This is a series of “year of boundlessness” posts, where I explore aspects of my personal challenge to live a life of boundlessness for a year. To read about the challenge, you can find the post here.
wom·an·hood |: the state of being a woman (merriam-webster)
Questions like “What is womanhood?” and “What does it mean to be a woman?” are questions I’ve been asking myself since I was 13. Growing up in two cultures and in a religious household, I got a mix of messages of what that looked like. In college, more questions around womanhood came up, such as: What does it mean when our womanhood is tied to our sexual anatomy and body parts? Where does that leave trans women, women who can’t have children, women who had to have hysterectomies or double mastectomies, or women who don’t have the “ideal” body image?
Recently, I’ve been focusing on my personal exploration of womanhood because the idea still feels elusive to me. I literally had to google the definition as I was writing this post! The need for exploration came full force this year when I was having challenges with my sexual health and weight. My health and body challenges brought up unhealed intergenerational trauma. I realized that because I’ve been told what it means to be a woman for a good amount of my life (some of those ideas being harmful), I never thought about what that looks like for me.
Womanhood looks different based on a woman’s own definition of herself. How she’s perceived will vary depending on the intersection of her race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and more. In this post, I will share my personal experience. I, of course, don’t speak for all women. Women are not a monolith so my experience may be similar to other women or may not be.
How I learned about womanhood
Piety, purity, damsel in distress vibes, feminine, submissiveness, and domesticity were aspects of womanhood that I learned from white dominant culture. In U.S. culture, white womanhood (which is often seen as “true” womanhood) is positioned as the standard that everyone should follow. For Black women, we weren’t seen in that description of womanhood because we are seen as hypersexual, strong, masculine, thus excluding us from “true” womanhood. But white womanhood wasn’t the universal standard.
Learning about my Haitian history, I learned that the Taínos in Haiti were matriarchal and women had societal power. I also learned that many enslaved Black women like Lieutenant Sanité Bélair fought for their freedom side by side enslaved Black men in the Haitian Revolution. And I learned of women like Adbaraya Toya, who was a midwife, healer, and a well-respected, highly accomplished warrior for the Empire of Dahomey in Africa. She was the one who trained Jean Jacques Dessalines who would be the first leader of independent Haiti! These women did not fit the picture of womanhood in white dominant culture.
When it came to religion, I learned that women are supposed to be straight. They should be subservient to men, sexually pure, and modest (think of “traditional values”). So where did that leave me if I didn’t want to apply to those rules? The media I consumed also had its own opinions about womanhood too: just an object for the male gaze or to be exoticized if you’re a woman of color. It felt like everyone was telling me how I was supposed to be as a woman and no one cared about my opinion. For the longest time, I didn’t even care about my opinion! I just tried to fit into the molds that were handed to me. But there were too many molds, and they were limiting.
Be thin, but not too thin. Be thick, but not fat. You can be smart, but not too smart. Be passive but also be aggressive. Have nice, straight hair. If you’re gonna wear your Black hair naturally, at least have long, loose curls. You need to focus on your looks but not too much because that makes you vain! Be sexually liberated but keep that body count low…
…actually, just don’t have sex before marriage at all. You can only be attracted to men – pray the gay inside of you away. Go ‘head and make that money but know you got that second shift when you come home. Be docile but be a strong Black woman. Being too feminine is bad. Being too masculine is bad. Don’t be sensitive or soft. Cater to your man and deal with the bullshit. Be a ride or die and accept that every man will cheat on you. Put other people’s needs and wants before your own. Don’t give people a reason to be upset with you. I can go on and on.
These were some of the things I was told by family, society, and the media in order to be considered a “real” woman. Honestly, how is a girl supposed to live with all of these expectations! These expectations have had a negative impact on my physical and psychological health throughout my lifetime. And I know that I’m not the only one who has felt the weight of expectations on her neck.
So I sought to have my own expectations instead of pleasing everyone. But I still didn’t 100% know what it meant to be a woman or what womanhood looked like for me. Exploring this felt overwhelming. How should I be? How should I act? Am I a woman if I’m not x, y, or z? Which led me to my next question…
What does womanhood look like if I’m Black?
Black women are not seen as fitting in the dominant cultural idea of womanhood. They are seen as inferior, and subhuman. As a Black woman, my womanhood is both hypersexualized and questioned due to the intersections of my race and gender. I am reduced to stereotypes such as: “angry Black woman”, “strong Black woman”, “loud”, “ghetto”, “hypersexual”. Or controlling images such as: “mammy” or “Jezebel”, denying me, my womanhood, and my personhood in general.
