A lot of gentlemen have been asking me for advice re: ladies and the mysterious things they do. I guess I’m about as qualified to give this advice as anyone, seeing as I am a lady who has done some mysterious things in my time, but I don’t have all that much advice to give when someone says, “My lady friend is acting crazy about something I don’t understand. How can I permanently erase this insecurity from her brain?” Sorry, bro, but that’s not going to happen.
Because when you’re a girl, you get given this image of The Perfect Woman. What exactly The Perfect Woman looks and acts like is subjective, but for most little girls in the Western world, that woman is rigidly defined indeed. She’s white but not too pale, sexy but not too sexual, bright but not too smart, cheerful but not obnoxiously bubbly, well-dressed without being a fashionista, friendly but not flirty, curvy in all the right places and absolutely not curvy in the wrong ones.
It’s an impossible ideal, but when you’re a kid, you don’t know that. Maybe the only story you’ve ever seen that bucks that trend is the makeover story, where a Hollywood-gorgeous woman sheds her unflattering clothes and–surprise!–was the perfect woman all along. Maybe your parents had the presence of mind to expose you to some stories about women who are warriors or business ladies or otherwise independent, although those warriors of the steppes or the boardroom are always played by the very same perfect Hollywood ladies with their thin arms and luminous veneers.
So you think you’re going to be this perfect woman. Your only option is to be this perfect lady. And then puberty hits you like a freight train, and you discover within yourself the flaw that will always prevent you from being The Good Woman.
Maybe you put on fat in your stomach and not your hips. Maybe you like boys a lot less than you thought you would. Maybe you like boys a lot more than you thought you could. Maybe you like the wrong kind of boy. Maybe you want to do the wrong kind of things with that boy. Maybe you want to do all those wrong things with multiple boys. Maybe people start making comments about your race, about what black women really want, about what Asian women do in bed, and they’re saying all this to you like you ought to be flattered. Maybe the stores at the mall don’t make clothing in your size. Maybe you don’t like any of the clothing in the stores at the mall.
When you look the other young women around you, they seem to have everything figured out. They look and act like they’re well on their way to becoming That Woman, the perfect woman, the one who smells nice all the time and never farts unless her guy friends think it’s funny. You alone have your flaw, your inner or outer wrongness. You have failed at Womanhood.
So you make one last, desperate leap for perfection.
You eat too little, or too much. You follow every trend, or you wear your old jeans until they fall apart. You start drama, or you say you hate drama, or you start drama and then say you hate it. You kiss people you don’t really want to kiss, or you run away from people you do want to kiss. You’re trying to force yourself into that very small and very uncomfortable hole where the Perfect Woman is supposed to go, or you’re trying your damnest to stay out of that hole but you don’t see anywhere else you could possibly fit. From the outside, it looks completely irrational. People call you crazy. Maybe you call yourself crazy. You certainly feel crazy.
It lasts for a while. Then you leave high school, or college, or the clique you ran with since way back when. You stumble across the right article on Wikipedia. You see a word you’ve never seen before in a book and look it up. A casual acquaintance posts something on Facebook and you get that little shock of recognition, that realization there are women out there just like you, with your exact flaw, and they’re doing all right for themselves. They’re doing great. They get together and celebrate their flaw, the very thing you always believed was so dark and shameful, but they’re not calling it a flaw any more. They have clubs, meet-up groups, conventions just for celebrating that part of them that disqualified them for eligibility in the Perfect Woman sweepstakes (prize: nothing. There never was any prize, because no one has ever won).
You calm down. You grow up. You don’t think of yourself as perfect, but you find your place in an imperfect world. Maybe you feel the occasional twinge of sadness about your flaw, but it doesn’t eat at you the way it used to.
But people will still call you crazy sometimes, because they still believe that the Perfect Woman is out there, and you could be her if you just tried a little harder and emoted a lot less.
Note: This essay isn’t about mental illness, which does tend to crop up around puberty or early adulthood and can be difficult to distinguish from normal teenage angst. It’s also not about women who have survived traumatic or abusive childhoods. This is about young women who get called crazy for going through the completely normal process of adolescent self-discovery.