November 28, 2010

The Rites of Womanhood.

More than from a book, a film or a look—how we have come to define womanhood.

Photo courtesy B. Baltimore Brown

The sacred feminine is quite the buzz word, these days, but what does it mean? 

Imagine: you’re thirteen and all your girlfriends are getting boobs and blood but you’re not.  No one had real information to offer in the locker room but you would prank call 1-800 numbers and say you’d lost a tampon inside you for kicks.  That was my big introduction to the feminine world along with Seventeen magazine, my Gran’s Playboy collection and watching scrambled porn on TV to identify a nipple.  I was desperate to know about sex and the mysteries of womanhood; there had to be something out there.  I’d asked all my aunties, mother, grandmother what was normal—when I could expect to be a woman but no one had a good answer (at least not one that inspired me).

Photo courtesy Joe Shlabotnik

There was no ritual, no passing down of wisdom, but a lot of fear and “when I was your age, I was slapped when I got my period.”  I felt really alone and I noticed so did a lot of the women around me.  The secret rites of womanhood don’t lie in the mint julep tales of Ya-Ya Sisterhood novels, or in nail salons where freshly manicured nails avoid sticking to the pages of US Weekly.

No, let us not continue to share secret tips on how to avoid aging, what celebrity got cheated on this week and compare ourselves to the glossy and sometimes not-so-glossy images of stars (not the celestial ones you can see in the night sky). I think I’m still scarred from the commercial regarding that not-so-fresh feeling and remember wondering what all this womanhood icky stuff was about.  For the record, it’s never a good idea to douche but apparently it is a good idea for moms to tell their daughters that their parts are dirty and need to smell like summer flowers.

Well, here we are, literate, reading the world and yet we use our eyes to judge the appearance of ourselves and others more than we view all things with appreciation colored glasses.

Sometimes I succeeded at befriending the enemy.  For instance, my favorite way that I’d make cool girl friends back in my Hollyweird days was to let my ladies know when their style was high-five-able.  It was my own personal “F*&^ you!” to the lady hating that went on at clubs and on the dance floor amongst ourselves.  I cringed every time I heard a girl salaciously whisper “Look at that girl, I can’t believe she’s wearing that.” But my favorite snickery cringe was when they said, “I’d look so much better in that than her.”

We have a tradition of competition, a serious lack of trust, and a tad bit of harassment (more if you’re enviable for any reason, including kick ass boots).


Where and when are we taught girls aren’t to be trusted and then proved right? A client and friend of mine for years couldn’t stand going to parties with her boyfriend because of all the women who would flirt with him, “shamelessly” and right in front of her.  In fact back on the Sunset Strip I would play wing man to my boyfriend’s buddy by pretending to be his lady fair, staging a fight and then mock-sulking so he could pick up chicks.  10 out of 10 times he went home with at least one of the women turned vultures that swarmed him after our pretend break up.  It wasn’t a pretty sight and I’m sorry to admit that I took one for the team, and not the feminist one.

What began as a bad day in the sixth grade became a tried and true history of war over boys, clothes, who got our periods over the summer and for what?

Pretty sad examples of the rites of womanhood, right?  I believe there are still torches of wisdom to hand down to our daughters and hopefully we won’t just tweet them!  Judy Blume books are still purchased but dear god, it’s me Ella not Margaret and I want to know that we’re changing the way we women learn about being women. And while we’re re-defining, let’s mend that needed bridge of trust between sisters, daughters, mothers and friends.

Photo courtesy Pamla J. Eisenberg

When teaching teens about sex, our teacher’s slide presentation asked when sexuality began.  Most of the students would shout “at puberty!”  When I ask women, when does womanhood begin I’ve heard the same blanketed “puberty” response. I’ve also heard “after college,” “after sex,” “after marriage,” “after giving birth,” and then the crowd pleaser in any yoga class, “when she knows herself.”

