Me, age 6ish, in my absolute all time favorite dance recital regalia. Bright yellow sateen, feathers in my hair, and gold sequins – now that is something special. I was happiest when I was dancing.
I am not sure why, but in my young womanhood I was opposed to blatant girly-ness. Almost a curmudgeon, one could say, way before a curmudgeon-appropriate age. I started out loving dresses, ruffled bloomers, Easter hats, putting curlers in my long hair, and shiny patent leather dress shoes. I know that as a young girl I was already keyed in to the appeal of a super strong but super girly woman who was not only glamorous but could kick some serious ass. This is evidenced by the fact that I spent most of my evenings running around my house in Wonder Woman underoos, a towel wrapped around my shoulders as a makeshift cape, hair bands on my wrists as my power bracelets, and my mom’s knee high brown leather boots. At the time, nobody was telling me that Wonder Woman was an example of the exploitation of women, with her teeny tiny body suit and ample bosoms the focus of her persona. Wonder Woman was just that – a woman who was wonderful. She was strong, and independent, and able to protect herself and others, and still rocked the heeled boots and bosom-enhancing bodice of her spare super hero uniform. And why the hell not? Why can’t a woman be at once girly and tough as shit?
At some point, I think early in high school, I started to detest excessive girly-ness, and girls that were excessively girly. I really do not know why, but for some reason I wanted to be thought of as a girl who could hang with the guys. I am sure a psychologist would say it has something to do with my parents’ divorce, losing my father, and feeling the need to be strong to protect myself, or something equally deep and confusing. Whatever the reason, I vividly remember a time in my life when hanging out with guys was just more appealing to me because I found girls silly and exhausting. I found being girly exhausting. I was uncomfortable in my womanhood. I didn’t like to draw attention to my body. More importantly, I wanted the guys I hung out with to think of me as tough and cool and not super girly. Here was the flaw in that plan: if you are a girl who is attracted to guys (as I was), and you are trying to be tough and not too girly (as I was), the guys tend to want to date girls who are not you, which really sucks. A lot of men like ‘em girly, ladies, just so you know. I learned this the hard way, and as a result did not have as much dating success early in my dating career as my friends did. Don’t get me wrong, I had long hair, sometimes painted my nails, and experimented with make up. But I would not have called myself girly. I had a lot of guy friends but not a lot of boyfriends. A lovely example of this attempt to be tough and hang with the guys culminated in my being tossed out of a high school hockey game for spitting over the Plexiglas onto a player, which was extremely gross, liberating and embarrassing, but that is another story. (Rochester peeps; I was banned from Lakeshore rinks for life and haven’t been back since).
I suspect that some of my success in the field of geology was a result of my deeply ingrained desire to be tough. To this day when I hear a fellow geologist say he spent two weeks in the field, my response is (silently, of course), “Two weeks? Pussy. Try three months.” This is of course all in good fun, as I respect all of my
Me holding a side of yak meat. Our drivers carried this around in our supply truck for two months. It was like an exceptionally large chunk of yak jerky.
fellow geologists and believe they are all tough as nails. I still find myself unwilling to ask for help in many situations, and pride myself on being extremely self sufficient, which is not to knock anyone who is good at asking for help, just an observation about one of my many quirks. My success as a geologist also might be related to my willingness, back when I started, to forego heels and facials and spend extended amounts of time in fleece and hiking boots, and perfecting the art of peeing outdoors in the wind while squatting, and not getting urine on my boots. But the longer I spent in this world of geology, surrounded by women who were seemingly uninterested in girly pursuits, the more I started to question why, as a geologist, I had to choose between being a serious, tough, outdoorsy scientist and a rockin’ hot girly girl in a mini skirt and heels. Why can’t a woman be both jubilant in her girly-ness and strong enough to hike for months through snow and wind and cold at 15,00 feet elevation? I got tired of hiding in flannel shirts, baggy jeans, and combat boots. When I moved to Los Angeles, my office mate, a southern Californian, promptly told me that my wardrobe of khaki pants, brown paddock boots, and button down shirts was utterly unworthy of the L.A. scene. The look on her face when she witnessed me in such clothing, the first time we prepared to hit the town for a night out of dancing and drinking in L.A., was one of mild disgust and disbelief. I had to borrow clothes from her. “Don’t you have anything black,” she asked. I did, but it was a frumpy, long skirt that clearly would not do. Slowly, my evolution back toward that little girl who danced around in her ruffled bloomers and pink tights began to take shape. And thank God, because I don’t believe that my decision to hide inside flannel and khaki was one that was true to my authentic self. I am not in any way criticizing flannel and khaki, if that is your thing. It is just clothing and should not be the defining characteristic of a woman. But for me, it was a persona I built to help ensure I was taken seriously in a world full of, well, tough men.
Even more interesting, I think, is that my evolution back to being a girly girl took so long, and feeling completely unapologetic about it wasn’t natural to me at first. There were times I would dress a little sexy or girly and worry about what my geology colleagues would think of me when I arrived at work in a dress and heels. Would they think I didn’t fit the geologist mold? Would they wonder what the hell had happened to me and where did I put my rock hammer and vest? It took me over two decades to get to the point where I can embrace being a girly girl and a tough girl, and not give a crap one way or the other what anyone, geologist or non-geologist, thinks of me. Why do toughness and girly-ness have to be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they have to be. I am confident I could hang with the guys in the farthest reaches of the Tibetan plateau, but I still enjoy a mani/pedi now and then. I can put on a dress, leopard print heels, and pump my own gas on my way into work. One day I revel in having my highlights done, or getting dressed to the nines for a night out with my husband, and the next I choose to be barefoot, squatting in the dirt collecting bugs and worms with my boys. I love a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub, but enjoy a good poop in the woods under the stars too (Don’t knock it ‘til you try it)! I used to think you couldn’t have it both ways. Now I know you can.
I have not been back to the Tibetan plateau, the site of my most intense journey beyond my comfort zone, in over a decade, largely due to children and job commitments that I did not have when I was a graduate student. But I can tell you this for certain; I will get back to the plateau one day, and when I do, my toenails will be neon pink inside my hiking boots.