I remember when I was about 16, being told that no one would want me because I was fat. It didn’t matter, apparently, that I was clever, passably talented at a number of things, hard working, loyal, good natured… I was fat. (Actually, I was curvy and buxom and not unattractive, looking back.)
My whole notion of what constituted properly feminine depended on being small and delicate. I was tall, solidly built, ample of hips and bust. I was not the kind of waif I felt I was supposed to be and I’d been hearing a lot about how I needed to be thin. I felt increasingly that love was conditional on thinness, and that was hideous all by itself. And also not true. Even when I was at my largest, post child, I had more propositions than I knew what to do with. Apparently there are plenty of men who like women, who actually look like women. I learned, eventually that hips and breasts are far more feminine than the stick thin boy figure I’d been taught to aspire to.
But there was another message in there, alongside the ‘too fat’ issue. What mattered was not my exam results, my ability as a musician, how hard I worked, what mattered was whether a man was going to find me sexually attractive. Not my mind, or my soul, but my body. I’ve heard other stories from older women, told not to bother at school because they’re only going to get married and have kids. Women for whom success is entirely about the calibre of man you have. His income and status define you. And the thought form is out there that men don’t really find clever attractive. What they want is pretty, and biddable. And I swallowed it, like so many other women before me. It didn’t matter what else I was doing, if I wasn’t making a man happy, I was failing.
Along the way, I met pagan women. Women of all shapes and sizes, strong, and feminine and not seeing the two as incompatible. Earth mothers and fertility goddesses, nymphs, waifs and pixies. All different, all themselves, all expressing their own unique femininity. I met quite a few gay women as well, for whom pleasing a man had long since been rejected as any kind of aspiration. I met women who celebrate their femininity, and who embrace traditional female skills and crafts, not as subservience, but with delight. Women who cook and knit as art forms. Women who are present as mothers but also have lives, jobs, a sense of individual self, and men who co-operate with them.
I also met the pagan men. The ones who see themselves as equal to their womenfolk, proud of them and of themselves. The men so confident in their masculinity that they don’t need a woman who is more like a house pet to make them feel good. Men who understand fatherhood and responsibility, and who don’t see women as lesser. And all the ones who were interested in me not just because they liked my curves, but because they liked my music, my humour, my way of doing things. Men who liked my company and related to me as a person.
I want to celebrate people, in all their diversity. I want to honour the places where we are strong and the heartrending beauty that comes from the places where we are weak. I want to offer thanks to the many people who have shown me what strong, empowered personhood looks like, irrespective of gender. If you’ve recognised yourself in the above, then I did mean you – it would just be a very long list to write.
Personhood is an amazing thing, recognition of yourself as a valid, worthwhile entity in your own right, not dependent on anyone else, not conditional on any one aspect of who you are. Where we have that for ourselves, we’ve no need to reduce anyone else. There’s all the room in the world for them to be strong and independent too. For the first time in my life, it’s occurred to me that being female, being a person, is whatever I choose it to mean. Such a simple discovery, such huge ramifications.