I first wrote this when I was in Ghana in 2014. It seems even more timely to share it now. I hope someday (soon) I can write a different poem.
How to be a woman
Don’t make eye contact. Ignore them. Try to mask your irritation. Deflect oncoming approaches and glances- the looking ups and downs, the sneering smiles of smug satisfaction. Try to be invisible, even though your skin glows like neon under a blacklight.
Keep your expression neutral, guarded, but not hostile. Hold your breath to control the beating of your heart. Keep your pace steady. Squint to block out the inquisitive intrusions. Direct your glare at the ground towards the cracks in the sidewalk or the glimmering sun. Bolster your defenses. Let their greetings ricochet and fall on deadened ears.
Don’t show any sign of fear for this will give them courage; the unmistakable scent of prey when it is cornered and cannot escape. Keep walking, shrugging off their thick grubby hands grabbing at your arms, grasping your wrist to hold you in place. When trapped, invoke the help of other men, real or imagined. Choke back the tears, don’t let them see how weak you really are.
Protect your vulnerability at all costs, even denying it when necessary.
Whatever you do, don’t make a scene. Don’t let them see the seething anger, the repulsion, the indignance bubbling just below the surface. Quiet the noise threatening to vibrate your vocal chords for fear it will become a shout of hot anger making up for all of the silences of before.
Don’t lose your cool. Resist the urge to hit, to scream, to shove back.
Keep your eyes bright, your steps light. Don’t let the bitterness change you. Stay open, don’t get too jaded. Practice smiling again, but be careful who sees you. Remain hard and unmoved, but keep soft. Don’t let them use you up. Hold your head high, but not too high.
Use your femininity to your advantage as often and as carefully as possible. Allow yourself to be purchased, but only if the price is right. Pretend money and love are the same thing. Confuse control for care and concern, they are close second cousins.
Tiptoe the line between whore and prude. Calculate your behavior to garner the least amount of insults. Don’t let their sugar coated threats and warnings tempt you into giving in, but don’t feel shame when you do.
Cling to insecurity. Feed it’s ravenous appetite with promises to do better, be better. Compare yourself to women who are more successful, more beautiful than you. Do everything in your power to measure up, to be good enough. Boost the self-esteem of others, even if you must devalue your own.
Follow the code. Don’t fight back too much.
Pity the other women whose resolve has weakened, plodding along, sinking into their designated lot in life. Support the ones who may be more damaged than you. Cry with them, for them. Speak up when they can’t, but temper your reaction. Console them with ways they could have prevented it, advise them to be better daughters, girlfriends, wives. Help them disguise the bruises, the pain.
When it happens to you, shake it off. Crawl inside of yourself to that secret place nobody knows and hide there until it’s safe to come out again. Keep quiet, don’t rock the boat. Cover up. Internalize the hatred you feel. Find ways to blame yourself, instead. Claim it was an accident, you have always been clumsy around the house. No one will believe you but the lie will excuse their inaction and yours.
Protect the pride of your man. Lie, steal, and cheat — whatever it takes to keep it intact at all costs. Forgive their impulses while swallowing yours. Resist the urge to flaunt your indiscretions, especially when they boast about their own. Strip your needs and desires to the bare minimum, always willing and ready to sacrifice them at the request and for the benefit of others.
Laugh more often to fill the empty spaces, the indignity. Be charming and attentive.
Stay. Stay for the children, for your husband, for the sake of routine and security. Flatten yourself until you’ve become what everyone has always expected you to become. Dampen the voice inside that screams for more. Fill your days with work, or booze. Get lost in your children, bury your identity in their innocent faces. Convince yourself it’s your choice.
Don’t dream too brightly.
Art credit: Firelei Baez at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City.