“Is that an upside down cross you’re wearing?”
I looked up from my instrument as I prepared for first period band class. A girl I’d never met from the grade below stood above me, curiously studying the silver pendant hanging from my neck.
I shrugged. “Yes, that’s what it is.”
We were both stating the obvious. There was no mistaking the symbol hanging from my neck: a three inches long, sharp-angled, inverted cross flashed defiantly over the black backdrop of my heavy metal T-shirt.
“Why do you ask?”
She smiled. An open, genuine kind of smile I didn’t see often back in those days.
“I’ve just never seen anyone wear one of those before. It tells me you must have a different point of view, that maybe you think deeply about things.”
She tilted her head, waiting for my reply.
And she captured my attention then. Her flowing, multicolored skirt swept the floor, just high enough in front to reveal her Birkenstock sandals, with long, auburn hair flowing over a floral, woven top. In one hand, she held a clarinet. With the other, she reached out to me.
“Hi, I’m Jen.”
I smiled back and shook her hand. She felt open, not closed like me. She felt light and warm. Not like me: cool on the surface but screaming hot on the inside.
I wondered where a girl like her came from.
As a young girl, I emerged early, much to my mother’s dismay, as a tomboy.
Despite Mom’s tireless efforts to dress me in flowered jumpers and tights, I preferred bare feet and shorts. She enrolled me in ballet lessons and showered me with Barbies; I rejected them in favor of model cars and construction sets.
On school nights, I writhed on the couch as she yanked my hair into curls and pinched them to my scalp with bobby pins. On weekends, I learned to cook and bake, weed the garden, and fold the laundry. My job, I was told, was to help the house run smoothly.
My younger brother was held to no such standards. He was perfectly happy—and allowed—to spend his free time climbing trees, making mud pies, and setting things on fire.
I was well aware of the patriarchal double standard that restrains girls and rewards boys in our culture. And not just because of my brother.
I’d heard women on TV talk shows complaining that while they felt diminished by society as they grew older, men their age were considered distinguished. I learned, via weeknight sitcoms and ladies’ coffee-table conversations, how our culture shames women for embodying our sexuality, yet celebrates men for doing the same.
I watched my mom get up early to make breakfast, drive us kids to school, work nine-to-five, and come home just in time to make dinner and put us to bed before crashing to her own mattress, late and exhausted.
I saw my dad come home from work, crack open a beer, and watch TV until the credits rolled on the Johnny Carson show.
In a culture that pitted men and women against each other in a social hierarchy of power, it was clear to me who was winning.
In fourth grade, my mom finally gave up fighting my fashion sense and allowed me to choose my own clothes. I dropped the dresses for corduroy pants and polo shirts. I grew out my bangs, bought myself a BMX bike with my paper route money, and never looked back.
No one told me to do these things. I wasn’t trying to please anyone or be anyone. It was my natural way.
But I quickly found that my “natural way” carried with it some excellent perks.
In response to my outward changes, grown-ups and even some other kids now started rolling their eyes at me. “You’re such a tomboy!” they chided.
On their faces were smiles of quiet approval.
When I dropped ballet in favor of a skateboard, people smiled and shrugged their shoulders.
When I asked for a toolbox instead of a manicure set, my request was obliged with a wink.
I realized that the tomboy in me not only felt more natural, she earned me a reprieve from the pin curls, the dancing lessons, and the boring dollhouse play sessions with the neighbor girls. She gave me railroad tracks and dirt trails and fishing for water skippers on my belly by the ditch. In contrast to the constraints of girlhood, my tomboy gave me freedom.
It didn’t take me long to heed the signs and lean hard on my tomboy for the benefits she gave me.
What had been merely a preference for pants became a strict mandate of no dresses. My simple delight for dirt over dolls gave way to a self-imposed requirement to avoid anything girly. No pink. No purple. No unicorns. And…Absolutely. No. Crying.
I saw some of my classmates insulted for throwing “like a girl” during sports, and I took it upon myself to learn to throw “like a boy”: harder, faster, farther.
When I realized I didn’t have a good throwing arm, I stopped playing.
I loved to sing, so I auditioned for the school choir, and was thrilled to be accepted to the chorus. But when I learned I’d been assigned to the girls’ chorus, I promptly dropped out.
My masculine had taken over as a self-reinforcing identity, locking out the feminine from my life like an annoying little sister.
At the time, I suppose, I was fighting to be free.
But in the process, I was quitting things, dropping things, and shrinking my sense of self. I was becoming not only less free, but less me.
By the time I met my new friend Jen in high school band class, I was fully ensconced in the patriarchal worldview of masculine power supremacy.
There was no fearless maiden archetype in my world, no warrior goddess, no wise crone to inspire me toward a higher vision of the feminine. No heroine but perhaps Wonder Woman, who fought the bad guys with long fingernails and large breasts and wore a swimsuit to work. That would not be me.
