I knew this would happen. I developed bulimia. I hated my hips and thighs. A 35-year battle with an eating disorder ensued. The fact that my thyroid committed suicide when I was 16 did nothing to help me attain the androgynous body I wanted. I just wanted men to leave me alone, and I wanted to look like the models in the fashion magazines.
    I’m much snarkier these days and don’t so much care about not looking like an androgynous model. However, I’m always ready for the fight, because there are always people out there ready to make unsolicited comments about strangers’ bodies.

    • Tobysgirl

      Always men out there ready to make comments about women’s bodies.

  • oneclickboedicea

    Brilliantly put, it is only other people’s reaction to us that forms our understanding of what it feels like to be a woman. I dont see transwomen embodying shame at their periods or growing breasts … because they don’t have them. Choosing is not the same as having these imposed on one due to biology. Its as big a deal as the difference between rape and sex.

  • Jen Miller

    Such a powerful piece of writing.

  • Sharpie

    This is the reason why I always get angry at men that claim “girls mature faster than boys”. We don’t. It’s others that force us to mature faster and to see ourselves as sexual beings. We’d be more than happy to enjoy our childhood a little bit longer and to walk into womanhood at our own pace. We’d also be happy to choose if we want to be sexual and how, without being shamed before we even got the chance to understand what sexuality means.

    I feel so bad for the girls that have to grow up in today’s sex-crazed pornified culture. They are bombarded with images and messages that degrade them and reduce them to sexual toys for boys and men.

  • Ashley Braman

    Also only womxxn feel cramps and periods. Only womxxn feel their bodies change and expand with life. Only womxxn feel the pain of giving birth only womxxn have hormone imbalances that cause ppd. Only womxxn say they are hurt to the doctors and are ignored and thought to be lying. Only womxxn have pms and hot flashes. Only womxxn know what it feels like to be over qualified for a job but not get it bc a less qualified male got it. Only womxxn know what it feels like to be refused a seat in the board or on the team or in the club bc they have a vagina. Only womxxn know what it feels like to have to care about everyone elses feelings and no one care about her feelings. Only womxxn know what it feels like not to be heard and to be talked over and have our ideas stolen.

  • Rachel

    Agree. It makes me so mad. They have no idea.

  • Stefy

    You guys are my people! If someone asked me what it feels like to be a woman, most of the time I would say “like a man”. I’m an individual. I don’t wake up feeling anything. I am myself. How I feel my womanhood most of the time is by how others perceive me or in a sexual sense. That is why I have a hard time understanding the Trans-movement because how can they say “I feel like a woman” on the inside when our experience is all unique and different.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Word word <3

  • Hanakai

    Yes, more evidence that transgenders are delusional and mentally ill. They are too stupid, science illiterate and ideological to understand that they do not have the anatomical structures or endocrinology to menstruate, to experience cramps or endometriosis, or PMS. These delusional people really really need some effective mental health treatment.

  • Alienigena

    Agreed. My mother was a nurse and she gave us access to a series of books created by health professionals for specific age groups. I remember a section of one book on what to do if you are approached by a stranger (showed a man in a car approaching a young teenage male) or made uncomfortable by an adult’s actions. Feeling uncomfortable with your body has nothing to do with the information you receive it has to do with the messaging you receive from family, peers and the media. My mother was endlessly hypocritical when I was growing up making me feel ashamed of my own body. Her attitudes and actions ranged from a practical approach to life to incredible conformity to social expectations (which included a screaming match with my sister around her use of birth control as a 16 year old). I remember flipping through my grandfather’s Playboy or Penthouse magazines as a 9 year old and no one stopping me. What nine year old should be exposed to that within sight of her parents. They just thought it was funny. Their pseudo progressive attitudes were emblematic of a pretty toxic set of family values.

  • Alienigena

    Isn’t ‘transing the dead’, a term I have seen used on this site, caused by the same mentality that inspired certain people to claim that Beethoven was black. Which from the evidence I have seen he was not.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/transition.112.117?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    The need to claim famous people as your own while not acknowledging biological and historical fact seems to plague leftists. Has no one heard of the concept of ‘variation within a population’ (whether that be ethnic or sex-based (male and female))? I am not talking variation in genitalia but behavior. I have had people assume I have Asian parentage/heritage despite the fact that I have dark blonde hair, light skin and blue eyes, just because of the shape of my eyes. I grant that my mother’s family have features like very prominent and large cheek bones, square jaws (I don’t have these features), and almond-shaped eyes but guess what, they are Scandinavian. 23andme.com backs up my determination that my background and that of my parents is almost entirely (97-99+% conservatively estimated) European. The trans revolution has been a long time coming and reality denying people on the left have had a large part to play in that revolution’s success. Having voted for left leaning parties most of my life I now have no party to vote for, as they are all seemingly reality denying.