Phenomenal Women Series: The Intro

I am a Woman
Phenomenal Woman,
that's me.
-Maya Angelou
This photograph was the first real photograph I took of myself after a golf cart accident in 2012. My lower lip completely split open and my two front teeth broke, one almost completely off. How it happened isn't important, but makes for a good story I might tell you sometime. In the end, I spent almost two hours in an emergency room and five hours reclined in a dentist's chair, for a total of eleven stitches in my lower lip, five stitches in my top gum (By the way, did you know you could stitch your gums? Well I'm here to tell you that you can) and two new caps on my front teeth, which are just a slightly different color from my natural tooth color. I had to undergo a few other surgeries over the next couple of months and I wore a modified version of braces all summer long.

My sense of self also took a beating. I'm not too embarrassed to admit this, though I didn't discuss it much at the time, and I don't bring this up in daily conversation, but I felt I lost some of my worth when I left the dentist's chair stitched up and caps in place, an "almost good enough" version of myself. I identified with my straight teeth, and my symmetrical and full lips, and used them to define my attractiveness. I was horrified that people might notice the uneven length of my gums, that I might potentially have a scar running across my lower lip, that my two front teeth would be slightly different colors. I had a massive amount of scar tissue and numbness in my lower lip and I worried about my ability to kiss someone again. Which sounds like something a fifteen year old might worry about, but I was twenty-five. Because of the numbness I also worried about random drooling, which sounds like something a three year old might worry about.

It took some time to work through these issues, as silly as they sound. These are White Girl Problems, and I totally recognize that, but it doesn't take away the truth that I felt less of a person because of what happened to my smile and my lips. For a while, I watched peoples' mouths, looking for proof that even the most beautiful people have flaws. I wanted reassurance that I was worthy even with my faulty mouth.

This was not the first time I felt my value rested on something external. In high school I had a pixie hair cut, which was wonderful except for the fact that I have a cowlick on the back of my head, so I looked like Alfalfa for the majority of my Junior and Senior years. While many of the girls in my class showered me with compliments, most boys said nothing, or even told me point-blank that girls shouldn't have short hair. I responded with aloofness - I didn't much feel like dating small-town high school boy anyway - but I did wonder if the short hair made me less attractive and less appealing to men. Google searches, as they always do, made me feel even worse. Do not search "short hair on women attractive", lest you too find the dumb and misogynistic chat rooms I found. There are a lot of shallow and disgusting guys in the world, and Google knows how to find them really really quickly.

Clearly I am not alone in feeling my value is tied to my appearance and other external characteristics. Billion-dollar industries thrive on the insecurities of women, and media plays up classic stereotypes of women and encourage the expected gender roles among women and men. Conversations between women often include fly-by statements about what we don't like about ourselves, our bodies and our relationship status.

What is it about society that makes women believe our value rests on so many external factors? On whether or not we have a mate, or have hourglass figures, or long hair? In the year 2014, I hope women can look at their lives and realize these factors are not a prerequisite to happiness. I know, Disney and watered-down fairy tales get a lot of blame for this thought process. The heroines are tall (but never taller than their soul mate) with impossibly tiny waists and unrealistically large breasts and beautiful big Bambi eyes, and the tales end with the happy marriage of a perfect couple, driving home the point that the sole purpose of a woman's life is to be beautiful and find your soul mate. Because only then, with beauty and a man, will you find happiness.

But really, I think this question goes deeper than Disney and Hollywood, and these issues have a far more complex history. Women, for centuries, have had the sole purpose of marrying and producing offspring. We have been property and broodmares and housekeepers and somebody's daughter or somebody's wife and it hasn't been until recent history that we have been able to be "Me". Women have had to define who they are based on being single or being married, and I don't think society has quite caught up to the new standards yet. I don't even think women have caught up.

Let's change that. It's going to take time, it's going to take effort, it's going to take challenging and questioning ourselves and society, but it's going to be really cool and awesome at the same time.

Let's celebrate being really awesome women, who are complete and whole no matter what phase of life we're in, no matter what our relationship status is, no matter what we look like. Let's celebrate ourselves and let's celebrate each other. Let's have an open conversation about our fears and frustrations and successes. Let's challenge expectations.

Let's be Phenomenal Women.

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