Women Appear: Searching for Self
The older I get, the more convinced I am that life is just a series of open ended questions, rather than a neat multiple choice. My early twenties have been defined, so far, with me having absolutely no idea what’s going on, but having potentially too much fun trying to figure it out.
I’ve always argued that a good way to check in on your life progress is to imagine how little you would feel about it. If you could go back in time and hang out with 12 year old you, would they like you? I think that 12 year old me would be incredibly disappointed that I haven’t won an Oscar by now, and she’d also be pissed that I let Prince Harry marry someone else, but there are things that I think she’d be pretty into. She’d love the fact that I read really grown up books, she’d love the fact that I’m basically always out of the house, wearing long dresses and falling asleep in the sunshine.
I’m really close to how I imagined myself being when I was grown up, and most of the time that feels like an achievement. But sometimes, the performativity of my own selfhood deeply concerns me. I am close to how I wanted to be, but why did I want to be like that? Where do these desires for self-construction come from?
Early this week, walking through the city streets that were still warm with unexpected summer sun, my flatmate asked me if I ever felt like I was watching myself live my own life. ‘Do you ever feel like you’re living your own life in the third person?’ she said, and I laughed because I’ve felt like that so many times and was a little relieved that I’m not the only slightly unhinged, slightly melodramatic person lost in their own consciousness.
I watch myself do things, I watch myself perform the routines of a person that is, from the outside, me. These rituals are now habit, but they began as a choice, a desire to exist and be seen in a particular way. And while there’s no doubt that for me personally, a lot of these self-stylings were lifted straight out of the pages of my favourite books (I Capture the Castle is a huge culprit here) but I think any girl who’s tried to make a boy like her will know that there is no harsher critic, and no greater motivator, than the patriarchy.
As much as I’ve openly tried to live outside of the barriers of misogynistic expectation, there is a huge amount of my person that is designed solely to attract men. The narrator who commentates on my life, the person who watches me from inside my own skull, is just as influenced by the patriarchy as the rest of us. As John Berger perfectly argued in Ways of Seeing, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… the surveyor or woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object, and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’
I don’t know how to separate the depths of my being with the taught desire to be seen without the scaffolding that holds me up completely collapsing. But if I want 50 year old me to be mentally stable, it’s probably worth a try.