A few months ago, I was having horrible nightmares. In a grey, blurry hospital ward, I would look down at my chest and see bloodied bandages, wrapped tight around my torso, barely holding me together. I would scream in pain, and grief, and anger as I realised what had been done to me, against my will. In some versions, my breasts were completely gone; in others, they had been crudely implanted with silicone, leaving me terrified to move in case the stitches ripped. I have always been fascinated by dreams, and what they mean. It didn't take me long before I figured it out, and the dreams stopped coming.
It is a loaded issue, this "real woman" stuff. It is so intertwined with other fraught, complex concepts. Gender, and the gender-binary. Sexuality. Relationships. Love. Shame. Rejection. Body-image. Sexism. Beauty. Confidence. Self-worth. Let me define what I'm talking about here as a feeling of belonging in one's own body; of being more than enough. It is a fragile thing, and is easily taken from us. Perhaps our lovers treat us badly, or comparison has beaten us down. It can be ripped away in one fell-swoop by some cataclysmic event, or in a subtle but relentless everyday drip. However this sensation strikes, as it does to all at some point in life, it will feel as if your sexual organs have been scooped out with an ice-cream scoop and fed to the proverbial wolves. Libido disappears. Appetite dwindles. You struggle to look at your own body in the mirror, and so wrap yourself in a rudimentary cocoon of pyjamas, cardigan, blanket and duvet, so that you don't have to. It is a cold, numb, isolated time. People who approach you in this state will receive the sharp lash of your tongue, or your total indifference. The logic at work in your mind is this: I believed I was enough once, and look where that got me. Never again.
Our past selves begin to haunt us. We feel as though we have lost permission to be sexual, beautiful, or feminine, and having lost permission, shame begins to claw its icy fingers across our emotional landscape. This happens because we give away too much power. We are all quick to light up for our partners, or the hot guy who makes our coffee, yet feel somehow foolish doing it for ourselves. We love receiving sexy gifts, and feel ridiculous buying them solo. This is a dangerous mentality. With a gift there is always an element of "this is how I see you" or "this is the woman I want you to be" - even when done well, with encouragement and love. If we never do it for ourselves, we lose all input into what is essentially, our own creation as women. It has taken me a long time to realise that my femininity belongs to me, and nobody else. It isn't given to me in miniature, perishable doses every time somebody calls me princess. You have to create, nurture, and protect it, all by yourself. People will try to mould it to suit their tastes, and you must not let them. Falling in love with yourself - when it feels like you are the most unlovable creature alive - is what will save you.
That is what I had to learn for the dreams to stop coming. If I hadn't figured it out, I feel sure that I really would have woken up some day, looked down at myself, and seen a woman pieced together by someone else's desires, butchered by her own acquiescence. If there is sculpture to be made of us, let it be done with our own patient, tender hands.