Before the Great Self War of Identity, there was simply Sydney. As a young girl, I was an avid reader. I loved getting lost in the worlds of stories and following the adventures of young heroines. I would solve mysteries alongside Nancy Drew; I would swim among the fish as a mermaid alongside Emily Windsnap; I aspired to fly among the fairies of the Rainbow Magic series. The women I read about in stories were reflections of myself. I saw my best qualities, like my artistic nature, reflected in Claudia Kishi and my responsible older sister nature represented by Beezus Quimby. I also saw some of my not-so-great traits in these books, like the know-it-all tendencies I shared with everyone’s favorite witch, Hermione Granger.
Jia Tolentino, the author of the novel Trick Mirror, also recounts having a similar love of young heroines during her youth. And again similarly, Tolentino and I both had a similar experience in realizing, as she puts it, “identity could govern our relationship to what we saw and what we read” (142). In the fourth grade, I was in the library discussing one of my new favorite series with my friends in the library. The Thea Stilton series followed a group of young female mice as they set out on various adventures. Of the five mice, I related to Violet the most; she was artistic, slightly introverted, and kind. At recess that day, my friends and I decided to assign ourselves to characters in the book to play for our game. When I stated that I wanted to play Violet, I was met with silence and stares. My friend said she thought I would be a better fit for Pamela. I was confused because Pamela was a strong female mechanic. Again, I stated that I would rather be Violet, and a different friend responded, “No, you’re the brown mouse.” I, like Tolentino, realized that despite feeling like a part of me existed in every book heroine, to others, it didn’t matter that I was smart like Hermione Granger, artistic like Claudia Kishi, or responsible like Beezus Quimby. Those identities crumbled. I was the quintessential masculinized black woman. As a black girl, a rule had been created for me: I could only identify with black female characters. My identity went on to limit so much more than the characters I identified with; according to the girls around me, it determined what I could wear, who I could like, and what I could be.
My girlhood crisis officially began when I entered the 6th grade. And from the Violet situation, I was learning that my identity could be an obstacle in my friendships and everything else. In a matter of months, my worldview had shifted. Suddenly, my best friend in 5th grade traded me in for a group of friends that were all thin, white, and “stylish” (I use quotations because, according to the questionable fashion choices back in 2015, this was sadly stylish) and popular. I quickly learned that the world regarded me differently than it did to my white peers. I remember an experience in which a black boy in my grade told one of my black friends that they could potentially be an eight if they straightened their hair. And thus, my beauty suddenly didn’t exist to me anymore. It wasn’t just the girls at school that made me realize I wasn’t beautiful like they were. The media I was consuming taught me a similar lesson; even the black models I saw in magazines had straight hair and lighter skin than I did. This became my new standard of beauty. I learned that others saw me, my hair, skin, curly hair, and nose as undesirable. The first lesson Girlhood taught me was that I was far from beautiful. That knowledge festered in the pit of my stomach like a rotting apple, and it’s hard to unlearn.
The second lesson of Girlhood was that with the perceptions of others now determining everything I couldn’t be, I was desperate to figure out what I was allowed to be. I leaned into the personalities of my new black female friends, who were both slightly quirky and very nerdy. I don’t know if I ever made an active decision to adopt the quirky, nerdy girl as my identity or if it just slowly became that ( back then, the idea of being unique was very appealing when it is not so much currently.) I became so over the top during this period of my life. I wasn’t entirely pretending every time I opened my mouth. But I had dialed everything about myself up to 100. I genuinely believed if I leaned into this version of myself that I had created, people would like me. I had adopted a social script, not based on what I wanted but on what I thought other people wanted out of me. But I was still rotting inside.
I felt like I was losing myself. In adopting my role, it had seeped into my nature. I soon couldn’t differentiate between the persona and the person. Rather than safe, I felt alone and lost. I was rotting. My Girlhood made me lose myself, and it would take me years to find the old Sydney again.
The third lesson of Girlhood is that what seemed like the worst experience ever was a necessary adventure. Not exactly like my fourth-grade heroines, but close. By junior year, I threw away my social script and opened my authentic self. I saw myself in characters that looked nothing like me again. My journey through Girlhood was bumpy and, at times, challenging, but I came out a fully developed version of myself on the other side. I finally allowed myself to be beautiful even if those around me couldn’t see it — no more rot. And with the Great Self War of Identity finally over, I could be simply Sydney again.