TO MY WOMEN
BY MARIA THATTIL
Woman | noun.
Wom-an | \ wü-men. Plural women.
The dictionary isn’t the first to define us.
Last week, I flew to Brisbane to shoot an International Women’s Day Campaign with Beginning Boutique. What an honour it is to be a face for a campaign that speaks to women and the experiences that shape us. With that honour comes pressure. A proud feminist and advocate for self-love, inclusion and empowerment, I wanted to get this right. So I sat at my MacBook as the cursor blinked at me from a blank word document, and tried to put a flurry of thoughts to paper. I quickly decided that was not how I was going to do it. To give an authentic interview, I knew that rehearsal had to be minimal, and candid talk from the heart was essential. So in honour of International Women’s Day 2019, I sat down with BB to answer:
What does it mean to be a woman today?
I’m confident and outwardly, I appear highly extroverted. I’ve been told I am a ‘gifted speaker’ and that I articulate myself well. When I am told these things, I am mindful to be grateful for this feedback, because this is not who I was as a young girl.
An early memory of my introversion is being six years old, playing with my one friend at lunchtime, and when she suggested we played with a bigger group of girls, I rejected the idea immediately. I specifically remember avoiding eye contact with her as I focused on pulling up grass from the playground and told her that I didn’t want to - that it would be better if it was just us two. I remember the feeling of social anxiety. The idea of entering a new circle and meeting new people was uncomfortable for me, even as a young child. Fast forward 6 years and at 12 years old I felt no different.
In my first year of high school, I was bullied. I started at a new school without knowing anyone and was painfully timid. I remember crying and making last ditch attempts to convince my Mother not to send me to school camp because I was sick at the thought of being alone and not making friends. That year, I got to know two girls who I’d spend my time with, but they teased me relentlessly. I remember having ribbons pulled out of my hair, being pushed in between them because I was notably small, and through it all, pretending to find it funny because I was sick at the thought of finding my voice and saying NO.
I started to gain attention from boys at 14. I had my first “boyfriend”. My parents were strict, so our ‘relationship’ was limited to the confines of an online messenger app – MSN. We chatted on MSN by night and texted by day. My first kiss. We arranged to meet at a friend’s birthday, and when we did, we jumped the fence into an abandoned school. I felt fear and nerves and excitement as he leaned in. It was awkward, but soft and sweet, exactly what you would expect from a 14 year old who only just fit her first crop top and was finally allowed to go to a party that started after 6pm. It was magic. Until he asked me to do something I didn’t want to do. The freeze of excitement turned into the stifling, choking of a dry throat. The air left me and I couldn’t even find the word ‘no’ – I just shook my head scared; I wanted to leave. So we did leave, with nothing but a ruined kiss between us. The next day, he told everyone at his school that I did what he had asked anyway. Within a week, everyone at school purported to know that I was much more advanced than I truly was. It hurt, and my god it made me sick to my stomach – but who would believe me? To my first kiss - if you’re reading this now, I have forgiven you.
I was then 16 years old. It was here that I learned to bury myself as a coping mechanism. Who I perceived to be the ‘real me’ was a victim of bullying, teased for being Indian, picked on for being quiet, easily taken advantage of. So I decided to change the narrative, but in the wrong way. I phased out that shy and sensitive person, and replaced her with an overly loud young girl who wore foundation three shades too light and bleached her hair because all she wanted was to look like the beautiful European girls in her school who had solid friendships, boys and seemed happy. I made a circle of friends who were more kind, but I still never felt comfortable to be my true self. Truthfully, I didn’t know who my “true self” was, I just knew that whatever I used to be, I would give anything to not be. I believed that it was my race, my face, my hair, my body and my personality that were the reason I had it rough in my early years – so I rejected it all. I tried to morph into a whole new person because I believed that was what it would take for me to be happy.
In my late teens, I met a young guy through mutual social circles who was undeniably into me. At 19, we kissed – nothing more eventuated. Travelling Europe a year later, we happened to be in the same Greek city and caught up in the care-free air, we kissed again. He persisted in his pursuit, but our interactions never extended further. It was only two years later that I learned from a mutual friend, that he told everyone we had slept together. I felt winded and like that 14 year old again. I was robbed of my own decisions. At 14 and 21, I was nothing more to these seemingly harmless guys than a ticket to gain popularity amongst their peers. And to the people they spurted their lies to, I wasn’t worthy of the benefit of the doubt. If you are that man, and you are reading this now, I have forgiven you too.
At 20, I completed an internship with a multinational corporation. My boss was seemingly perfect. She wore designer outfits, had beautiful hair, amassed corporate success and had a seat at the table. #goals. It was my first corporate job. I masked my social anxiety with unbridled chirpiness and never failed to walk in every morning with a beaming smile and warm ‘Hello!’ for everyone I met. But despite striving to be my best, I was told that I would do well to be conscious of my extroversion, because my beaming smile, warm “Hello!” and confidence was interpreted as me being full of myself. I was told that because I was “pretty”, I had to ‘work extra hard to be nice to people’ because I ran the risk of people thinking I was stuck up. I had stellar performance feedback throughout the program, but I wasn’t offered an ongoing role. So, I cried for two weeks, because I truly felt like outside of tangible, merit-based performance, the factor I should’ve changed was me.
