The person in the mirror has no hair, aside from some measly peach fuzz. Her eyebrows are embarrassingly thin, her eyelashes missing in big clumps. Her skin has taken on an ashy tint. There are scars dotting her décolletage, and an ugly bump over her heart, as if she was been beaten there. She is skinny in all the wrong places, and lumpy in others.
I shut off the bathroom light, and leave to cover my shame with another pair of sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt.
Chemotherapy will do that to a girl.
What makes a woman?
What makes a woman? Secular culture, especially consumer culture, would have women believe that it's fabulous hair, beautiful brows, glowing skin and an able body. Her breasts should be large, but not too large, and her figure neither too skinny nor too fat. She can wear whatever she wants, but ideally, she should wear clothing that marks her as a physical woman by showing her shape and her skin. The acceptable amount of skin to show and makeup to wear depends on what subculture she encounters. If she attains these attributes, she is a true woman, regardless of biology. Eschews them or finds them impossible to achieve? At best, she will constantly defend her choice to go against the grain. At worst, her identity and sexuality will be called into question--is she a lesbian? Is she just "butch"? Is she a slut? Is she a man trapped in a woman's body?
Religious folks don't get a free pass either. For us, womanhood often means long hair, a sweet smile, an abundance of wholesome charm and an able body. Her breasts should be large enough to be womanly, but not so large as to be oversexed. Her figure should be maternal, but neither too skinny nor too fat. She should wear clothing that marks her socially as a woman, especially skirts, but nothing that calls too much attention to herself. The acceptable amount of skin to show and makeup to wear depends on which other religious folks she encounters. If she attains these attributes, she is truly feminine. Eschews them or finds them impossible to achieve? At best, she will constantly defend her choice to go against the grain. At worst, her identity and sexuality will be called into question--is she attracted to other women? Is she just "butch"? Is she a slut? Is she dangerous to the faith of my children? My community?
Her breasts should be large enough to be womanly, but not so large as to be oversexed. Her figure should be maternal, but neither too skinny nor too fat.
I am lucky and privileged. My hair, my brows, my lashes--all will grow back with time. My power port will be removed from my chest and my scars will fade. My skin will glow again. I will wear pretty clothes and makeup. In time, I will once again feel comfortable navigating the secular and Catholic worlds of womanhood in my own way.
But what of the woman who is permanently disfigured? Permanently ill? The one who is not of able body? The one who will always be too small or too large, too flat or too voluptuous? What will we say of the woman whose choice of hair or clothing marks her as an outlier in one world or the other, or even the woman who as Catholics we fear deeply damages her human dignity with the choices she makes? What really makes a woman in this brave and broken world? What can we reliably seek, aside from biology, that clearly makes one a female on God's green Earth?
What will we say of the woman whose choice of hair or clothing marks her as an outlier in one world or the other, or even the woman who as Catholics we fear deeply damages her human dignity with the choices she makes?
"The dignity of women is measured by the order of love ... Unless we refer to this order and primacy we cannot give a complete and adequate answer to the question about women's dignity and vocation. When we say that the woman is the one who receives love in order to love in return, this refers not only or above all to the specific spousal relationship of marriage. It means something more universal, based on the very fact of her being a woman within all the interpersonal relationships which, in the most varied ways, shape society and structure the interaction between all persons - men and women. In this broad and diversified context, a woman represents a particular value by the fact that she is a human person, and, at the same time, this particular person, by the fact of her femininity. This concerns each and every woman, independently of the cultural context in which she lives, and independently of her spiritual, psychological and physical characteristics, as for example, age, education, health, work, and whether she is married or single." -St John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988
This is a beautiful but not very satisfying answer. It resists being cornered, packaged and marketed in the aisle next to the mascara. It cannot be draped with a mantilla, shown off like skin or harnessed for earthly power and prestige. It doesn't wear a dress or jeans. It is sweet and tough and soft and loud and big and small and sensual and demure. Like many other aspects of our faith, true womanhood is a mystery that encompasses our physical bodies but also goes deeper, to the core of our very souls where it cannot be stolen by illness or age, wrecked by society or wracked with confusion. It is based in the greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of love.
Remember that when you look in the mirror, and rejoice.