I used to be a boys’ girl. The type of girl who said things like “I have more guy pals than girl pals. In fact, over 90% of my pals are guys. I prefer guys to girls cause guys don’t have drama. They don’t waste time discussing non-issues like nail polish, shopping and guys. They don’t gossip (false!), and they discuss real things, like sports. Guys are chill, not dramatic like women.”
I cringe every time I remember those days. I remember once even joking with a friend of mine about being an honorary member of “the boys” to which he responded “Do you have a penis?” I said “I have one in my soul” and proceeded to laugh until I was tearing and coughing. He was mainly shocked, and said it was the scariest thing he had ever heard. I was told never to say that to anyone again. It was a joke. Thinking back now, I can’t help but contemplate the loaded nature of the emotions behind it.
When I was four, I discovered that I was a girl. I was playing with my neighbours, all little boys my age, when they laughed at me for wearing shorts. They told me girls should not wear shorts – girls wear dresses. I always knew I was different from the boys I played with, but this was when it really hit me. I felt terrible – I did not go out to play for a month because I did not want to get laughed at for wearing shorts, and spent that time wondering why this girl-ness had to come between me and my life of adventure. My mother eventually managed to convince me to go outside and play. I got over the incident, but it left me with some scars.
I learned that being a girl was a liability.
In my primary school years, I made friends with both girls and boys, but preferred the boys’ company because I was a tomboy. I felt like the girls never really understood me, nor I them. I preferred to talk about cars, the NBA (my favourite team was the San Antonio Spurs) and later on, football. I liked that the boys liked me and said I was cool, one of the boys – “not like the other girls”. I did not care much what the girls thought.
High school made this situation even worse. I was into football, reggae, reading prominent African writers and my usual being “one of the boys” while my classmates were into what teenage girls are usually into – romance novels, talking about boys and creating exclusive groupings. This was made worse by being in a boarding school – it made everyone the worst version of themselves. I clashed frequently with my peers, and firmly decided that I disliked women. When I was friends with boys they liked, they had a problem. When I spoke my mind, they had a problem. The question “What do these women want?” was constantly on my mind. I left that high school with one friend, and wanted to throw up whenever I encountered my former classmates.
In university, I got to choose my friends – I made it out of there with four close female friends and several female acquaintances, but still, it was because these ones were cool. Special. They were not like the others. I still preferred my boys. They understood me. We could hang out “drama free”.
Thankfully, this madness left me in late 2011. It took a lot of reading and reconditioning to rid myself of this mindset. I have always read like my life depended on it – it did, but now I was done with formal education. I had to find new material to read, so I did. I read almost everything I could get my hands on – fiction, non-fiction, magazines – heck, I even read self-help books, and I did not like what I found there. I did not like a majority of the women in those stories – they felt plastic and one dimensional. Like the women I had learned to dislike. There were no women like me – women who were just “the right amount of cool”. Women who did not like heels. Women who did not see the point of nail polish. Women who loved watching sports. And if there were, they were always that cool girl in the friend zone. They were never the main character.
I also began to spend much more time online, and interacted with women who were then unknown to me, and I was taken aback. The women I discovered took everything I thought was special about me and took it to the maximum. I was smart, and they were smarter. I liked sports, they ate them for breakfast. I could not speak about sexuality publicly, they had no such problem. I was no longer a special snowflake. I listened to these women, learned from them, read the links they posted and continued to be amazed.
Women were not one dimensional. I had been wrong all along. I was not “the special one”…but how did I end up here? So wrong about women? So blind?
In retrospect it was an intricate system of teaching and series of experiences that led me to dislike women. I never once thought that, in disliking women, I disliked myself. I disliked my identity. I thought I was different, better – special. I could climb walls, hike, run, fall and get injured without crying, and hang out with the boys without getting grossed out. Most movies I watched had the angle of a woman needing male approval of some kind to feel validated – from her father, boyfriend or colleague. The music I heard had women who wanted to please men and men who wanted to be pleasured. The same applied to a lot of the literature I encountered. There were few alternative stories. This taught me to seek male approval, both consciously and subconsciously. How could I not?
This is changing, however. Slowly but surely, and it makes me happy. We are discovering women, I am discovering women. Discovering that they are not one dimensional. More women are taking back their agency, and they are receiving support from their peers, and from popular culture. We have films, TV series, songs and other media empowering women more than they have in the past, at least according to my memory.
During this year’s International Women’s Day Celebrations, I was part of two events that gave me hope: The Atieno Project, an unconference open to both men and women, and The Edge of Womanhood, a play written, narrated and performed by women. Both events questioned the need to label/categorize women – as though they are one dimensional creatures. Slut, Gold digger, Wife material, Bossy bitch. Is there not more to women? Moreso, how do pop culture and the media we consume enforce this image, because they definitely do? We need to continue the push for a realistic representation of women – be they black, brown or white, size 8 or plus sized, short or tall, whether or not they can cook – you name it. In the material we create, let us represent the many types of women that we encounter, and in the material we consume, let us be discerning.
Now, I spend many of my days just amazed by women, both those in my life and those I hope to emulate – their strength, their diversity and the fact that each of them has such a compelling story.
We are actively, and passively, taught to dislike each other. Whenever we say or do something that grates society, we are put in line with statements like “You’re not wife material” or “Now who will marry you?” We look at fellow women as competition, be it in the work place or in social situations. “That one will steal your man” is a statement one hears often, as well as “I hate female bosses, they are so petty! I prefer a male boss.” We are portrayed as all loving the same things – shopping, gossip, pleasing men – when we are as different as the colours on the spectrum. We take statements like “You’re not like them other girls” as positive reinforcement, as if those other girls are such horrible people. We are constantly in search of approval from our male peers, without the realization that we are amazing regardless. Maybe we do not hear that enough.
We need to unlearn this dislike of other women, because inherently, it is a dislike of ourselves – of our identity. Wonderful things happen when you discover women. Discussions about nail polish are no longer useless, they are interesting. You learn that just because she likes shopping and shoes, does not make her any less intelligent than you are. Just because you prefer to wear flat shoes, shorts and watch sports does not mean you should have been a man.
You too are a woman.
I have opened up to women, and they have taken me in with warmth and open arms. I see beauty in the moments where I lend or get lent a sanitary towel. The kindness with which it is given to me warms my heart. I see beauty when women support and engage me online, be it when we discuss real estate, structural injustice or politics. I am grateful when they mentor and guide me in my career, as well as life in general. I listen keenly when they tell me about their men troubles, because they have enough troubles as it is already. They don’t need any more. Neither do I.