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A Postmortem on Girlhood

Everything I learned about being a woman I first learned by being a girl. On walks with a wiser older sister, in hushed voices at sleepovers, between the pages of trashy teen-romance novels. Being a girl was a necessary education—for everything which existed on the other side of adolescence. 

Lessons were gradual—before lipgloss and the push-up bra, there was chapstick and camisoles from The Gap. Before you knew you wanted to kiss anyone, you wanted to hurl at the thought. Before you were a woman, you played an internal match of tug-of-war: dollhouses and playdates on one side, the additions and losses of grown-up existence on the other. 

Often, it felt as though these lessons came at you in slow-motion; girlhood threatened to stretch on forever. Adolescence was purgatory: a half-way place, a pit-stop on the way to adulthood. Find in the diary of any teenage girl: “Are we there yet?” Just a few more stops! Girlhood is desperately wanting to pick up the pace with all of your growing up, and feeling instead the red–hot eternity of every humiliation (side-part, your first hopeless crush, failed attempts at winged eyeliner). 

And then, seemingly without warning, you’re there: an adult, on the other side. An entirely predictable, and yet totally unexpected development. How did you wind up here? You look back with sudden horror—where did she go? Wasn’t she just braiding hair at her seventh-grade birthday party? Now, she’s a decade out from a mortgage, maybe a marriage. 

Turning twenty a few weeks ago struck me as some small catastrophe. Not for the usual reason (pressing eschatological anxiety). Everyone’s afraid of death. With girlhood now fully in the rear-view, it occurred to me: part of me had already died. 

You’ve got to be careful with nostalgia. It isn’t memory, and in fact, it gets memory wrong. It couldn’t exist without the hazy–headed amnesia which seems to afflict most adults—the mechanism by which the past’s “bad parts” are excised from recollection. Nostalgia really is dis–orientation: the posture of misremembering. 

Knowing this, the new urge to reminisce about adolescence seemed suspect, maybe even unfair to a younger version of myself. Girlhood wasn’t a “better time.” All of the great tragedies of the period might seem trivial, now—well, that’s only because you’re through it. But the rotten parts, and all of the heartache, were real. And when you were there, it wasn’t at all clear if any of it was going to end. Isn’t it strange: you can be nostalgic for hell. 

Part of me really was—and still is. What explained the feeling of sudden loss—of mourning for the little girl who went away, and was glad to? 

So much of girlishness is oriented toward the promise of womanhood. Girls listen to Taylor Swift songs before their first love ever comes for them, and feel them way-down. Girls understand fairytales as representations of nearby realities—love isn’t fictional, and it really will happen to her. Playing dolls is practice. You watch your mother getting ready for the day, and then play dress-up in your room in sincere imitation of her. You wait for it to be your turn. 

Maybe, if the nostalgia was saying anything, it was this: don’t forget how badly she wanted to be you. If you do, you forget to notice just how wonderful it is to have arrived. In some ways, little girls have a better sense of the power of womanhood than women do. From her covetous vantage point, she could see it all: that being a woman is a magical thing. How nice for you, to be where she’d hoped to end up. 

You always get told: it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. And it’s true, the journey matters. But it’s about the destination, too. You set out for a reason, and you used to have a sense of what your reason was. And if the journey was long, and tough, and if you were in a great hurry to get to where you were going, you might as well know you’re here, when you are. 

Girlhood is over. But here’s something you can still do: celebrate it, mourn its passing, and resolve to hold onto a bit of it for the rest of your life. 


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