“Hate is a strong word.” I remember being told that a time or two growing up in the Midwest where most of us little girls were just trying to be likeable and honest.
We tried not to hate Mrs. Drinkwater for casting us as the bus driver in Bridge to Terabithia, tried not to hate Shelby Possom for having a french braid as thick as challah, tried not to hate our parents for divorcing and dating and generally dorking out on us in public.
We didn’t try all that hard not to hate ourselves, not to hate our womanhood. Of course, we didn’t do it overtly; Girl Power was still en vogue. But by the time we became plump and grown, we started distancing ourselves from those women, those women that were too woman-ish. Those women who still waited for a man to initiate, still took his last name on their wedding day, still named their sons Bobby Jr. after their grandaddys, still spent money getting things monogrammed, still apologized for interrupting, still cried at Hallmark commercials, still wore colors like magenta.
These days, I’m finding these distancing desires a bit laughable, a bit disingenuous, a bit sexist, a bit well, un-Christian. I don’t doubt that there are many of us who have experienced great pain because we don’t fit into the cult of true womanhood espoused by our culture, churches, and communities. Or perhaps many of us who conform (whether naturally or intentionally) to a more masculine demeanor that has been rewarded professionally, academically. Whatever our reason for distancing ourselves from women and their rich historicity, it is tearing us apart, tearing me apart on the insides.
In his letter to the ancient church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul seems to think it preposterous, unfathomable that hate could turn inward like it has. The New International Translation is emphatic to this end in Ephesians 5:29: “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cared for the church.” Later, 5th-century church father Augustine affirmed the same sentiment in his commentary on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: the body cannot possibly be loathed because it is gift of God, grace of God. How can we hate ourselves and be Christ bearers?
I didn’t think I hated women, didn’t think I hated myself, anyone for that matter until I came across an article by a blogger on finally accepting feminism. She writes about how she didn’t want to be like the other girls, a tease, a drama queen. She writes how it was easier to laugh off the labels, laugh at herself. You are more fun this way, she told herself. And men like it when you are fun, low-maintenance, laying on your back in white v-necks and boyfriend jeans. It wasn’t until she had daughters (she had wanted a boy) that she realized she had to pay attention to this abstract concept of womanhood, her womanhood and theirs too, and its great responsibilities.
I’ve wrestled for years to make sense of this term: womanhood. And I’ve come to believe that I’d better start owning it. Because if I identify as a woman, if I am received as a woman, then I am an ambassador of womanhood. Whatever traits I happen to show, whatever choices I happen to pursue are forming this unfinished tapestry of gender possibility for future generations.
Womanhood does not define me; I define it, or rather God defines it through the unique smorgasbord of my inward being and its outward expression, coupled with millions and millions of other threads of expression across the globe. Lord knows some are even magenta.
During an autobiography course that met in a women’s correctional center during my last semester of Divinity School, I was asked to complete the following sentence for a prompt: “What I am most terrified to admit publicly is…” After thinking of a few light vices – such as vanity or nose-picking – I settled on an impossibly unlikeable truth: I wanted to belong. And I hated to admit it.
I didn’t want to be one of the boys, nor really one of the girls. I just wanted to be a lover, not a hater.