When it comes to my body, it is extremely politicized as a result of my race and gender. Unrealistic expectations of beauty are placed upon me that aren’t for white women: Eurocentric ideals like straight hair, lighter skin, and now hourglass figures thanks to the Kardashian era. I know that women, in general, are scrutinized and held to a higher standard when it comes to appearance. Women also internalize these expectations and oftentimes project them onto other women too. When you look at the intersections of identities, women of color face even more pressure.
That societal pressure is only compounded with the historical trauma of slavery and colonization. The pride of our Black hair, skin, and bodies was stripped away as a result of the subjugation and exploitation of Black bodies. Being told that the Black body is bad has often caused internalized racism and self-hate among Black women, including myself. The Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills articulated in his essay, The Racial Contract, that non-white bodies are denied personhood, and seen as non-ideal, thus needing to transform to the white body as much as possible. That has negative effects that impact generations.
Growing up, I thought my womanhood was tied to physical characteristics such as chastity, my sexual health, my hair, and my body size. I learned how to police my own body and other women’s bodies. I saw the women in my family struggle to love all parts of themselves. The internalized racism had all of us disliking our bodies. Although the women in my family taught me many positive things about womanhood, they also taught me how to lighten my skin, relax my hair with harsh chemicals, obsess about my weight, and be sexually “pure” and respectable in order to become a woman. So when I decided to reject Eurocentric standards of beauty in 2014 and take that first step by embracing my natural hair, I was ridiculed by my family.
As a result of their responses, I felt ugly. I didn’t think I was attractive with my hair in its tightly coiled natural state. I already struggled with low self-esteem and had a hard time disassociating straight hair with beauty. But when I found a community of women just like me in the natural hair movement, I started to feel more confident and cultivate love for my hair. I was able to challenge other people’s expectations of me through redefining beauty for myself. My Black hair was (and still is) beautiful.
Fast forward to 2020 and all the women in my family now wear their hair naturally and stopped using chemical relaxers. By cultivating love for my Black body, I was able to make space for my family members to do the same. I hated them for the ridicule in the past but now I see that they were struggling with their own self-love journeys and were only passing down what they believed would give me a chance to survive as a Black woman in U.S. society.
When I started having sexual health problems this year, the question of womanhood really became all-consuming. In therapy, I saw how my gender identity had been shaped in ways that I hadn’t even realized. I’ve had this sexual health issue before but it became prominent this year (most likely stress-induced). Dealing with this sexual health problem had me feeling like my womanhood was being questioned. On top of that, I gained a lot of weight this year which just brought on more negative self-talk about my body. Safe to say, I was just not feeling great in terms of my self-esteem.
A lot of negative feelings and thoughts came up for me. What does it mean for my womanhood if I’m having chronic issues? Am I just damaged goods? Am I just dirty? Am I just a fat, unattractive, blob? Women are taught that a lot of our value is tied to our appearance, sexual health, and sexuality. I felt like my womanhood was so tied to my appearance and sexual anatomy. Since I was having issues in both departments, I sunk into a depression. I could no longer tie my value and worth as a woman to my looks or my sexual anatomy.
Defining womanhood for me
As I tried to claw myself out of my depression, I decided that I wanted to take my agency back and start thinking about the woman I want to be and how I want to be seen. I wanted to see my humanity and wanted others to see the same. I had to ask myself, what does womanhood look like for me?
To answer this question, my therapist had me complete a journal exercise where I wrote a description of the woman I want to be. Up until that point, I never really thought about what I wanted. I knew what I did not want to be but I never stopped to think about the opposite. So I took my journal and thought about what I wanted, as well as the qualities that I admire from some of the women in my life, and started writing.
Through self-definition and self-valuation, I get to build a foundation and have agency over my journey of womanhood. I truly get to embody boundlessness because there are no limitations. I get to have a multi-dimensional view and experience of womanhood that goes beyond the stereotypical narratives that have been fed to me for most of my life. Some things on the list below are what I strive for, some things are already embodied in me.
In undergrad, I learned about the Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins. One of the ideas she explores in her literature is the importance of Black women’s self-definition and self-valuation. Self-definition is a powerful tool that allows an individual to take control of their image and redefine how they are perceived. Self-definition challenges the stereotypical images that have been projected on women of color. Self-valuation, Collins says, “stresses the content of Black women’s self-definitions – namely, replacing externally-driven images with authentic Black female images”. So I’m taking control of my womanhood and redefining it for me.
This year has taught me that I always had permission to define womanhood for myself. As women, we do not need to leave that in the hands of anyone. I took my agency back to be the woman that I want and strive to be. My womanhood did not have to look exactly like how it did for other women in my family. It did not have to look like what U.S. culture told me. It just had to look like what felt right for me.
Hope you enjoyed this post! For my self-identified women out there, what does womanhood look like to you? Share in the comments below!