The War Within

I was fighting a war on several fronts when I was growing up. I wanted to be a classically feminine girl and I wanted to behave like a boy at the same time. I had strong opinions about things, but I wanted to please people, too. I wanted to look pretty but I really wanted to be comfortable.

Wanting to look pretty created issues because I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. It was likely rooted in insecurity – I don’t think I believed I could be pretty and it was far easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

At the same time I wanted to be strong, physically and mentally. But I was afraid of seeming too masculine. I thought I already appeared masculine – I perceived myself as being built like a linebacker. Not to mention the unsightly facial hair that I could never figure out how to handle.

I absorbed the message that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures and mine didn’t look like that. I didn’t have a tiny waist, I didn’t have long, thin legs and I didn’t have a small, shapely butt. And then there was my hair and my eyes. Even when I grew up enough to know that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences of being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was probably 11 or 12 and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were at least the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me.

modess-napkins
This is what a box of sanitary napkins looked like in the 1960s – just a different brand – and it is only a box of 12! I would buy a box of 48 for my Mom, so you can imagine how huge that was!

So, I was wandering the aisles, gathering up the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached me and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I have always understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I value humor, insight, sensitivity, generosity, compassion and curiosity in friends. Yet, I weigh my looks so heavily when I take stock of myself.

I used to take inventory – I got these qualities from my mom (for instance, my smile and my large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My mom and dad were so different from each other. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like my dad. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up everyday when she was getting ready for work. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic that I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern. I internalized that preoccupation.

I think the mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist so easily in me. I found myself wanting to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing and sometimes painful growing up. Making peace has been a life long project, one still in progress.

 

10 thoughts on “The War Within

  1. What a wonderful blog. I know at that time in my life, I didn’t always do the right thing especially to you. I don’t remember caring about what the boys wore except their hair. And that Daddy settled at the dinner table by saying we only argue about safety, not unimportant issues. He was so right, but he should have corrected me . I hope I have changed , for the better, and I know I try. Don,t forget I was also clueless about clothes. I am so proud of you

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    1. Mom, my blog post was meant to be a reflection of society and the competing impulses within myself, not of your parenting! I consider myself very lucky to have had you as my mom. Yes, there were some issues I needed help with, but you taught me the most important lessons I needed in my life. Thank you!

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  2. Linda, it has to be said – you’ve got guts! BRAVO. To be able to articulate and revisit episodes from childhood/adolescence is never easy. I envy the confidence you felt being intelligent and strong, even though you were beset by insecurity. I was a very petite, girly little dreamer with a Mamie Eisenhower haircut who bought into the dreadful example set for us that Twiggy’s was the body type to be emulated, therefore beauty and coolness unattainable. And it’s doubtful I’ve left my house without mascara and eyeliner in 40+ years, living proof of the deeply ingrained belief that natural beauty was undesirable.
    Your experience with buying sanitary pads was painfully relatable. I also remember the tremendous fear being in line with the package that the person at the register would be male. That was one subject my Dad was simply unable to discuss. I remember a sit-down with the school nurse, and having to discuss personal matters was an exercise in humiliation.
    I was friends with girls who, like yourself, could have cared less about clothes and makeup and remember being envious that they were the confident, “smart ones” who were taken seriously by the adults in our lives.
    PS You were not the only one mistaken for a boy. At the candy counter at our local discount store, Newberry’s in the North Shore Mall in the early 70s, my friend and I were waiting to be served. The elderly woman took my friend’s order, then said, little boy, what do you want? I looked at her and said in my loudest voice I’M A GIRL!!

    Keep up the good work. You’ve chosen some really interesting topics.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. Again, I’m glad you’re willing to join the conversation. I can’t say I feel brave, it feels more to me like I have lived with these thoughts forever and I am finally in a place where I can think about it, process it and share it with the hope that it will be of some use to others.

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  3. This is a topic that males may have precious little to contribute to. But still, I feel that it is worth noting that not every male dreams of Barbie. I personally thought she was just so plastic. And you are so much more than she could ever hope to be. (The joke proves the point, I hope).
    Anyway, if you can love me, I sure can love you.

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  4. Linda – I am so sorry that you struggled so much with these issues. When I was growing up, many people I encountered told me how pretty I was and I always felt that they were not seeing the real me inside. I knew that I looked like the societal view of feminine and pretty. I liked that when I was younger because society put such an emphasis on looks. But I always felt it negated my intelligence, my kindness, and my compassion because people would not look deeper. Why couldn’t people see that I could be more than just one thing? Personally, I think you were very pretty as a child and as an adult. I always envied you because in addition to being pretty, your intelligence and kindness seemed to be so valued, especially in our family, and most especially by your father (that’s a whole other topic – my childhood envy of your relationship with your father – as an adult it made me happy for you that you had such a close relationship). Regarding your mother, I think she must have been a wonderful mother to raise three such amazing children. I know she has been a terrific aunt, who has always treated me with compassion for my difficulties and much love. However, whenever I see her, the first thing she always says to me is some comment about my weight. It used to hurt me but over the years, I’ve learned that this is just Aunt Feige and I’ve come to expect it in our encounters and to laugh inside when she says the predicted comment. I might even miss it if she didn’t say it. Also – Gary, your unconditional love and emotional intelligence is lovely to witness. I feel I am getting to know you better, and respect and appreciate you even more through these blogs and replies. As always Linda, thank you for sharing your life with us, for provoking memories, and thank you for allowing us to share those memories with you by being able to reply. With each post, I feel I know you and understand you so much better. That means a lot to me. Mary is right that you have a lot of courage.

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    1. So interesting to hear your perspective. It just goes to prove the point that we can’t make assumptions about other people and their experiences. I can totally see what you’re saying. I’m glad you are getting to know Gary better. In my humble opinion, the better you know him, the more you can appreciate him – unlike some folks who are better appreciated on a surface level. Anyway, please keep commenting, I learn so much from your responses.

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