In my childhood and teen years, I loved the idea of conventional womanhood. I read Mills and Boon with fervour, I craved long hair and flawless skin. I wore nothing but tea dresses and perfected the subtle, shy eye glance. I was pure, sweet innocence with a promise. Approval followed me wherever I went. I always had a boyfriend, my friend's parents loved me, I felt the soft appreciation of the universe on my shoulders. I was the most brilliant actress and flirt. I was a master of deception.
This was reflected in how men spoke to me - how cashiers treated me. I was to the onlooker pretty, shy and naive and if I'm completely honest it worked really well. As long as I convinced people that I was sweet and appealing everything ran smoothly. I had the love of the world and the privilege. Everything and everyone I wanted was given to me.
There was a dark side. People assumed I was unintelligent. Although I had approval from men that was also accompanied by catcalls in the street. Men would also never bother to know my personality, instantly branding me before I even got a chance. I had full relationships where I never revealed any part of my secret self, and how strange. They didn't seem to notice, question it, or care. The energy and money I spent on keeping up this image seemed normal but now to me seems incredible. I washed and styled my hair everyday, caked layers of foundation on in my work breaks, spent a fortune on hair products. For what?
I had a few lapses, which jarred and hurt. When I got pierced and dyed on the cusp of my first proper relationship, aged just 15. Piercings can be taken out and hair dye covered. It was short-lived and soon forgotten. When I cut all my hair off at 17 and thus commenced the most miserable year of my life. This combined with my recent diagnosis of depression made things even more difficult. I had lost that perfect image I had spent so long cultivating and the ache of losing part of that privilege and appeal felt like a physical wound. I wasn't ready then. I vowed never to make the same mistake again and can still feel the hot shame I felt when I looked in the mirror at my shorn self.
I fell in love again aged 19, that sweet and shy image serving me well again. Things ran fast, I fell hard. So began the small extrication of self as I began to become comfortable with the security of a man's love at last. I can't believe I'm even admitting it - but it's what I had been craving my whole life. I was completely conditioned to feel this way. I began to get small designs inked on my body, every mark a reclamation and a statement. Sitting in the tattoo studio with my friends, some of the first people to take my thoughts and ideas seriously. A lot can come out in a 6 hour session. Although the contrast of pre-Raphaelite curls and tattoos was not seamless and felt disjointed, on my skin I was revealing my secret self.
When I became pregnant and subsequently married, it felt like winning the lottery. All my Mills and Boon and childhood fantasies rolled into one. I was going to be a stay at home mum, married, in love, with a brood of children. I vowed to never be a dowdy mother, to still retain that soft feminine appeal, to wear dresses and jewellery. I remember making a promise to myself that my son would always remember me with lipstick on. Archetypes are one of the strongest f*cking things I have ever come up against in my own mind and I have been struggling with this particular one for nearly 25 years.
I did well initially. But I began to explore concepts around birth, babies and babywearing. My passion for these things blew me away. I began to study Maternity Care and met my lecturer, the most inspiring person I have ever met in my life. She was highly educated, strong, radiating this kind of energy - she completely changed my perception about what it means to be a woman. It wasn't about being soft and beautiful, it was about inner strength and vitality. Conviction and intelligence began to have a new appeal for me. I only hoped to be half as strong.
For those who don't know, it's pretty hard to wear your baby in a woven wrap and not look like a complete hippie. Wearing my son on my back and trawling the streets of the city, catching glimpses of myself in car mirrors, was disconcerting. The constant mental trawl 'who am I? Who am I?' plagued my thoughts. I hated it when my makeup got on Judah's face, or I couldn't kiss him for lipstick. The smell of perfume on his head was unbearable. My old clothes looked bizarre now, paired with a decorative sling and my growing collection of tattoos. My new knowledge forced me to speak up about issues that bothered me - women's rights, birth rights, baby development. No longer an idle, smiling bystander but a mouthy shrew. I began to lose the gloss and glamour of conventional womanhood, mostly by my inability to just shut up and comply.
What emerged for me was so much anger at how I'd been treated by people and how I'd been complicit, even encouraged their disrespect. I was angry at the society that praised me for my conformity and the men that adored me for it. I hated myself for so long touting myself as an example of womanliness, my disdain for others and the box I had put myself in.
That's how I gradually left that life and the people that surrounded it. I lost friends and made enemies. I began to forge a new path, a new direction, with new companions. If people can't tolerate your truth then there's no space for them. One of the most important lessons I've learned - some friendships, some people, are transitory. They assist you in a stage of your life, or you assist them, you explore, you discover, then it's over. It's okay for that to be the case and you need to make your peace with it.
I stand here today, in my longest lapse from conventionality yet. I don't think I'll be back there again. My refusal to comply may have rendered me unlovable to some but I can live with it. There is something so liberating about really inhabiting your body, questioning the substance of ideas that have lived forever in your mind. I think back on myself, painstakingly shaving myself before a date or hiding tampons up my sleeve. Trying to be the essence of perfection, of magazine gloss. Enjoying the privilege that came with it.
What have I lost? I've lost the power of a good first impression. People make judgements. I've lost the mask of being a good woman. I've lost the goodwill of those men on the street, approval replaced by uncertainty or mocking. I've also lost the assumption of ignorance, mostly. After all, I'm still a woman. I've lost the approval of family members. I've lost the ability to blend in, to be forgotten. I've lost that dazy childhood dream of the 50s housewife in a tea dress that was always going to be me. I've lost my veneer of innocence.
What have I gained? I've gained an appreciation for my authentic self. I've found my passion and my calling. I wake up euphoric, not stifled. I stick out in the memory, sometimes for all the wrong reasons and sometimes for all the right ones. Now what I want is for my son to have a mother who loves her body for what it can do, not just what it looks like to the outside world. I've inhabited my body to the full and made the adjustments that I felt comfortable with, not the ones society demands. I finally look like a woman who has seen things, who has had her mettle tested and come out stronger, not just one who watched the world go by from her glass cage.
Unconventional and unlovable. Except by those who matter most. I can't go back, I won't go back. It's too late. I'll never be the 19 year old in the dress again, looking up with those wide eyes. I am educated, I am passionate, I am strong. I'll decorate myself and inhabit myself and refuse to back down or feel shame. You can love me or leave me.