Don’t be too quiet, they won’t notice you. Don’t be too loud, you’ll draw attention to yourself. Don’t be too accommodating, they’ll think you’re a pushover. Don’t be too demanding, they’ll think you’re a bitch. Don’t wear clothes that are too tight or too short, they’ll see it as an invitation. Don’t wear clothes that are too loose or too long, they won’t see you at all.
Be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do — but be careful where, when, and how you do it. Be especially careful who you do it with.
To be a girl is to understand that you are expected to exist in perfect equilibrium. Not too much of one thing, not too little of it either. There are unspoken laws and by-laws hiding within an unwritten code. They are often confusing and contradictory and difficult to remember. To find a way around this, to beat the system, you — like many other women before you — assemble a scrapbook of instructions and guidelines over the years, pasted together carefully and inscribed into your memory.
Your scrapbook contains pages upon pages of advice from your mother, the kind of advice that is whispered over frothy mugs of milky coffee at the kitchen table with her hand on yours. The kind of advice that can only be breathed into being by someone who has been forced to use it, perhaps more than once. The kind of advice that impersonates guidance under the cloak of suggestion, though it’s really a steadfast rule.
It also holds clippings of information passed on by other female relatives, and girls and women from school, university, and work. You hand over fragments of your life and your story in return so they can glue them into their own scrapbooks; so the lessons born from your struggles and your pain might prevent theirs one day.
Some of the pages carry snippets of kindness from strangers in the gym, in the library, at the bar. “Don’t bother with the treadmill, the guy on the next machine is a creep.” “Do you know that man in the green jacket? I don’t want to scare you but it seems like he’s watching you.” “Heads up, you might want to go somewhere else — my friend just texted me and said her drink got spiked here.”
As a girl, you are taught there are certain conveniences and privileges that were not meant or made for you. Shortcuts through dark alleys or unlit streets that would shave ten minutes off a cold walk home. Wearing whatever you like with no consequence. Going on dates with whomever you please and not worrying about being assaulted, injured, or worse.
You appreciate the value of these lessons and store them faithfully in your scrapbook, but you don’t let them fetter or phase you. You learn about resilience and responsibility. You become skilled in the art of caring for others and, if you’re lucky, yourself. You develop athletic prowess, effortlessly hurtling over hurdles and obstacles that spring up before you. You discover the sparkling, sacred magic of female friendships and the glittering treasures that lie within their depths. You push boundaries, break barriers, smash ceilings. You aren’t handed your place at the table: you earn it.
You begin to realise that we women are all part of a secret underground network, trading knowledge like currency and arming one another with weathered shields forged from bitter experience. You sculpt and seek spaces in which you feel comfortable swapping war stories — your sofa, your inbox, your diary, your friend’s car.
Your scrapbook gets thicker and thicker, growing heavy and rich with the kind wisdom of countless women. A mosaic of all the different shapes and sizes of love that have landed softly on your skin over the years. You carry it with you always, referring to it often and letting the pages become crowded with new entries as you march onward through life.
You protect your scrapbook fiercely, filling it with detailed accounts of your adventures, your victories, your mistakes. You make lists of rules that can be sidestepped and “don’t”s that should be “do”s.
You live and relive your experiences proudly, loudly, and shamelessly so that one day, you can show your cousins, nieces, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters exactly what it means to be a girl.