All my life, I’ve received mixed messages about women and independence. Actually, I think I can generalize and say that all women from the United States experience mixed messages about female independence. We’re constantly surrounded by the opinions and projections of others, from the moment we enter Piaget’s Preoperational Stage as toddlers and our personalities begin to develop facets and qualifications. Exclamations of “Wanna come play at my house?” echo in my mind when I think of my childhood because of how often I’ve heard my parents tell the story of how Claire Would Invite Strangers to Our House to Play, not because I actually remember chugging down the street on chubby little legs inviting strangers to come play with me. I was a gregarious, confident child, but as I learned to read, I also developed a voracious appetite for books, which is typically associated with the bookish, the shy, or the introverted. To all appearances, it seemed that I was at a crossroads: I could either be the outgoing athlete (I’ve played sports since I was old enough to be registered for a team) or I could be the quiet smart kid in the back with glasses (my vision went to crap in the first grade). What’s a girl to do?
The answer: Cultivate personal independence. Teach young girls that they can be as many things as they want to be, that to be an athlete and an artist are not mutually exclusive, any more so than a philosopher and a scientist. And so forth.
I fully credit my parents for fostering my independence; for as long as I can remember they’ve been the bedrock of how I understand myself in relation to others. They were the ones who made me feel that it was okay if I didn’t fit one particular box; I could be my own box. I never did end up choosing one identity over another, and time and time again, they reassured me that that was okay. In grade school, I would get in trouble for reading under the table during math class, but during recess would obstinately shoulder my way in to play dodgeball or 500 with the boys. In middle school, the hormones kicked in and I got contacts and entered that horrible meta-phase where you’re hyper-aware of how hyper-aware you are, but I still tried new things, failing at some, succeeding at others, and later succeeding at something I’d initially failed at. The biggest challenges I faced were trying to convince my mom to buy me clothes from Abercrombie and Hollister (“But Kelly’s* mom gets her a brand-new OUTFIT from Hollister every week! I just want ONE SHIRT!” was infuriatingly unconvincing to her) and trying to navigate the beginnings of romantic relationships.
Lol, middle schoolers dating.
But seriously, that’s when it starts. And it’s when girls, in particular, are faced with the first real challenges to their independence: What does this boy mean to me? For me? These are two questions that only grow in frustrating complexity as we get older. As girls, we spend a lot of time thinking about the first, but eventually we recognize that we need to work out what someone means to us in conjunction with the implications an individual might have on the trajectory of our lives. So, we talk and we analyze and we advise one another, trying as best we can to support our friends and decide for ourselves what to do. But there is something that we can’t explain to one another, that we only learn by doing it ourselves and trusting that we’re doing what’s best for ourselves: Recognizing that you have the autonomy to end a relationship when it isn’t something you want anymore. Romantic relationships are uniquely challenging for young women to navigate because of the implicit understanding that you have the responsibility to factor another person into your life. I’ve always felt that responsibility an especially heavy one, I think because I made a choice long ago to not make a choice: I am my own box. I am thoughtful and I am sharp-tongued. I am kind and I am opinionated. I am loyal and often get impatient with those closest to me. I am fiercely, dogmatically, independent. And I recently realized that I was unhappy because I was trying to make something fit in my box that just…didn’t. Perhaps one of the hardest things is realizing when a thing can be good, great even, but that choosing it means either leaving your box or drastically redesigning it.
I realized, and then decided, that didn’t want to do either of those things, and that’s okay. And because I’ve decided that’s okay, I am more than okay. I am so happy here in Arequipa; I love the people, the food, the churro lady on the corner of Puente Grau and Villalba, the little cafés that are squirreled into the crevices of this city, Thursday night salsa lessons, the rooftop terrace here at home, practicing haggling in Spanish at the San Camilo market, and laughing and walking away when a taxi driver quotes me the gringa-tourist price of ten soles for a drive I’ve learned is worth no more than seven. This city has so much to teach me and I am so disinclined to plan for life after it right now that I might just stay longer than I originally planned. More than anything, I love having the true freedom that comes with being a 22-year old woman who has given herself permission to put herself first.