Well, which is it?  Rites of passage no longer consist of us learning how to prepare a fire, collecting medicinal herbs and creating a poultice for a sick tribe member, or the age old act of supporting a woman through birth.  No, we wiped out millions of mouths who could spread the word of that wisdom to women as women with witch burnings in the wanings of the middle ages and the onset of the Black Plague.  We had to blame someone for all that misfortune so why not half the population that was left alive?  And it wasn’t just men but children and women pointing the finger.   I think we still harbor fears and suspicions passed down over the centuries from a time not too far off that being a woman was a death sentence (and it still is a quite painful and suppressed experience in some parts of the world today and certainly when ovulating).

In Europe, a few grandmothers back, we were in trouble for exhibiting the least bit of strength and intelligence.  The author Jeanne Achterberg writes in her panoramic survey, Woman As Healer, “the logic went that if a woman was practicing an art for which she could not have studied, she had made a pact with the devil” and was tortured, burned and ultimately, killed.

The position held by the Church and enforced by civic bodies—that women who practiced without appropriate study must die—had a catch, of course.  Women, [except for one co-ed institution in Salerno], were not allowed access to education. All women healers were suspect; any woman with exceptional talent was suspect; any woman who had acquired her knowledge through the oral tradition for woman’s domestic healing was suspect.

– Jeanne Achterberg

And it wasn’t just healers, my dearies, a lot of women were accused of sorcery and being a witch for (you guessed it!) beauty, fame, success, fortune, neediness, or just “not fitting in.”  And what’s equally sick is that a woman accused of witchcraft would be the financier of her torturers, charges were made to her estate and/or family.  Eckhart Tolle mentions in his book, A New Earth, that he believes there’s an accumulated collective female pain body and suggests that our P.M.S. isn’t just about hormones but seriously deep wounds of violence and atrocities done to women that echo in our communal psyche and egoic mind.  Given history, it’s not too much of a challenge to support that theory.

But I want to point out that the way to go isn’t the road of victimhood or picking up the spear and going buck wild crazy to fight for justice.

Justice isn’t about a battle or continuing a hunt, it’s about listening and moving forward (not backward).

In college, I shuddered at the word feminist, bitch, and witch. I also thought women were unnecessarily cruel and perpetuating a lot of the stereotypes without the help of men.  For the record, I’m all for one and one for all but I do think a new approach can, or dare I say, should be taken within the hearts of women.

The sacred feminine is quite a buzz word these days but what does it mean?  I’ve attended tupperware parties, ecstatic dance classes, exclusive women’s events/lectures/courses but I have to say there have only been two times I felt really supported, known and safe within a group of women:

  • 1)I was at a confidential women’s circle where we each individually spoke to be heard and no comments or advice was allowed to be given for one hour at which point we would return to our day and
  • 2) at my recent birth doula training, seventeen women of all walks of life (pregnant, in their sixties, OB/GYN, college grads, moms, acupuncturists, etc) came together to learn how to offer non-judgmental, compassion to women.  Amazing, no? I’m a firm believer that women coming together is a powerful thing; we’re being called to gather—not around a cauldron nor at the beauty salon but in our perspective of womanhood and what we want it to look like.

“Gather[ing] the Women” as Jean Shinoda Bolen says in her book, Urgent Message From Mother, will save the world but I think it’s by looking at our own unique vision of what it means to be a woman, too.  Have you ever even stopped to ask what being a woman means to you and how you’re raking yourself over the coals knowingly (or unknowingly) to fit into that idealized, romanticized or witchi-fied vision?

Start asking questions, start a conversation, tickle your insight…

When do you feel a woman becomes a woman?  Are there good or bad witches, ahem, women?

We embody all of it—the good, the bad and the fugly but you choose what to feed.   I’d be a millionaire by now if I had a dollar every time I heard a woman say “I just don’t like women, I’d rather hang out with guys.”  That which we fear in others is what we fear in ourselves. That’s the link: we’ve not just been betrayed but continue to betray the whole damn population of women that exists inside and out.  How can we celebrate that which we hate?  How can we celebrate ourselves, womanhood, aside from a girls’ night watching Sex & the City?  What knowledge do we want to pass down and all around?  I invite you to start asking these questions with yourself and your immediate circle of friends, family and the like.  Start living what you want to create and stoke the fires to ignite change.  Let’s not be better, good or bad than where we’ve been or judge by the past but aware and tapping into life as it can be experienced right now—in trust, love and faith.

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