I used to think that the difference between boys and girls was that boys had short hair and girls had long. I really thought that was the whole difference. Then I started growing up and learned a little more about birds and bees and all that stuff. I met girls with short hair and boys with long hair and I even dated some boys with long hair. Lately I have been thinking about how there was a time that being a mother, giving birth to a baby and breast feeding was something that defined a woman as a woman. I felt like all those female parts and wearing make up and high heels were things that made women something besides men; as if without those things we were men.
I hated wearing anything that made me look manly, like when I parked cars in downtown San Diego I had to wear this uniform that was khaki slacks and a polo shirt, but it was so un-feminine that I truly believed people would mistake me for a man. Or maybe I feared they’d mistake me for a lesbian. I never understood women who didn’t want kids because somehow I thought that made them not women. I thought that if a woman couldn’t have a child it was like she’d been robbed of something and what was the point in living. I always felt that my worst fear would be infertility or having to have my uterus and ovaries all removed. It baffled me that there were people on earth who chose to not have kids. It baffled me that there were women who dressed manly by choice, even if they were total dykes.
Here I am at 34 battling cancer with medicines that could potentially destroy all my chances of ever having children, I have one real breast and no hair and for some reason I feel more feminine than I have in a long time. I could have or at least be at risk for cervical cancer or ovarian cancer and there is a likelihood very soon someone may tell me that I should remove all my girl parts in order to avoid the risks of developing more cancers. Or perhaps I’ll be told I have to do it. Either way I have been considering that after I am through with the five years of Tamoxifen, if I can have a child I will most likely pop one out right away and then remove the whole works. So, if I do that, am I still a woman? One breast, no uterus or ovaries. What makes a woman a woman?
I’ve meet women who have had an oophorectomy or a hysterectomy and they look like women. They wear make up or they don’t; they appear to have breasts even if they are reconstructed ones; they wear dresses and high heels and they certainly are not men. So, yeah, I’ll be lacking certain hormones that are defining in females, and I’ll be missing certain body parts that are as well, but I’ll still have my vagina, and my female brain and most of my female-ness that is not entirely controlled by estrogen. And I’ll still not be a man.
I’m not sure where I got my idea that I might be mistaken for a man. Perhaps it was something that came from childhood that I don’t fully recall. I mean, even being bald no one has really questioned it besides the six year old girl I sat near on the subway who asked: “Are you a boy or a girl?” And in her case she simply had never seen a bald woman before and wasn’t sure what to think of it. That’s how I felt as a kid too: I was raised around girls who had long hair and wore pig tails or braids, and boys had short hair and men were bald not women. I guess if I had seen a bald woman when I was six I would have thought she looked odd and I would have questioned if she was a woman or said she looked ugly or weird. My six year old niece called it weird and even though she didn’t say I looked ugly I knew she was kind of thinking it. She said something about “when you look pretty” which meant when I have my hair and I know she didn’t mean it as insulting at all, that she simply found it unfamiliar.
I’m glad my niece saw me bald, and that girl on the subway as well, because I think it’s important for girls to understand from a young age that being female means more than the length of your hair, the size or even existence of your breasts, the fact that you are or are not a mother, whether you have ovaries or a uterus, that you wear a dress and heels or make up everyday, that you wear frilly underwear or not. Being a woman is something glamorous and enchanting even when you are wearing flannel pajamas and eating ice cream from a carton. Femininity is not defined by lipstick and tampons; all woman are different. We come in a variety of sizes and shapes; we come with all sorts of funny quirks and nasty habits; we like what we like and we do what we do, and we are still women when we lose a breast or any other part of our body. It’s not my body that defines my womanhood. I’m not entirely sure what it is that makes me a woman, but I know that no matter what I lose I will always be a woman because I feel like a woman. That is me. It is not that I am not a man, it is that I am a woman. And being a woman, no matter what I look like, matters.