By Maggie Shalloe
Guest writer Maggie talks about what it is to be a woman today and, in particular, what it is to be an Irish woman in 2019. From developing early and experiencing socialised competitiveness, to the agonies of not matching up to traditional ideal conventions of beauty, to being “failed by your own body”, she talks about the physical and emotional trials and tribulations that so many women go through while growing up in this country and how they can propel us to build a better tomorrow…
What makes a woman? It seems like a simple question but is actually quite complex, with an even more complex set of answers. What it is to be a woman and the issues a woman might face can also vary greatly from country to country as societal norms can differ massively. So, I wonder, in particular; what makes an Irish woman in 2019?
For me, so-called womanhood started aged just ten or eleven. I was part of that club of young girls who developed early. My first bra was a gift from my grandmother, no padding or anything fancy, just a girls’ sports bra. Soon after that, I was shocked to discover I was having what grown-ups called “my first period”. I was in fourth class and there were no sanitary bins in the toilets, which meant, embarrassingly, I ended up spending my small lunch break waiting for one of the teachers’ toilets to be free. One day, my male teacher saw me waiting and asked what I was doing so I tried very subtly to tell him that I needed to use this bathroom. I don’t think he understood. I remember very distinctly him popping into the classroom, giving me a look and walking back out. I think he was contemplating asking me about it again but maybe it sank in at that point. I was, thankfully, never embarrassed like that again. Early on-set womanhood would prove to be a jarring and difficult thing.
When it came to my boobs coming in, I remember feeling like an alien. I was a slim enough child, so my fried eggs, that seemed like footballs at the time, stood out and everyone around me was aware of, and curious about, my boobs. This was one of my first experiences of the many layered difficulties and complications of womanhood. A dear friend at the time suddenly displayed a strange new emotion towards me and my recent growth. It was a colour day, when everyone in school got to forego uniforms and wear items in different shades, and I remember wearing a red t-shirt that had grey stripes. She asked me about my breasts and, out of nowhere, had a peep down my top! I was startled and felt slightly upset. I remember my father saying I shouldn’t be friends with this girl, but, of course, I didn’t listen and I later learned he was right all along. I understood from the way that this event occurred that she could not believe that this was happening to me first. I knew how pivotal the beginning of puberty is and the feeling that you are not developing as quickly as your friends can definitely have an impact on you at such a tumultuous age. To me though, all of the typical female physical characteristics, had very little to do with womanhood. Surely, it was more about your mind? I found it hard to deal with the socialised insecurities and competitiveness that changes I didn’t ask for brought. It was confusing to be going through all this and to deal with the ways in which women in Ireland are often socialised to hate each other at the same time.
My teenage years were a little less eventful as everyone else caught up. I was never popular with the boys; I had a terrible haircut, acne, and I put on a few stone. As attraction and dating became a central part of our teenage lives and people were categorised based on how they did, or did not, measure up to traditional conventions of attractiveness, I became acutely aware of how different we all are as women. I quickly learned that a lot of the time, boys don’t have a very good perception of women at all. The writer in me has always been an avid observer of people (though another person might just call me a nosy biddy but so be it) and I would often overhear conversations about what girls were ‘a ride’, all the while knowing the girls in question and who they really were: girls who had powerful minds, excelled in different classes, and were not merely defined by how they looked. Although I do understand that, while I might harbour a slight grudge against how young men often view women, when you’re literally beginning puberty you don’t care if Claire is excellent at History. I have always sympathised with, and been drawn to, other women but I have also always struggled with my own self-perception as a woman in this society. I understood what it meant to never feel pretty, to never feel thin. To have physical flaws. I hated how shy I was. I hated that it took me so long to feel comfortable around a person, that I never had a group of friends. That one best friend, sister almost, is a treasure to me, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I am ‘unfriendable’.
Despite this affinity for the female experience, I was raised to believe that, as a woman, having a man in my life was important and I struggled with never finding a good relationship, thinking I would be destined to a life alone. A different person’s understanding of womanhood might say that you need to be comfortable in your independence, never feeling like you need a man and if it happened, it happened. But then I found a relationship that suited me perfectly. A man who valued space and comfort and one that made me feel better about myself, rather than worse. Someone to laugh with on a daily basis. For the first time in my life, I felt unconditional love and what it meant to feel it for someone I wasn’t related to.
After almost two years with him, my world was rocked by pregnancy. Before this, I had never entertained the idea of being a mother and so I was surprised to discover how happy I felt about it all. Of course, anything unplanned is wildly scary, but it was welcomed. Within the month, I had my first big struggle with womanhood, the struggle that has lead to me even writing this. My body failed me.
The day my womanhood was challenged, I woke up excited. I delighted in seeing my first ultrasound scan. I met a midwife, I saw a doctor and, after a small bit of waiting, I was finally ushered into that room. The scan took quite some time, which I assumed was very standard practice. The woman performing the scan had mentioned that she couldn’t quite get a clear picture, and we would have to use a different machine. I was so naïve that I thought she was talking about better physical pictures for us to take home. The last words she said before exiting the curtain were our baby’s estimated due date. She knew something by then, but she wasn’t sure what, and I could never hold a grudge for the false hope those words provided us. In the adjacent room, with the better machine, another woman whispered into the blonde lady’s ear. Soon, we were told that our baby was missing any bone structure around its head. I began to cry, yet I assumed they’d offer us something comforting, maybe that it would begin to grow eventually. The next thing we knew, we were told we would have to travel to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, that we needed to wait for a call from them and they would get back to us as soon as possible.
The walk out of the hospital is the only time in my life, that I felt as though I was in a movie. The people around me moved in slow motion. I cried in the corridor and a nurse came over asking if we were lost. People saw me drenched in tears and looked away, as if they knew and they couldn’t face me. We got a taxi, the driver said nothing and we were glad. What ensued next were days of constant sobbing, waking up, and remembering what was happening, and wailing. Not trying to upset anyone with the loud cries, but knowing that you were and knowing that you couldn’t stop it even if you tried. Saying goodbye to your unborn and lovingly awaited child in the most unfair situation possible and leaves no woman unscathed. Feeling betrayed by the most female parts of yourself, for being in a situation that can only be helped by termination, surgical. Feeling even more betrayed by the women that oppose the decision that you had to make, wondering what womanhood meant for them. Feeling in debt to the Irish nurse I met in the London abortion clinic, for making me feel more at ease, like a piece of home was there with me. Feeling a strange mix of emotions when seeing women of all shapes and sizes, all ages, race, etc in that same building at that same time. I felt so many things, but mostly I felt that being a woman was hard, it was harder than those menstrual mood swings I had joked about many times, far harder than having a bad makeup day.
Being a woman is often utter torment, for so many, not just myself. It is torment for women who are raped. Torment for women who are raped and whose choice of clothing and sobriety get thrown into conversation when deciding who is right and who is wrong, as if somehow, there’s anything to debate. Torment for women who decide not to have children, for them being made to feel their choices are so very wrong. Torment for women that are unable to have children, or have lost many children. Torment for women who have not always been so, in ways I can not even begin to fathom, when they decide to live their lives as who they truly are. Torment for women who struggle with mental health, eating disorders, or body dysmorphia. Torment for women of colour whose other struggles are often compounded by their race. The list is long, I could write it all day. We still live in a society so predominantly male-driven and designed, that can at times be torture. So, again, I wonder: What Makes a Woman?
In some ways it can be answered by a, “who,” rather than a, “what”. We are each of us women in our own ways, strong and capable of an independence and autonomy of self that much of world is still getting used to, for some reason. We see the political world frightened by it; you only need glance at American politics to see that they would rather see us kept down. Our government can often be no better, which makes the change that we all create when we work together for a cause all the more astounding. Two months after my surgical termination, I voted to Repeal. As I was at my lowest, Irish women were in the middle of an uprising. I was afraid to tell people what I had gone through until I saw what work was being done for change around me, lead fiercely by groups of inspiring women (and of course, lots of really good men), in their thousands. This is womanhood, this is Irish womanhood now. And it’s really fantastic. It is a woman’s mutual respect for other women, a united front on the things that matter. Womanhood is ever-changing, because we are growing stronger. No matter what experiences we have, identifying as a woman, supporting other women – that is what makes a woman. It’s not child bearing or marriage or staying in the home or any of these ideals of old (while, we can, of course, still do these things if we so choose but that is not merely who we are). We’re changing the face of this whole country, to force it to listen more closely to our rights and needs. We are standing up and saying “no, this is wrong” and being opinionated in a country where acting as so would’ve been criminal decades ago.
What makes a woman, is you! You are the definition of a woman by just doing you. No feminine feature, old fashioned values or man can strengthen your womanhood. Beyond identifying as such, it is your ideals, your respect for other women, your recognition of how you deserve to be treated and listened to. It is dealing with all of the physical and emotional aspects of being a woman – like getting boobs too early on and having to navigate social mores – while managing to be strong for all around you and to nurture your own independence. It is your ability to move mountains with just your voice, and, maybe ,the odd social media platform or two. This is womanhood here and now and it is inclusive, it is powerful, and it is only getting started.
For more on womanhood in Ireland, read about the HPV vaccine and what it’s like to act as a juror on a rape trial in this country…