But when I started spending time with Jen and other girls like her, my eyes opened to another side of feminine power. Free spirits confident in their femininity, those young women were just as strong as me in body, mind, and soul. Yet unlike me, they had not learned to prop up their power on the masculine.
Those girls, even the boldest ones, weren’t afraid to cry. They could throw the ball however they wanted and just enjoy it. They could wear pants or dresses. They could be tough, or kind, or both. And anyway they did it, they were free.
Jen was right about me when she met me. I did think deeply about things.
I’d begun to witness the sorrows of our world, and they hurt me deeply. I was aware of the sociocultural power structures limiting the freedom of me and my peers. I knew our ability to live fulfilled lives would depend on resisting the suffocating directives of religious, state, and corporate power.
The upside down cross that had caught Jen’s attention was a symbol of that resistance. It wasn’t meant to be satanic. It was meant to question the status quo.
I refused to be owned by organized religion, to have my values and choices defined by an archaic, hierarchical power structure. I refused to be controlled by “the man.”
But what I had not seen is that by empowering myself solely with the masculine, I had let myself be owned by “the man” in the form of a related and just-as-dangerous hierarchy: the patriarchy.
Now I saw it.
I saw that the unchecked masculine energy I’d cloaked myself in for my own freedom was the very impulse making the world around me so unfree. Military and war. Aggression and cold logic. Objectification and commodification of nature, beauty, and life itself.
I saw that by feeding the masculine and starving out the feminine in my world, I’d not only become controlled by the man, I’d become part of him.
I was pissed.
I wanted my feminine back.
But the damage had already been done. Because after so many years of practice, when I wanted to sing, I couldn’t.
When I wanted to jump in and play ball, good throwing arm or no, I couldn’t.
And if I wanted to cry? Forget about it. My tears had forgotten how to flow.
Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already.
We don’t need more competition, aggression, or masculine warrior energy.
What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.
The earth goddess and the protective mother. The fierce warrioress and wise grandmother. The torch lighter, the well keeper, and the fearless truth teller. Maiden, mother, and crone.
The world needs whole, wild, unapologetic women. Women strong enough to be independent, yet smart enough to know we can’t do it alone. Women strong enough to fight, yet wise enough to know what’s worth fighting for. Women strong enough to push back against the patriarchy without becoming part of it.
A strong woman understands that tears cleanse the window of the heart and clarify our vision.
She understands that the power of jumping higher or throwing farther is nothing compared to the power of standing our ground.
And she knows that the power of a woman does not come from co-opting the masculine, but reclaiming the feminine, in a culture that has bullied our mothers, daughters, and sisters for millennia.
The masculine is not the enemy. And men are not the enemy.
All of us, of every gender, contain both masculine and feminine within.
The trouble comes when the masculine is allowed to be a parasite, feeding on the feminine, considering her at best a weakness to be devoured, and at worst, an enemy to be destroyed.
When this happens, all of us—of every gender, race, and species—are the victims.
And we get what we have now: a world rife with people who’ve lost touch with their hearts. A world of people putting personal gain over the welfare of the whole. A world of people who can’t cry.
It took many years for me to undo the damage done to myself while living as an archetype of the patriarchy. But it was meeting Jen, a girl confident in her worth just as she was, that started me on the path.
It turns out I never needed to change who I was to be free. I only needed to change what I valued, in myself, and in others.
To this day, I still consider myself a tomboy. I still love bugs and dirt more than dresses and pin curls. (Who wouldn’t?)
But I’m second-guessing whether I even want to use that word “tomboy” anymore.
Because if there’s any chance that calling a girl a tomboy will estrange her from her feminine power…well, I don’t wanna be that gal.
So I say, by all means, let’s play in the mud. Let’s climb trees. Let’s definitely set things on fire. And let’s wear our symbols of resistance with pride.
Let’s just remember what we’re resisting, and why.
Let’s celebrate every little girl for the fullness of who she is: masculine, feminine, and everything in between. Let’s give her the loving approval she needs to embrace her innate, authentic power, whether it manifests as race cars or rainbows.
And if we see a girl (or woman, for that matter) who’s lost her sense of her own sacred power, let’s reach out a hand and give her a smile, and a warm and open hello.
Warm and open—and strong.
This article is also published on Elephant Journal at this link.
There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…
Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.
I loved this. It was painful and clear and true and so strong.
I too have complied with the patriarchy too much (using “patriarchy” as shorthand for so many things that hold false power in our world), perhaps out of fear, seeking safety, longing to feel accepted or to belong — all of which means I didn’t know or feel my own inherent value and wisdom, and hadn’t found my own strength. Thank you for writing so honestly about your journey of coming home to your whole self.
Dear Loma, thank you so much for your kind words. And thank you for reading! I know we are not the only women to have suffered the fallout of such “compliance” in our lives, and my hope is that by sharing our stories we can inspire others to step more fully into their wisdom. The world needs every one of us! ~S