On Womanhood and the Sanctity Female Friendship
Why do we care if our girlfriends don't want to play with us in the playground?
Were I a grandfather clock, female friendships would be the pendulum keeping time ticking; keepers of (life)time, friendships lodged deep in my core – suspended, swaying, rooted.
There is indeed something deliciously earthy about this spiritual sisterhood. It is refreshing, comforting, understanding. It stretches and twines like banyan branches. It is infused with lunar energy and the mutual acknowledgement of the other’s divine feminine. It is drinking wine on a Wednesday, water on a Saturday and the half-stale rice cakes with Marmite waiting for your 3.06 a.m. return home after a night out aching to get in on the joke the alcohol you’ve drunk believes to be so funny. (To be clear: I love Marmite). It is the lover you’re afraid will steal them away, and the one you stand opposite as she walks down the aisle. It is a spare tampon when you need it and an argument when you don’t. It is our inner GPS, and the hands outstretched when we lose our way. It is fleeting or forever and it varies in degrees. It is security unknown and a tree that flowers even when its branches are bare. It is the person I sit opposite and the last one I texted.
Well, I texted three, to tell them I really love them.
It is the memories remembered and forgotten of hours spent laughing on the floor last night and the way the room glowed in the salt-lamp-light. It is abundant. I am grateful.
The beauty of reflecting is the trail you leave behind. I look back at friends who have become sisters and have never not discovered a trove of lessons, life and love before me. They are also, before any alarms go off, not superior to our friendships with men nor are they necessarily any deeper. This I firmly believe. But I also believe that they are unique in nature, so bound to the experience of womanhood, complex in a way totally different to those with men. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to be totally clear and add that I do not mean in any sense that womanhood and female friendship are terms that apply only to those born anatomically female. These words, lives and experiences pertain to anyone and everyone who identifies, feels or knows themselves as such – that is the beauty of it.
All I know is what I have experienced, and after all the lists and all the metaphors I can say that these friendships for me are, at their very core, solace. These female friendships have been like that comfort blanket you got as a baby, and the quilt only keeps accumulating more patches. When I was born, my mum just looked at me and said, “you’re my friend”. I slept on her chest every night and sometimes I wonder whether being so physically close to the heart of such a deeply loving woman was what lent me to an openness to such caring, nurturing and protective relationships later in life. A mother’s love is something beyond words, space, time and realising every ounce of your skin crawls as she tells you to, "put on your coat, it's cold". You’re 22, outside its 23 – perfect match. It is a blessing and a guidance; teacher, student and witchcraft all in one. I have the honour of having a loving mother, something I do not take for granted nor do I assume everyone is in the same position. ‘Mother’ and ‘mother figure’ are two separate things that can come as a package deal – but not always. Some of us may never experience this and some may never realise it. Maybe we spend our whole lives looking for it whilst others run away. Where do they run? There is no one place and no-one knows, but if along their way they are lucky enough to stumble across women who recognise her, and she them, then perhaps that is where they run. Perhaps just to stay and rest, perhaps to stay forever. Like a family of Yin returning from a life out at sea with Yang, this both softens and strengthens the Wild Woman Within. At times we become a kind of surrogate for elements of the ‘mother figure’ that each others’ mothers may not have been able to offer, and though we may wish at times that mother were mother, sister were sister, friend were friend or lover a lover, this world of womanhood is embedded in the psyche of womankind. To find people who see you and who can help you to heal those empty spaces is one of the most sacred things since sliced bread.
As young girls we are on a journey where at some point we will acknowledge our own womanhood. Not thinking, “I am a woman,” but more, “what does it mean to me to be a woman?”. It is in many ways a point of arrival, marked by many worldwide with initiation rite or ceremony. I think this moment, conscious or not, is a catalyst in the realisation of and appreciation for the women in our lives, and in turn a deepening in friendship. I think this is what makes them so special. It doesn't come at a particular time per se, though I don’t think we can really deny the huge role puberty plays in it; a complex riddle of emotional expansion and hormonal imbalance and accruing of experience glued together with acne, awkwardness, teen magazines and an opening of eyes that smells like adulthood – mature, funky, cheesy. To experience it on the personal level is one thing – to experience it as a collective is quite another. I sit here writing on the balcony, sun in my eyes and even brighter in my heart, trying to think of words to capture it but all I can think is that basically experiencing this together – the whole realising your womanhood thing – quite literally changes your life forever. This sounds utterly dramatic – but it needn’t. This experiencing of growing up and into women can in fact be utterly undramatic: Saturday nights clipping toe nails with half eaten curries on the floor next to you, the liberation from caring about who sat next to who at lunch (and other such nonsense), or just chatting as any friends would whether man, woman, dog or moon. Simple, easy.
