By Crystal James
As a prepubescent teen, I imagined blooming like a flower by eighteen. On that day, I’d be declared a woman, and I feel differently about my appearance. Whenever I felt down on myself, I imagined this version of myself in a coming-of-age tale. It was a full-blown fantasy starring a boy from out of town falling in love with me. I’d be the main character, but I would imagine a version of my body that was never in the cards for me. My hair would have volume, and my jeans would fit like the models in magazines. I had a stereotypical idea of what a woman’s body was supposed to be, and much of that entailed my breasts growing. I daydreamed of turning into this creation in my head. Yet, here I am, still trapped in a body that at some point I deemed to resemble a 12-year-old boy’s body. A self-image that has been hard to shake.
When I was younger, any time I saw a mirror hanging on an unassuming wall, my face would find it. To this day, even in the comfort of my own home, I can still hear my mother playfully teasing me for being vain. Though, my mother was wrong. It wasn’t vanity I was exuding; it was curiosity. I thought to myself, “Will today be the day I’ll bloom?” I’d check every angle of my face and upper body. I yearned to feel confident and beautiful like what I assumed models felt. I wanted to feel pretty. In fifth grade, my teacher handed me my class portrait and said, ‘you could be a model.” Looking back, I realize she probably gave similar comments to every kid as she handed out school pictures. Yet to me, it was confirmation that I was indeed pretty. I clung to this compliment. I began obsessing over that portrait. I wanted to see what my teacher saw. Because what I saw didn’t entail a pretty girl. I saw everything I was feeling at that time; a shy and reserved girl doing everything she could to blend in. The girl in the photo seemed well dressed in a cardigan she borrowed from her mother because she didn’t have nice clothes of her own. She was a withdrawn girl with a slightly forced, quiet smile.
I stood in the mirror frequently, trying on new faces back then. I’d go from smiling modestly to flashing my teeth. I’d angle my chin to the right then to the left. I’d stick my chest out in hopes that my spring bulbs would bloom. I’d frown or twist my face around while asking my best friend if she’d still love me if my face looked like scrambled eggs. I even stood in the mirror with tears flowing. My eyes were striking when I cried, just as blue as the lakes I visited in the summertime. It seemed completely unfair.
It wasn’t one thing that made me feel like I was trapped inside a boyish figure. It was a bunch of remarks from other people. The earliest commentary I can recall regarding my frame was from one of my Dad’s friends. I only met him a handful of times. He was an older man with off-white hair stained yellow from cigarette smoking. He would pull up on his motorcycle, calling out to my Dad, “Where are your boys at?” He was referring to my younger sister and me. We’d squeal in retaliation, “We aren’t boys!” and he’d holler back, “You could have fooled me.” Even my girl group would poke fun at my body in middle school. I heard things like, “you have no butt; how do your jeans stay up!” Once I heard, “your body is square like a robot; how is that possible?” Even one of my closest girlfriends often compared my tween body to the neighborhood boys’ bodies. I’ve heard comments about looking young and being too skinny my entire life. In reality, I was a malnourished child trying to hide that I was growing up in poverty. I wanted nothing more than to appear like everyone else in training bras and braces. Yet, I couldn’t afford either.
When I started my career in my early twenties, I finally gained confidence, but it felt like a microdose of what other women in the office had. Most of the time, I was pretending I had it. I found that wearing heels to work amped up my assertiveness. When I walked into the building, I felt important in my blazers. I wore skirts and dresses for the first time. I spent my meager pay on well-fitting office attire. Perhaps, my peers were also faking it. Maybe your twenties are for trying on new versions of yourself.
Pretending to feel womanly worked well for many years. Flash forward to my first pregnancy, when all of a sudden, my clothes fit snugly. Even if the primary curve was a basketball, I finally had curves. It made me feel like a woman. It was something coming from within. A true feeling of amazement at my body. Unfathomable at times. It was the first time I felt in tune with myself. I ate when I was hungry. I did whatever I wanted without constantly thinking about other people. I was able to make decisions quickly. I took my vitamins daily. I would rest when I felt the need. When I walked, I felt confidence radiating off me. Others responded to my power as well. It was everything I had envisioned. However, I couldn’t plan for what happened to my body next.
After my newborn arrived via crash cesarean, I was left feeling discarded and raw. I wished for nothing except my milk to come in. My newborn quickly lost weight, and I wanted to give her the best chance for future health. I wanted to experience that breastfeeding bond I kept reading about on mommy blogs. I wanted to be a woman feeding her child. It was a long five-day wait due to all of the medication. Then one morning, I woke up, and just like I’d read about in those coming of age stories, my breasts had grown. I stared in the mirror, shocked because my milk had arrived, but also, I felt like a woman.
However womanly I felt during this phase, my body no longer felt like mine, and my breasts were incredibly tender. Often they felt cracked, and I was left depleted. Even toweling myself after a shower felt raw and painful. More often than not, I was a cow being expressed by a newborn. My colicky baby turned into a toddler tugging at my sore nipples throughout the night. I was quite literally her pacifier. Just like my breasts, my confidence shriveled up. The problem with only feeling like a woman during specific periods of life is that those phases come to an end. Now, my babies have grown into children. They do not need me in the same ways. As I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, I realize that my body was not used and discarded like expired milk. It went through the complex process of creating life.
Through self-reflection that arrived in my thirties, I see that storing an archaic idea of what my body should look like since middle school has only brought disappointment. I hadn’t explicitly realized it was creeping into my conscious mind whenever I saw a mirror. Through therapy and journaling my thoughts, the negative self-talk came to light. Once I shined a light on this negative body image, I gradually redirected my thoughts. I was able to feel empowered and grateful for my body just the way it is today. I am free from waiting for it to look a certain way.
I’ve come to realize that finding my intuition has helped me locate the woman inside. Wearing flattering clothes, a spritz of perfume, a good skincare routine, all of these things give me a hint of womanhood. But mostly, it’s finding myself within all of the layers that life has caked me in. My self-awareness has given me tools to free me from societal expectations, mean-girl comments, childhood trauma, and the toll of motherhood. I’m working on melding the many versions of myself into one confident, beautiful woman. Within me lives a scared inner child, a longing to belong teenager, an eager 20-something career girl, a confident pregnant woman, an exhausted cut-open new mother, a human pacifier, a stay-at-home mom, and a wife whom her husband desires at every phase of life. Becoming a woman does not arrive at a certain age or when your body changes. It happens when you experience life and bloom within.