I’ve wondered lately if I will ever stop feeling like a girl, and if so, when? I know so many girls. One of them is my mother, when I’m home and we sneak off without my dad to browse the mall and eat at Chick-fil-a, wearing little, conspiratorial grins. Another is my college roommate Jess, when we’d go for late night runs to the lake, or the time we got giddy shopping for an expensive cut of meat, burnt it badly, then threw it away like it never happened.
I feel most like a girl whenever I am unbridled, probably communing in secret with another. More than anything, I feel it when I’m excited for what comes next. Girls careen forward.
In high school, not all girls are made equal. I recall the heydey of the platform Piczo, where faces, legs, and so forth could be ranked anonymously, and they were. I’m cautiously optimistic about more recent cultural shifts in body acceptance. Still, human instinct is to compare. As one of the few non-white students at my Christian high school, I sat in some “other” category.
Let me in, let me in. There was something thrilling and forbidden about belonging to a cross country team with non-othered girls, popular and well-loved girls, girls who I’d never speak to in class and whom I imagined had inherited their full range of powers. Girls with enviably long torsos, fair and pliant hair, actual breasts. I ogled constantly and pathetically, hungry for them or what they had.
In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, the protagonist remarks that she’s stared at her best friend for so long, sometimes she forgets she just isn’t her, not even a little bit. How horrifying to realize that you’ll never occupy another body. I found this to be a ridiculous and completely empathetic statement, because I knew the curve of Caroline’s calves and the slope in Marie’s waist as well as my own.
September in Texas climbs to one hundred degrees. Sweat rolls through your eyes and down your legs. It can’t be fought. We would have been insane to run fully-clothed. Any internal melodramas about the body couldn’t compete with the extraordinary heat, and I stripped down to a sports bra with everyone else. Some days, our coach would pair those of us at similar speeds, to do “out-and-back” runs. The purpose was to “negative-split” the session together, running out to a point and returning at a faster pace back to the start.
I remember jogging out to the Salado Creek Greenway with Marie on out-and-back days. Once past the campus gates, the air shifted. We’d start reflexively exchanging motivational grunts (come on, breathe through it, watch the clock), and complain about our ceramics teacher between strides. I felt safe, even bouncy. The greenway was like neutral territory, where social circles were suffocated by the heat and single-minded task. We’d smack the dumpster marking halfway for luck, then run back quicker than we’d come. From afar, we might have looked the same, shimmery.
Even for the most popular teenage girl, I imagine adolescence is not primarily characterized by power or control. I shudder when I think about an argument I had with my recent male roommate, who was convinced that puberty was much harder for boys than girls, who “had us all wrapped around their fingers.” The evidence he kept invoking was an image of a cafeteria queen bee, taking everything she wanted: the girl we all desired or hoped to be.
Does she even exist? “I didn’t dazzle like I expected / to.” Brenda Shaughnessy writes in her poem “Wound.” Her collection So Much Synth details the electric, chaotic, and nauseating experience of girlhood as an Asian American. I love this collection because it moves fast and hard, then very suddenly the speaker is a mother, addressing her daughter. I am no longer sure that anyone experienced girlhood the way we were promised it would go. Sexy, drug-fueled shows like Euphoria bank on our fantasies of what we think we deserved.
“I have fifty years, I have sixty years to spend. I have not yet broken into my hoard,” is one of Jinny’s refrains in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Her character is fiery and seductive, easily the most charming of her group. Even in old age, she willfully tends to her appearance, which touches the chief narrator, Bernard. She applies makeup and shields her hair from the wind, “a gesture for which [he] honoured her, as if it confirmed our determination--not to let lilies grow.” Jinny never acknowledges when the hoard is spent and gone, she simply stops repeating the line.
But it still goes fast. “It seemed that we had hardly begun and we were already there,” repeats Lyn Hejinian in her language poetry memoir My Life. Hejinian’s book is structured in the nature of The Waves, where phrases are collected from childhood to midlife, are repeated, and accumulate new meaning over time. Perhaps Hejinian’s is a more wistful rendition of Jinny’s refrain. We were promised everything, and then as quickly as it came, it went. Were we, as girls, ever in control?
The covers of my copies of these books (Shaughnessey, Woolf, Hejinian) are not dissimilar. So Much Synth features a close-up of rumpled blue fur, a texture like water or a throw pillow from a teenage bedroom. The Waves and My Life show the ocean, the latter in a triptych. Girlhood is a wash in the deep blue sea. It’s overwhelming, ferocious, and unending. While the experience is deeply personal, it is impossible without and created in relation to other girls. I’d like to think the writers chose their covers in this spirit.
Other precise and weird moments I remember feeling kinship: looking forward to icy grape Gatorade at the finish line, chocolate chip chewy bars, and honeycrisp apples. We worked hard for a treat (and without glorifying disordered eating) shared an unfortunate common knowledge of the calorie counts in each. I see us warming up for practice in our borrowed, oversized sweats, silently in the field before school started.
Recently, I Googled the results from a particularly memorable race. It happened later in the season somewhere in Houston, wooded and cooler than usual. To my amazement, we all came down the chute within the span of seconds, at most a minute apart. It was one of the only races where I’d distinguished myself by winning a medal, yet my teammates were just 2 seconds, 5 seconds, and 6 seconds behind.
I remembered us as wildly different, beamed in from separate worlds. In many ways we truly were, but racing offered a few minutes respite from that gulf.
If I ever knew a queen bee, she was Caroline. Blonde, lean, and extremely fast, I envied her lot. After our last race of senior year and a long bus ride back from Dallas, she called us all to meet at the starting line for one last lap. We yelled into the night as we ran, tearing off our shirts again. I wanted to gather the moment as it was happening. We must have been breaking into our hoard.
"Guys, most people we know couldn’t even run a mile," Caroline laughed, and I felt happy to be a part of this secret society. I dropped my phone on the pavement that night, cracking the screen, and my mom said I stank when she picked me up. I didn’t care, because I knew I had run as fast as I possibly could have.
Did I once
feel like a tulip
bending gracefully toward its own root, its own death,
the lower my head
the more beautiful? Or was I ever showy like a peony
for one wild week,
sexed fully pink without blushing. What are emotions
anyway? Flowers die
- Brenda Shaughnessey, from “Red Tulips, then Asphodel”