A few weeks ago, I was getting on a train in New York City. It was 1am, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I went into the city. I wore an outfit. I drank cocktails that were way too much money, and then I even went to a second location that involved walking down a dark flight of stairs into a tiny sweaty room full of people dancing and nowhere to put my coat where I danced and drank more cocktails.
At one, I was getting on the train, and gaggles of young women were just arriving. They were wearing valor jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts with platform sandals, sunglasses in the shape of hearts and black lace chokers. They were laughing with each other and taking long swigs from cute little flasks that they pulled out of their tiny purses. They took pictures of the ceiling of Grand Central Station and selfies with one another.
For a second, I rolled my 35-year-old eyes at these groups of girls. Little girls. Girls who, in the moment, might be feeling grown, but I knew, I knew so much better. They were babies, and they should be in bed, or heading home on the 1am train to their beds, not gallivanting all over the…and then I stopped myself.
Once upon a time, I was one of those girls. I would put on ridiculously cute outfits that didn’t match the weather at all and gallivant across cities with too little clothing on, laughing too loudly, full of too much alcohol and confidence, surrounded by my girls feeling unstoppable. I had one particularly infamous outfit.
It consisted of stretch jeans that somehow had glitter built into their fabric, high black platform sandals, and the most amazing “shirt” ever created. It was a butterfly made out of sparkly sequence. The wings flapped out to (barely) cover my boobs, and stretched down to not even come close to covering my belly button. To get into it, I had to hold the butterfly against my chest, while at least two girlfriends weaved the lace up back in place and tied me into it, tightly. Once in this shirt, I would slather glitter lotion all over my body and have more best friends slather it on my back so it would sparkle under the lights of the club. I would wear this outfit out, proudly, into the New England winter with no coat, because who could afford the 5 dollar coat check? I tear up now, thinking about the sheer class of this scene.
Those late teens to early twenties, although filled with unreasonable outfits and questionable moral choices were a vital part of my development, and were no less important than my exploration of womanhood in my 30s. This turbulent and often confusing part of my life taught me about friendship and love. It taught me about what I would and wouldn’t accept from men: as sexual partners, as dance partners, as boyfriends, as study partners, and as friends. The late teens and early twenties were a time to practice being an adult. They were full of mistakes that felt cripplingly permeant. There was such a limited point of reference and all of a sudden we were doing such adult things that we had no way to evaluate. There was this intense pressure to figure it all out.
If I could go back to that 21-year-old, I would tell her that she’s doing great. I would encourage her to rage hard and I would promise her that even though it doesn’t feel like it, she really is figuring it all out. I would high five her and tell her that she’s going to grow and change in ways that she can’t even imagine and when she feels like it’s all coming to end, it is actually the start of something that she can’t really understand yet. I would tell her to trust herself.
I wonder what my 40 something-year-old self would tell the 35-year-old me. As women, we have so much to learn from one another, at every stage of our lives. It often feels like we’ve been so trained to compete with one another and see one another as adversaries that we don’t open ourselves to the lessons of our sisters. And since we are trained to ruthlessly doubt and criticize ourselves, we end up turning that on one another too.
Before I wrote this, I walked into a coffee shop to work for the day. At two tables pushed together, there was a group of “older” woman. They were probably in their 40s or 50s. They looked good, and they laughed openly with one another. One of them was wearing a “birthday queen” pin. The only thing I can do is hope that when I am their age, I will be an even better woman than I am right now. On my journey to that woman, I’ll look for female role models, of all ages, to help guide me. And when I see women rocking their womanhood, at every age, I’ll celebrate them.