“Excuse me, you’re very beautiful…”

I don’t think he heard me faintly say a thank you in return, and it’s not like he could have seen my reaction to his compliment. I smiled the type of smile that looks like I’m about to cry while simultaneously trying to stifle laughter from emitting, but he couldn’t see any of this because I was wearing a mask.

How could he tell that I was beautiful? Half of me was covered under a mask that hid most of my face, the other part was exposed. I’m not talking about my forehead by the way, I’m talking about my body. I was wearing a crop top that exposed my belly, with tailored hugging jeans that shaped my lower half on a hot Sunday afternoon.

That’s what he meant— I’m beautiful. My body is beautiful. Not my forehead and eyes and eyebrows that can be seen above the mask, rather the vessel of my human body. A woman’s body.

The male gaze. If you’re a woman you know it too well, the feeling that someone is looking at you for what you are, not who you are. I can’t remember the first time I felt stared down by a man but I remember how it made me feel, as if I was a commodity and not a person. That’s probably why I grew up being a tomboy; I was so uncomfortable with all the things being a girl meant. It meant that my body was on full display for the world to pick apart.

Ugly. Pretty. Too fat. Too skinny. Not skinny enough. I hate my thighs. I wish I could change some parts of me. Please don’t stare at me. Don’t stare at my body.

I want to hide.

How would you explain to a younger version of yourself the realities of what it means to be a girl on her way to womanhood? I don’t think I would be able to, because it’d feel too heavy to describe. All I would say is that life feels like a constant push and pull of self love and self hate, against what you feel to be true and what society imposes upon you. Upon your existence.

When I was younger and in my rebellious years, I’d constantly hear my mother complain. “They always said girls are more difficult to raise,” and each time she’d recite these words I’d curse my gender. Why did I have to be born a girl? Why couldn’t I be a boy, when they get so much more freedom? I’d get so jealous of the way the opposite gender was restrictionless, compared to my reality in which I felt so suffocated by the constant limitations imposed upon me. I felt as though my gender hindered my growth, because I could not experience life to the fullest extent without having to worry about the most trivial things. For whatever reason the world is unnecessarily cruel to women, making us believe that our mere existence is something to be ashamed of. It’s apparent in the way we still stigmatize the annoying monthly occurrence of the menstrual cycle, to the naturally occurring phenomena of growing body hair, or compare ourselves to other women and begin internalizing misogynistic beliefs.

I’ve countlessly questioned my existence when life has confronted my naivety and exposed me to a cold hard truth: I will be held to a different standard to that of my male counterpart. Everything I think and everything I do will be reduced in such a way that only the superficialities will be of significance. My existence is based on my appearance and my appearance dictates my value. Is that all I am, just a body merely meant for the consumption of others? Is that what my worth amounts to? I’d like to believe otherwise, but I’ve experienced firsthand how differently I am treated when I present myself to the world as my best upkept version compared to that of my casual everyday form. It ties into another societal condition that most would like to ignore: pretty privilege. When you fit into the mold of what an attractive woman looks like, the world somehow opens up to you, solidifying the fact that conventionality results in acceptance.

I’d like to believe that being a woman means more than being complacent with society’s standards and expectations of my gender. Can’t I just exist without having to live up to a man’s false image of what a woman is? I have to encapsulate the characteristics of femininity because otherwise I’ll be seen as less of a woman, but what does that truly mean? The archetype of the ideal woman is rooted in outdated beliefs that somehow prevail in the 21st century. No aspirational careers were allowed for us to pursue, for we were only meant to ascribe to the sexist ideologies that society had imposed onto us due to the patriarchal culture. However, times have changed along with the false illusions of womanhood, and in today’s modern day society I am able to be who I want to be, and create my own archetype of the ideal woman I want to become.

So, what does it mean to be a woman?

Despite its struggles and challenges, womanhood is not as bad as society deems it to be. It’s a feeling so special that it makes me so grateful to have been born a woman and not a man. I am still learning what it means to be a woman, as I grow more comfortable with being in the vessel of a human body whose curves and slopes are constantly changing. Interestingly enough, I’m learning that I am worth more than what society bases my currency off of, for I have a mind that daydreams entirely too much. Although I have moments where I begin to think about the fact that not a lot of women are doing the things I aspire to do, I never let those invisible barriers discourage me from pursuing the things I will achieve.

If I could go back in time to explain what womanhood is to a younger version of me, I would try to refrain from scaring myself. The world is already intimidating when you’re young and impressionable, especially when you’re trying to figure out your identity in life as both an individual and a young girl. I’d make an effort to emphasize the beauty of it, for being a woman is probably the most wonderful thing that could have ever happened to me. I’d describe it to myself as this:

It feels like speeding on the highway while music blasts around you, or going for a jog at night when no one’s around to stare. It feels like jumping on the bed and dancing and singing out loud. It feels like spending money on yourself because you can afford the love you have to give to yourself, because you don’t need anyone else to spoil you. It feels like paying your own bills and living in a place you get to call your own. It feels like being around your girl friends when you suddenly realize how lucky you are to have them in your life. It feels like looking at yourself in the mirror and loving what you see. It feels like confidence, the type of confidence that warms up inside of you and slowly oozes out for the whole world to witness. It feels like walking down the street with a smiling face held high and your back straightened out. It feels like independence in every sense of the word, because you’re a woman who can make her own decisions.

The male gaze may exist, but that does not mean your existence is meant for their consumption.

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