No one gets out of childhood unharmed. It’s a full contact sport played in an arena bigger than our little selves have the capacity to comprehend.
By the time we reach adulthood most of us have built up a psychological suit of armor that protects us. We’ve found a way to avoid feeling the insults and anxiety that come from living in a world with so many other damaged children in grown up bodies.
If we’re diligent (and a little bit lucky), our defense mechanisms help us to be functional.
If we’re unlucky or unaware they can turn against us.
As I walk down any street in Baltimore I can usually spot a terrified child wrapped in the body of a drug addict or homeless person. It’s easy to see where they’ve lost control but for most people it isn’t quite so obvious.
CEO’s or police officers or the clerks at the grocery story don’t “let their crazy hang out” as my daughter likes to say. They don’t show their feelings of inadequacy.
I went one step farther than not letting it show. I played it like I didn’t have any fears – like the world was my playground and I was having a ball.
Only those closest to me saw the twitching, frustrated, insecure little girl that was at the wheel of my drive toward adulthood.
At the root of my anxiety was the fact that I was female and I learned, at a very early age, that being female was going to be a problem.
I recognized, with advanced perception and with mounting fear, that there was no way to avoid the repercussions of having a vagina.
To protect myself, and to make life tolerable, I adopted two strategies.
Strategy one– use overt sexuality to attract and control the men whom I come in contact with (as if that’s possible) and
Strategy two – hide my true femininity.
On the one hand, I played it big. I made my stories outrageous and my actions over the top so that no one really saw me when they looked at me. They saw all the bells and whistles.
If they weren’t the kind of people who needed to be entertained then it usually scared them off pretty quickly.
On the other hand, I played it small. I asked for nothing for myself. I dressed in jeans and t-shirts without any particular style. I used to say that if clothes make a statement then my statement was, “no comment.”
That made me seem all cool and indifferent at the time but the truth was that I was uncomfortable with myself. I didn’t know those little secrets that women learn from healthy mothers. My fear of being female made it so that I never learned the beauty of it.
Then I met the women of Baltimore.
Never before had I come in contact with so many women at one time who were not attaching their sense of themselves to a man. It made me realize that for all my boasting about being independent, I was caught in a cycle of attracting and repelling men and it was distracting me from my personal growth.
Most of these women were educated, compassionate, talented, honest, beautiful and charming. They were self-reliant world travelers and their power was a genuine power rooted in their femininity and not a reactionary power that stems from fear.
During the first year in Baltimore I was a sponge soaking up new information.
I watched them and I asked them about their lives, their jobs, their art. I opened up to them and let them see me without my suit of armor. It was scary for me but I wanted to learn what they knew- what no one had taught me.
I wanted to learn how to embrace my feminine nature – to feel safe again.
There is a group of women who gather together every few months to swap clothes. An entire day is spent trying things on in front of each other and asking if it works. Fashion tips are exchanged. After a life time of hiding my body and my ignorance from the world I was standing naked (figuratively and, at times, literally) in front of 19 veritable strangers who “oooo”d and “ahhhh”d over what made me look beautiful and who gently stopped me from making fashion faux pas.
Professors, artists, activists, social workers, mothers, environmentalists, doctors, and entrepreneurs were all drinking mimosas and trying on skirts together – laughing hysterically when the look was awful.
I felt like I was being guided by a brilliant, loving mother into place that had always been a mystery to me. I was getting to know and to love the women of Baltimore and in doing so – I was learning to understand, to accept and to love myself as well.