Staring at yourself in the mirror, getting reacquainted? Who’s that looking back at you? An old friend, perhaps? Or maybe a lifelong nemesis that you eventually realize, much like you, is just trying to get by and now you have a begrudging respect for each other that results in a small, but knowing smile across a crowded room before you head off in opposite directions to make any number of dreams come true.
After all that eye contact we started thinking about how many different lil’ our bodies, ourselves we’ve been through/are still going through…some maybe yet to come…and exactly how that makes us feel.
In this installment of Women On The Edge you’ll see work from Shaina Yang (May 1st), Jasmine Magaña (May 8th) and Amina Sutton (May 15th) that focuses on the feelings behind a seemingly infinite number of maturations.
Amina Sutton, How Would She Explain It?, 2020
Back in February I attended a screening of the documentary On Becoming a Woman directed by Cheryl Chisholm. Filmed in 1985, the documentary focuses on a group of mothers and daughters over the course of three sessions; discussing puberty, sex, and relationships. Maybe it was seeing the daughters squirm uncomfortably while discussing their changing bodies with their mothers and friends on camera, and maybe because some of the moms reminded me so much of my mother, but I was emotionally wrecked after watching it. I was immediately flooded with memories of my own experience with puberty.
I STRUGGLED with puberty. I was maybe 9 or 10 when I had my first period. I guess that made me an early bloomer.
Part of the reason I struggled was because I strongly identified with being a kid. I cringed when I was suddenly referred to as a “woman”. Hitting puberty meant carrying the burden of additional responsibilities. It meant being involuntarily sexualized without fully understanding what it all meant. And maybe because I was an early bloomer, I felt so abnormal. Like my body had betrayed me. It decided to mature me before I was ready. Plus, it was really gross.
Reflecting back now as an adult, it feels like it took me ages to become comfortable with my body, my sexuality, my sense of self and what it meant to be “a woman”. And I’ve always wondered if that was in part because right before I hit puberty, my mother died. And she wasn’t there to guide me through it.
I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if she had lived to see me through it. If she’d been around to tell me about my period, to explain the birds and the bees, what knowledge would she want me to have? About myself, about my body, about the world, about friendships and relationships. What might it have looked like? The clothes she would wear? How her voice would sound?
How might I have turned out differently?
If my mother was around to usher me through puberty, would I still get nervous buying tampons at Walgreens? Would I still have wished my boobs would just go away? So I could look like the other kids? Would she make a lot of corny jokes to ease my discomfort? Like I do when I have to talk about something uncomfortable?
Would she deliver the lesson very clinically and straightforward? Would she keep it scientific? Would she talk to me like I was a baby, and I’d hate it? Would I feel understood?
Would I have a different understanding of human sexuality? Or my own sexuality? Would she have been able to convince me that my body is mine? Would I have embraced my transition?
Would she have stressed self-love and self-care? Would she have taught me how to prioritize my pleasure? Would I have been spared of feeling embarrassed of my body?
Would she be inspiring? Would the talk be empowering? Radicalizing? Would my mother’s birds and the bees speech prepare me or protect me from the white gaze on my body? Would I have had a role model I could culturally identify with?
Would she feel an immense amount of pressure to protect me? Would that pressure exhaust her? Would our talk have spared me from toxic relationships and crossed boundaries? Would her own traumas from sex and relationships cloud her outlook? Would I have inherited that? Have I inherited that?
Would my mother’s lessons to my younger self, overlap with the lessons the me of today wishes she could go back and share? What if the answer is no? I’ll never really know the answers to these questions. And maybe that’s okay too. I made it here either way, right?
NOTE: I would like to say for the record, my stepmother was around to talk to me about the birds and the bees. It was very awkward and I remember she drew a lot of pictures. I needed to acknowledge this to let you know, that I wasn’t alone in figuring this out. And I love her very much.
Jasmine Magaña, When Every Boy Was Ace Ventura, 2020
When Every Boy Was Ace Ventura
The funny thing is that when Amber asked me if I’d like to submit a reflection on puberty – as concept, as memory, as whatever – I had just been mulling over a random memory from that time in my life. It had popped into my head earlier that week, completely unprompted, its purpose only clicking then.
A brief aside: it’s not the first time I had preempted Amber in some way. A couple of weeks prior I was in a shop and a bottle of Vinho Verde—a drink we usually share —caught my eye. I thought, aww I miss Amber and took a bottle home with me. A day or two later I got a phone call from…you guessed it. Amusing, isn’t it? Well, I think so. I’d even venture to call it adorable!
Anyway, back to the subject at hand, though, fair warning, I may digress, that’s usually how these things go… so, puberty, right – the memory: I was in the sixth grade and we were broken up into groups of four to work on some project: it was me, two boys and one other girl (all of whom I could name, but won’t). At one point, one of the boys quickly passed his hand over the other girl’s leg and in a strange, I can only describe it as Ace Ventura-esque (?) voice said, ooo, so smooth. The other boy laughed while she and I just stared, confused. They then switched roles, the second boy ran his hand over my leg and disgustedly pointed out how hairy I was, they laughed again. I can’t remember if I told them to shut up or if I said nothing at all. But I do remember this incident being the main reason I didn’t shave for another two years…specifically to spite them. I think it was the first time I had ever told a man to fuck off, even if it was indirect and subtle, my preferred method of vengeance…more about my own satisfaction than them really. The point is that I was eleven years old and at the beginning of a period of anger directed at the world that would eventually give way to full-blown anxiety (don’t worry, the anger came back in my mid-twenties). At that moment, though, it was just anger and resentment at the realization that men had a certain amount of power, which they wielded recklessly, and could somehow affect how we, the young girls in my class, saw and understood ourselves. This was also the year that bra-snapping became a thing (y’all remember that nonsense?). In response, I started wearing extremely baggy shirts, thinking that if they couldn’t see my bra they’d have to leave me alone. The lengths we go to…
Another aside: I went to Catholic school, so we had religion class every morning. By the fifth grade it all just sounded to me like stories about a bunch of people trying to gain the approval of some man—the divine being was always gendered male—and I could do the same! Needless to say, I wasn’t having it and it had everything to do with that priest who told me I was going to hell because I had questions instead of blind faith.
If I were to think of a reason why these specific memories from that weird time were coming to mind during this weird time, I could only return to my anger and resentment. This time directed at any number of patriarchal systems, but namely capitalism and academia. All the emails and messages appealing to our common humanity only to remind us that we can and will be productive if we know what’s good for us. After all, well-wishes don’t mean shit when attached to demands that you keep on track, keep producing. At the end of the day, those reminders serve only to check boxes. As if to say – of course we supported our staff, our community – look at all the work we gave them to do! All the while they wash their hands of the consequences, seemingly anyone who doesn’t make it through unscathed just didn’t take advantage of the wide array of services.
And then there’s my inner preteen not wanting to do anything specifically because she’s being told to do it, convinced that if all those emails don’t find her well it could be the equivalent of a big fuck-you to those systems, indirect and subtle.
Shaina Yang, Untitled, 2020