How or when do you become a woman though? Society has certainly formed an expectation of us and therefore part of our response to this question – often in the form of rhetorical questioning. Do you become a woman at birth? When someone called you ‘young woman’ as a child? When you get your first period? When you turn 16? When you first have sex? The concept of some ‘attained’ or even simply ‘reached’ womanhood is founded on a totally sculpted set of constructs. To see it as such is unstable even on a day with no wind other than the sun’s laughter. Rather, womanhood is a heart space in continuous evolution. Its intersection with female friendship lies at the junction where we become conscious of the world the two together shape.
But maybe that delay in realisation of womanhood is part of the gift. When I became more conscious of what womanhood meant for me it sure as heck helped me recognise and acknowledge and appreciate with more fullness than ever before the profundities and mundanities of my own network of WoNdEr WoMeN – who are fucking great I’d just like to say. Over my life I’ve had a funny relationship to the word ‘woman’, for many reasons, and societal pressure or expectation for sure played part in that. There was something shameful I felt about being a woman – perhaps because shame is something we are surrounded by (for being fat, thin, single, married, working, jobless, make-up-less, pure, promiscuous, happy, sad, ourselves…). The word almost made me squirm. That feeling was not helped (and perhaps wholly influenced by) that all too spine-tingling phrase, “you’re a woman now!”, all too often declared when you get your first period. Why does that feel so gross to hear? Or is it just me? It’s like the word moist. Actually, I know my friend Alex feels it too so I’m not alone. Life-experience, too, had taught me to feel ashamed, that I was not worthy of being celebrated, and at best only less worthy than others. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I really realised that. This life-long ignorance hadn’t impacted my ability to have meaningful friendships – but life post-realisation has opened my eyes to their depths, their nuances. I think that’s why I have so much to say.
We made up plays aged 5 and performed them to twenty-something drunkards (parents very much included) on New Year’s Eve . We made up dance routines, chased boys, snuck out at night, cheated from each others' tests and didn’t care about a lot of things that one day became important. Nothing could catch us. It still can’t. It never will. Why was it, then, that when I was 8 I was so deeply hurt if my girlfriends ignored me in the playground when I wouldn’t think twice if the boys walked away? What is this magnetic pull of protection over one another? How do we know the unspoken universal set of values and understandings – and why do some violate them nonetheless? How does ending one of these friendships hurt as much, if not more than, the breakup of a relationship?
How did I ever get so lucky to have the women around me that I do? It was in part, I think, due to the fact I had been in so many situations previously that had led me to ask such questions as all the above. But in main, I think, it is thanks to the ones who helped me discover some answers.
A lot of these words may seem spoken through rose-tinted Veneers, but at times these friendships can taste painfully bitter; acrid pips from hostile fruit. The more we experience life, the more our friendships are deepened and shaped. We grow older (hopefully wiser) and are more aware, more free, more legal to do more things, and thus we accumulate experience like Wall Street stocks. The more nourished we are by experience the more it appreciates in value, the more damaged we are the more it depreciates. And so the next step in this cycle goes: the breadth and depth of our emotional response expands, meaning our capacity to feel hurt, and joy, does too. When things are great, they are great, but when they aren't the wounds can become infected and painful. Maybe the end of these friendships hurts like a breakup because, just like that in a relationship, there is something kind of sacred about the invisible contract between women. The ending of the friendships – whether a mess, a blessing or a necessity – is so painful because this contract has been broken. Despite the pain, and again just like in a relationship, sometimes this is how it must take course. Endings can never take away what was shared, and that must be remembered.
So what of this all? What if the www. of women is just one huge, all-encompassing, matriarchal cocoon – one for all and all for one? It is an environment that can be as nurturing as it can turn sour, and one that we will all, as women, enter one day irrespective of how we got there or where from. Sharing this space and getting to explore it together is homely, like siblings off on an adventure. No wonder they call it a Sisterhood.