Friday, August 3, 2012

From Girl to Woman: A Quinceañera Story

I don't remember the exact day I realized that being called "girl" was demeaning. I wish I could say it was one particular scenario in which I felt infantilized, but it is very likely that I slowly came to the realization that I am indeed a woman. I am a woman for many reasons, but I am not a girl because of my age. I was ecstatic when I turned thirteen, and expected everyone to address me by my new age group; teenager. With age comes pride and the feeling of accomplishment; whether it is an actual accomplishment or the feeling of having survived: the feeling that you are closer to being autonomous, emancipated, and in control of yourself.

As a Latina, I dreamed of the day I would be a Quinceañera; meaning "one who is fifteen years old" in Spanish. A Quinceañera party is not just a big hoopla, it is a rite of passage from girlhood into womanhood. My Quinceañera symbolized my development into a woman, and it was marked by a meaningful ceremony. The ceremony consisted of a religious service where I received a blessing and gave thanks for the gift of life. I also participated in the traditional fifteen candles ceremony, where I selected fifteen family members and friends that had positively influenced my development into a woman, wrote a small speech explaining how they influenced me, and lighted a candle in their honor, so that they may always be there to guide my way. My father changed my shoes from flats to high heels to signify that I was no longer a child, and my mother put a rhinestone encrusted tiara on my head to present me to the world as a queen.

My parents went through such an extravagant and expensive ceremony, just to present me to the world as no longer a girl, but a woman. Coming of age ceremonies vary from culture to culture, but their connecting thread is to celebrate reaching adulthood. Embracing womanhood at the age of fifteen was historically necessary in the Hispanic community because it was the appropriate age for a woman to marry and bear children. In modern times, the idea that a fifteen year old girl is emotionally and physically mature to become a wife and mother is debatable, but the symbolism remains. The Quinceañera ceremony gave me no choice but to embrace being a woman, although it took me a few more years to accept that.

I didn't feel as if I had an adult identity, or more specifically, an identity as a woman, until I finished college and entered the professional world. I was the only female, aside from a much older administrative assistant, in my department in an engineering firm. Being the only female engineer and the youngest person in my group made me realize that I wasn't going to get respect just for being there, I had to earn it. I was immediately, the "new girl," then "the girl working for...such and such," and finally just "the girl that sits by the plan desk." It would have been inconceivable for me to call any of my colleagues "boy" because to do so would be insulting and suggests that they are incapable of handling adult tasks. While I excelled in my career and spoke to all my coworkers as my equal, the term "girl" stuck with me. It was demeaning to have men who could be my father refer to me as "girl" because it forced me to see them as a parental figure, which is a power structure I was unwilling to submit to in my profession. I interpreted their calling me "girl" to the idea that I, and in retrospect all women, was childlike in nature.

Although I felt infantilized by my peers, I was more conflicted because I felt guilty. I call adult women, including myself, "girls" without giving it a second thought. I am the first to say "you go girl!" Social outings with other women are a "girls' night out," and I cannot remember a time when I did not start an email or a text to a friend with the phrase "hey girl!"I have noticed that informally men and women are called "girls and guys," especially when referring to adults in their early 20s, like most of the individuals in my social circle, and for this reason I do not see anything wrong with calling other women "girls" in an informal setting. It's a playful expression of youthfulness, equal to "hanging out with the boys." But, I draw the line at calling women "girls" in a professional setting, or any setting where males are exclusively referred to as "men."

It took me months to stand up to my colleagues about the way they addressed me, but it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I had passed through my coming of age ceremony at the age of fifteen with the blessing of my relatives and friends, urging me on to be the woman they had already seen in me. I could not let them down by submitting myself to a society that will never use the word "boy" to refer to a professional man in a work setting, but uses the word "girl" universally to refer to women of all ages. Adulthood is messy and complicated, and no one truly wants to grow up, but it is part of living. I am an adult. I am a woman. I am a self-respecting, sexual, independent, free-thinking, smart, feisty, woman.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.