It was a Saturday morning when I was about 12, at the border of adolescence. I was aware of the immense peer pressure which dictated that I should be doing girly things like making clumsy forays into eye-shadow or trying on clothes in front of mirrors. I resisted that pressure with all my heart. I didn't have a mirror or eye-shadow and the only clothes I wore, beyond my school uniform, was a pair of jeans, one brown T-shirt and one brown sweat-shirt. The very idea of bras made me yelp with horror like Bart Simpson in the lingerie department. I was a total failure as a girl.
That day, I realised that to grow up female seemed to mean eschewing the natural world, while to be a child was to be a boy, to grab a fish net and a jam jar, fetch my bike and head for the ponds. That is what I did but, although it was a spring morning and I was in my own springtime, I felt sadder than I ever had in my life, for it was valedictory, it was autumn in April, it was twilight at dawn. I sat crying, until I grew fascinated and comforted by a water boatman, rowing his oars across the whole pond-ocean with a meniscus for a boat.
Something coalesced in me: a summing up of all I did not want about being female. I was the youngest of three children, and very close to my two older brothers, each of us only a year apart. I identified with them, not with the kind of girls who were fussy about mud or rain or accidents. I hated dresses. I hated dolls. I hated sewing. I really hated pink. I loved swimming, riverbanks, bikes and climbing. I climbed anything – trees, walls, cliffs, bookshelves, bus stops and house-rooves. (If parents want to know whether their house is burglar-proof, I'd suggest they ask their kids how they get in when they forget the door key.)
I was both very boyish and very bookish, and one result of this combination was that when I learnt about menstruation, I assumed confidently that it couldn't possibly apply to me, but when I discovered, miserably, that it did, I read up about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This stentorian authority informed me that it happened every month for several days.
So, not wanting to seem odder than I was as a girl, I let my mother buy me, every month, those appalling thick sandwiches you were supposed to put in your knickers. I never used them, partly because my periods had a mind of their own and weren't following the dictum of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and partly because when they did occur, my pal and I would scoot off to buy tampons which we both had to keep secret from our mothers, who disapproved. This in turn meant that after a couple of years I had a sackful of ghastly girl wedges bulging out of my wardrobe which I only got rid of one happy bin-day when both my parents happened to be away.
About the same time, my brothers joined the Sea Scouts. They learnt to row and canoe, to read maps, use a compass, go down the pub and sleep in phone boxes: all of which seemed to me essential to the core curriculum of life. My mother took me to their leader and stood behind me, physically and metaphorically.
"I want to be a Sea Scout." "You can't," came the answer, "you're a girl." I didn't know how to argue the point in the almost metaphysical realm of fraternal identity but I knew how to be stubborn. "Everything my brothers can do, I can do," I said furiously. But no. I had to be satisfied with Brownies where I'd done a bed-making badge and had got expelled for being cheeky.
In time, my brothers taught me how to row and canoe, and they tried less successfully to teach me how to use a map and compass, while going down the pub was a skill I seemed to pick up with no help whatsoever.
Over the years, I've come to cherish the intense innerness of the tides of womanhood. I love the theatre of clothes and ransacking charity shops. I do wear make-up, though I still find lingerie departments utterly terrifying – what do women do with this weird collection of wired, frilled, padded, crimply ghastly nonsense, and has no one heard of plain black cotton?
But still, when I feel unhappy or vulnerable, I stitch myself into jeans for months on end, I don't wear make-up and I avoid mirrors. And, yes, I head for water: lakes, rivers or seas but best of all, somehow, the water boatman of the mind, tiny sea scout, the most ordinary insect rowing its extraordinary message of metaphor: keep on rowing, my friend, keep rowing for your own far shores.
Jay Griffiths is the author of 'Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape'
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