People and their words. The words of bullies who pulled at my hair and told me all that I ‘couldn’t do’, the words of men whose hunger for popularity was greater than my dignity, the words of a woman I looked up to that told me to dull down my shine. The words sunk into my skin and ran deep in my veins – I hated myself. I quickly became caught up in proving myself to other people. I desperately wanted people to think highly of me, and so I strove to be whatever would make them look favourably on me.
This character continued to evolve well into my twenties. Because to be a beautiful, thriving woman, I felt pressure. Pressure to be outgoing but not too outgoing, to not question the status quo even when I thought otherwise, to look a certain way, and to carry myself a certain way.
That was until I decided the pressure was enough. At 25, I started to develop a platform on here. On this platform, I started to find my voice and realise the power in sharing my truth. Because in sharing my truth and the authenticity of who I am, I connected to other people by letting down the walls. Importantly, I connected to other women who responded to my honesty with love, understanding and wisdom. After years of trying to be someone else, I was exhausted.
It is exhausting trying to be the ‘perfect’ woman. It is exhausting to care about what EVERYONE thinks. It’s exhausting to look perfect all the time. It’s exhausting to bite your tongue when all you want to do is scream ‘NO’. It’s exhausting to gear up for a FIGHT every time someone challenges you or says something bad about you. It’s exhausting trying to make someone else understand your intentions and who you are. It’s exhausting comparing yourself to other women.
Coming into my own as a young woman, I realised I didn’t want to be exhausted anymore. I wanted to be free. When I changed my mind about the woman I am, I transformed my reality. In freeing myself of the chains of expectation, I started to discover myself. I connected with myself through passionately indulging my art & my writing. I connected with you by sharing myself, raw as I am. And I’ve changed my perception on what it is to be a woman today. To me, it is no longer exhausting.
Because the woman I am today is assured and empowered. And the interesting thing about empowerment is that at times, it can be misunderstood and believed to be a state you come to be in once you have achieved a certain goal or acquire material validation. To me, being empowered is a state you are in before you do any of things. It’s having a mindset that is rooted in self-belief, and confidence in your ability to set goals and live your potential. So often, we think that we need to do or be something else. But the fact to recognise is: everything you need is inside you.
And that assurance is rooted in my trust in my feminine energy. And I don’t want the words to be confused with daintiness or traditional views on “girliness,” because we are tearing down that traditional social construct. Feminine energy is: power. And I want to reclaim this meaning, because it reflects our strength. To me, femininity is an expression of what it means to be a woman. It is an innate self confidence, strong self-belief, inimitable empathy, warmth, humble tenacity, fearlessness, resourcefulness and unrivalled strength. As a woman, I have been told many things, and despite being put down, told no, denied my dignity and hurt, even though my voice once shook, I have been able to stand up and say “That’s enough.” As a woman, I found it in myself to back myself and empower myself, even when my world told me otherwise.
And I think of women daily. Women I know, women I know of, women I don’t know: women. And I know that in some way, women - be it professionally, personally, socially, romantically, domestically - may have felt the way I have felt. Pressure, vulnerability, insecurity and self-doubt. And the one thing I want to impart is that feeling these things is not a sign of weakness, nor a sign of adequacy. It is an opportunity to push harder to dispel unjust, self-deprecating thoughts. It is an opportunity to challenge yourself and surprise yourself by drawing on strength you didn't know you had to be better.
Though the world will try and tell you who you are, I pray that you can learn of your own strength, and that the voice you need to listen to above all, is your own. I pray that you know just how much you have to offer the world by being everything BUT what it tells you to be, because by loving yourself, you can be the voice that changes it. And I pray that you set your sights on using your gifts to help other people who struggle to see beyond the cage of another’s expectations. I pray that you are empowered - that you don’t doubt yourself, and you take responsibility for not only decisions that shape your life, but how you reacts to things that happen TO you in life. I pray that you listen to your gut. I pray that you can set goals, work hard, kick ass but carry yourself with grace, help others along the way, and teach other people that there is happiness to be found in lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.
I’m conscious that this isn’t as rosy as my usual pieces. It is more honest, it has divulged some experiences in my life that were painful. But as a woman, these things amongst the positive contributed to me understanding myself beyond a superficial level. It taught me resilience, it taught me the importance of an unshakeable core, it taught me to connect with passion, it taught me to rebuild.
So to my loved readers, I just wanted to share more of me this International Women’s Day. Because I am proud of what I’ve overcome, and I know that like me, you too will have overcome and are dealing with things in your life that aren’t rosy, that aren’t perfect, and that are exhausting. And whilst at times, it can feel hard to be a woman today, I urge you to look beyond that to realise that: of all the things you experience, it is not being a woman today that is hard. Being a woman today is what gives you an unshakeable core: find that. Some of us cling to the flimsier parts of our exterior that are easily chipped and battered by the things outside of our control, things that happen to us. Part with that: it has no bearing on who you are at your core.
Being a woman today is one of the most powerful things in the world, because you are connected to a universal energy and sisterhood that transcends geography, race, boundary, politics or sexuality. There is a revolutionary shift in mindset where women are flipping the outdated narrative, owning who and what we are and sharing it with the world. We are fighters for change. I’m so grateful to the generations of women before me who have paved the way before me and enabled me to exercise my rights and use my voice. These women - who were pioneers, leaders, outcasts and warriors - fought to change damaging social archetypes so that we could be free to continue changing the world. So you are part of a force that is capable of literal magic. Be proud of you are, own your demons, and support each other.
Happy International Women’s Day. As always, this is with love from me to you.
For you, the Beginning Boutique video: