For each of the past 35 weeks, save the first couple during which you were too small to tell, doctors using high-tech imaging devices assured us you’d be born female. And for each of the past 35 weeks, save the first couple during which you were too small to tell, that’s more than occasionally scared the piss out of me.
I went to school. I go to work. I watch television. I listen to music. I troll feminist blogs. Lately, I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter in one sitting. Occasionally, I go shopping. I know females. I’m friends with and/or related to more than a couple of handfuls of them. Plus, I am the proud/weary owner of a vagina, so I know from first-hand experience that growing up chick isn’t for the faint of heart.
And I’m not talking about the assorted horrorscapes of adolescent girlhood either. I’m talking about kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten even. Toddlerhood. Infancy. Hell, female fetushood! There are a lot of people out there who want you to be a lot of things girls supposedly are: pretty-in-pink, pint-sized princess, daddy’s little girl, a real lady, drive-the-boys-crazy, somebody’s mother. And the thing is you might not be any of these. And if you’re not, or even if you’re just some of them, some numbnuts will have something totally misplaced to say about how you prefer pants to skirts.
This one time I was four and Mrs. C-, my kindergarten teacher, asked the class to finger-paint a picture of something that made us happy. And in a sea of flowers and bunnies and rainbows and princesses and stick-figures-to-resemble-mothers, this girl painted a rocket ship: a white, phallic-shaped spacecraft soaring among a vast expanse of black universe, three stars (yellow X’s) and two distant red circles (Mars twinned) in the background. A couple of kids asked inquisitively whether this made me happy, and I said yes because it was true. I was going to be an astronaut. And then it happened: Some poor, misguided little life-ruiner raised his hand, pointed at me, laughed out loud and announced to the teacher, “She painted a boy picture! Girls don’t like space ships!” And before Mrs. C- could explain that some girls do, other kids laughed and this one was simultaneously embarrassed/confused/thrown. (Wait, wait…they don’t?) “She wants to be an astronaut!” The message was clear, if accurate: Astronauts are usually boys. And she isn’t. So she’s weird, weird, weird.
And I felt it: cognizant, truly cognizant, for the first time ever that I just broke the metaphorical mold and there’d be a price to pay: less than five minutes worth of teasing before one of my peers managed to detract from this unsolicited attention by taking a giant dump in his uniform-trousers. I was grateful, if still shaken. And from that day forth, and until I came to my senses and realized I was on to something and it really is bullshit that a scant 20 percent of each new class of astronauts is female, I started to pay a lot of attention to getting “girl” just right. Which felt sort of wrong. Because what’s “girl” anyway except for just exactly what you say it is?
The point is this: Someday, probably someday soon, somebody is going to hurt your feelings, erode your confidence and call to question your values. And someday, probably someday soon, it’s going to have something to do with the fact that you have a vagina. Think: Sit up straight, or that doesn’t look pretty or that’s not nice where “nice” is code for “nice for girls.” And the somebody who hurts your feelings/erodes your confidence/calls to question your values might be a stranger or your best friend or your grandmother or, G-d forbid, one of your parents.
And much as the prospect of my kid in my pain scares me, and much as it will probably destroy me to see it (not least of which if I’m to thank for it), I’ll try to see the forest through the trees. Or the universe through the stars. The opportunity. Which I super hope you hastily seize.
Mostly I hope you tell these people to suck it. I hope you tell them as sweet and lovely or tough and bad-ass as you know how that you’ve decided to honor your “astronaut.” Not because you think you can do anything you set your mind to (you can’t, that’s hoohaw, actually) but because if you fail it isn’t because you have girl parts or neglected to behave like you do. Rather, it will be because you grasp that if someone is actually worth your precious, precious time and energy and companionship – if they’re worthy of you, in other words – they’re going to (learn to be) ok with you as you are when you’re your most authentic. Authentic: Four. Before anyone ever scoffs at your little kid ambitions (which, oh, by the way, are maybe a little fantastic – or not – but which are probably more important than you know).
For the record, I promise that if you hate pink or you’d prefer to be president because you’re not really sure what princesses do anyway (me neither) or you happen to value your parents equally or think traditional femininity is overrated or you take a girl to prom or decide you never want to be anybody’s mom, yours has only ever really wanted one thing for you: that you realize happiness, on your terms, in finger-paint and real life.