Whenever prompted with the topic of sexuality and gender identification, I had never thought twice. I would simply brush off the subject since I had always been confident in who I feel I am: a girl. I always thought gender was a confusing conversation topic, thinking there was not much to discuss. More clearly said, sexuality was always something simple to me. When preparing for a conversation about gender and sexuality with author and teacher Joy Ladin, Ph.D., and my peers of the Strong Women Fellowship (an eight-month program for Jewish female-identifying teens), I did not believe my thoughts would change. But seeing different perspectives and hearing the struggles and stories of my peers completely altered what I now realize being a “man” or “woman” could be.
When you look up the word “woman” in the dictionary, you will find the definition, “an adult human female” or “a wife, girlfriend, or lover,” plus other varieties of that nature. I have realized the dictionary definition of this word barely scratches the surface.
When finishing her empowering story of bravery and transition, Ladin prompted me and my peers with a question: “What was your experience of growing up as a girl?” To my surprise, the majority of responses, including mine, were negative. We discussed topics that we, as teenage girls in the modern world, face, most of which were feelings of adversity and fear. A few examples included memories of my peers’ parents telling them to change clothes because they were “showing too much,” getting dress coded for their bra straps and thighs showing, and their constant fear of slut shaming.
At first, I felt comforted that I was not the only one who had gone through these things. But after a while of discussion, I realized how negative the conversation was. I knew we all love being women, but the growing sense of negativity made me feel unsettled. From here, the conversation unintentionally turned into one about what it means to be a woman.
Joy explained that gender and sexuality do not need to go hand in hand, nor do they have the same connotation to every individual. Once again, this was something I had never considered, so my mindset was transformed. I realized all of those negative memories of growing up a girl made up who we had become. With further discussion, I was inspired that gender and sexuality are not as simple as I thought and that two people with totally different experiences of being a woman could still be defined as one.
The beauty of the hardships of fear and shame is that we learn to overcome them and hopefully become who we feel we are inside. The story of Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, although different from the stories of the teens in this conversation, led us to conclude that being a woman and growing up as a woman can be defined in an infinite number of ways. We should not be defined by who we are categorized to be but who we feel we are.
Lili, 15, attends The Weber School and wrote this as part of her participation in JumpSpark’s Strong Women Fellowship, a year-long educational cohort for female-identifying Jewish teens. An earlier version of this column was published on JumpSpark’s website.