Coming of Womanhood
Written by Bree Turner
Photography by Kata Komlos
Humour me while I refer to women as butterflies for a moment. Correction, allow me to compare a girl’s transition to womanhood as a chrysalis. Womanhood is a resolution after a state of transition, in addition to that I believe that womanhood itself is also transitional and multifaceted. I liken the transition towards womanhood to that of a butterfly’s chrysalis.
So, what is a chrysalis exactly? Well, caterpillars must shed their skins as they grow and when the caterpillar is large enough to enter its transition into a butterfly or moth, it develops a new skin under its old skin. This is called the chrysalis. When it is first secreted, the chrysalis is soft and sticky but it soon hardens to form a protective outer layer. After a few weeks (sometimes months), the animal inside the chrysalis gradually turns into a butterfly or moth. In a butterfly’s life cycle they are eggs for an average of five days, a caterpillar for ten to fourteen days, a chrysalis for several weeks (sometimes months) and a butterfly, depending on the species, for several days - making the chrysalis, on average, the longest stage in its life cycle.
Chrysalis is defined as a transitional state and most dictionaries provide the following example “she emerged from the chrysalis of self-conscious adolescence” (Oxford). In my opinion, chrysalis says more than “a state of transition”, or what happens between caterpillar and butterfly. The significance of chrysalis, for me, is that the change is mostly unseen. Superficially there is a change but it is a protective facade, allowing those on the outside no opportunity to really know what is going on inside. Hence why I believe chrysalis to be the perfect word to describe what happens during moments of transition - more specifically the transition towards womanhood, and changes within womanhood. The emergence of a butterfly or moth from a chrysalis in itself is a poetic way to look at a woman in the first stages of navigating her new being - sopping, awkward, perhaps a little scared until she is strong enough to shed her protective layer and move with confidence, and often beauty.
When I discuss womanhood, I am referring to a state of being, a feeling, an experience and an identity. A woman to me can possess both feminine and masculine qualities, she is woman whether she is cis, trans or fluid in gender, it is her choice how she identifies. She calls herself woman and therefore she has reached womanhood, regardless of age.
Many debate what it means to be a woman. The Oxford dictionary defines woman as “a human female, a member of the fair/gentle sex”. This is an ideology all too well ingrained in our patriarchal society, and enforces the idea that we need to be fair and gentle (feminine) to be women. And while we give pause for that, human female? The definition is not trans-inclusive in the slightest, and still links gender with sex.
Cis women experience a transition from girlhood to womanhood that society defines almost always according to age, however, I would argue that coming of womanhood is not exclusively linear. I would also like to acknowledge trans women and non-binary people who come of their womanhood differently to cis women. Therefore, coming of womanhood cannot be appointed to an age, rather to what happens following an event or a shift in feeling/experience of being. American author, bell hooks, refers to a coming of womanhood as a “growhood”. Describing it in this way really illustrates how transitional coming of womanhood is and implies progress.
It has become increasingly significant for me to share my coming of womanhood story proudly and publicly, and since doing so I have become more aware of those who deny their womanhood, people who shame women, and the prejudices women face daily. By naming the struggles I have faced trying to navigate girlhood and womanhood, I have felt empowered and more confident in my womanhood. As a cis woman, a lot of my chrysalis happened during adolescence though it was not exclusive to that time. When I consider chrysalis in relation to my development, I am reflecting on times when ‘unseen’ change was occurring in addition to more obvious changes i.e puberty. As my body changed and developed during puberty, I became increasingly aware of my biology and subsequently I began to think about what my new experience of body meant for me as a girl/woman. In addition to this, my socialisation - the culture I grew up in, heavily influenced my experience of coming of womanhood. It was not during adolescence that I first noticed gender inequalities; it was in my family home that I learned that there were certain privileges reserved for boys/men and that girls/women endure new restrictions. Negative ‘unseen’ changes that occured in addition to or alongside more obvious physical changes included the feeling of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and peer pressure. Positive ‘unseen’ changes included confidence, agency, desire, pleasure and self love.
I believe that there is a surge in negative ‘unseen’ changes during chrysalis because girls are being socialised to see their gender as inferior. I believe that celebrating coming of womanhood and educating and socialising girls as equals, as well as sharing stories told by girls and women will contribute to more positive ‘unseen’ changes occurring during chrysalis. We are not all fair and gentle, and we shouldn’t be forced to shield ourselves with protective layers and hide during moments of change and growth. We deserve to be seen.