IWD2014: Becoming a woman in a hut in the French forest (and other Grimm fairytales)

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Sunset at Persephone the Forked Woman: an entirely unseeable Anna and our friend Cat in Durham c. 2004

My university friend Anna was the first person I went running with. We did Race For Life in 2006, and it was exhausting. I’ll never forget the horror of schlumpfing down Barbican, only to see runners coming the other way and realising I’d only done 2k. THERE ARE MORE K?

Anna now runs a wonderful website – more of a community really – called Any Other Woman. I wrote this for her on AOW,  for International Women’s Day (which is tomorrow, but tomorrow is Saturday so they’re doing it today while people are actually looking at the internet.)

 

The moment I realised that I was a woman wasn’t when I got my period, or mastered nail polish, or achieved something otherwise monumentally female. It was in France, surrounded by male friends, all of us high as a kite on mushrooms.

I don’t advise taking drugs, but I was 19, when advising anyone not to do anything falls on deaf ears. In this instance, I was in a beautiful wooden hut in a forest. To my surprise, while my friends were outside chasing purple flowers and whooping with laughter, I saw each slat of wood in the hut morph so that it contained a woman.

There were women doing countless things. Women hanging out washing. Women on balconies, being taken from behind by unseen lovers. All kinds of women doing all kinds of things, but each of them with an iron freedom glinting in their eyes that said “Whatever is happening, right now, I am more than this. I am me.”

“How are you going?” my friend asked, sticking his head around the door.

“Go away! You are a man, I cannot talk to you right now!” I said, imperiously flicking my hands like a stoned Brownie attempting semaphore.

Reports of mushroom trips never sound entirely sane, but I can’t tell you what it meant to suddenly feel the click that I was a woman.

At 19, I didn’t want to be a woman. For years I had longed to be a man – men didn’t bitch, or fuss, they got to do cool stuff like take drugs behind sheds and be the ones who made the first move. My best friends were men – women were by and large frightening, and incomprehensible.

It took until that day in the woods to realise that what I’d actually wanted to be was short. I’d always been the tallest, and extremely so. Being 6’1 when you are 13-years-old is a fucking nightmare, particularly when you are all gangle and brains and missing a year’s worth of social skills because you got moved up a year in primary school for reasons you still don’t entirely understand.

I hated being tall as much as I loved it. I loved not being condescended to, but I hated standing out. I loved the freedom of not being patronised, but wept at being overlooked. Other tall girls at school were model-like. I was not. I was relentlessly awkward. So, I read. I read endlessly. I did drama, and music. I rode. I refused to accept being bullied and laughed it off. I absorbed magazines in the hope that they might make me ideal, even though my height and size was ignored. I went to the school discos. I did everything I wanted to, and then went home and cried because I was lonely and didn’t understand life or how it worked, and everything was better in a book.

Many years later, I outgrew the gangle and the not-understanding. It wasn’t at 19, in that huge room in the woods. It wasn’t when I graduated, or graduated from my masters or my first, second or third jobs. It isn’t now, at 31, running a marathon for Mind to hold the hand of the broken-headed girl who didn’t get herself. It’s all of those years, all at the same time, all ongoing.

The next generation has one advantage already: the internet. But it has another in sites like this, in the very phenomenon of International Women’s Day. And yet another, in the stories from generations of women, to read and then to go “Gah. Losers, whatever”. To overtake and to excel. And secretly, take comfort from.

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