Is there a specific moment that defines becoming a woman or becoming a man?
When I was dating my now ex-boyfriend; I posed to him the question of what, if any, was a significant moment that marked the time he felt he had entered adulthood. Furthermore, what could be an across the board “manhood moment” if different from his own, personal answer? His response? Silence. Contemplation. Then more silence.
I suggested that for women, we all share the experience of beginning adulthood with the start of our first menstrual cycle. I have since posed the question to several of my girlfriends to see if anything more sticks out to them as the moment they felt they had entered the stages of womanhood.
In this study, I talked to 5 men and 5 women about what they believed an “across-the-board” moment was for entering adulthood. Each interviewee was asked to answer on the gender they identified with, but was encouraged to guess the unifying “adulthood moment” for the opposite gender as well. The goal was to determine if adulthood emergence could be defined in a singular moment for all members within the same gender, or if it was a personal experience for everyone.
*It is important for me to note before I begin the piece that this study focused specifically on those who identified with “male” and “female” pronouns. I respect that gender is fluid and this study is in no way meant to discriminate anyone who identifies beyond male or female.(all of the interviewees are anonymous and referred to only with their initials)
From Girlhood to Womanhood: From the female perspective.
The five women interviewed had answers ranging from deeply personal to easily applicable across the board for women. One interviewee described going to her first “Sex Ed” course in elementary school, followed by having “The Talk” with her mother afterwards. Another attributed her womanhood with the purchase of her first “real” bra. The menstrual cycle was accepted as a fair response from some of the women interviewed, But M.K., A 20 year old female interviewed, said her menstrual cycle made no difference in the way she saw herself in terms of womanhood. “I didn’t really feel like an adult until I graduated high school” M.K. added.
Each woman, as expected, had a different moment of realization that she was no longer a child. R.F. recalled the first time she felt uncomfortable around a grown man as a sign of her womanhood. “The first time my best friend’s uncle made sexual comments towards me. That’s when I knew I was growing up and being a woman was going to be scary and kind of shitty”. Another woman interviewed, J.S., shared similar sentiments. J.S. felt she entered womanhood when she experienced true independence for the first time: “Being on my own while struggling with being a female and having to worry about protection”. These feelings of personal safety and need to be cautious to avoid sexual exploitation or harm were not mentioned by any of the men interviewed.
Perhaps the greatest shock to me was the lack of women (every female interviewed was in the age group of 18-22) who did not feel like a woman yet. L.H. who offered losing virginity and first period as her across-the-board “womanhood moments” laughed when initially posed with the research question “Shit, I still don’t feel like a woman” she reported. (*Shania Twain, if interviewed, would disagree.) J.S. and M.K also discussed lack of feeling one significant adult moment and the current dilemma with identifying as an adult.
From Boyhood to Manhood: From the Male Perspective.
The responses among the five men I talked to also varied greatly. A.A. stated that “A man should feel like he’s entered manhood when he is confident in his character and demeanor and doesn’t have to prove that to anyone but himself”. Others had responses about biological experiences or hormone related changes within the body. J.M. thought the first time he masturbated was a sign of manhood. This,I assumed, could surely be applied across the board, as another male surveyed offered the same answer. (It was also my own personal hypothesis for a defining “manhood moment” prior to writing this research column)
But, as seen from the results of the women interviewed, manhood was a personal experience for each individual. S.K. felt like he had become a man when he was able to buy a pair of jeans the first time with money he worked for “with his own bare hands”. J.E. shared a personal experience as well: “when you realize you have to make decisions for you and your siblings because your parents decisions are naive and irresponsible”. While this experiment was not designed to demean either gender or oversimplify what being “a man” or “a woman” is, it was humbling to hear so many responses dissatisfied with the idea that an experience could be the same for everyone.
How the other half lives: Genders inferring on their counterparts adult-hood defying moment
Each gender described their emergence to adulthood in a relatively complex and personal way. Many argued that you could not pinpoint a specific moment in which you enter adulthood. However, when asked about the opposite gender, the results were significantly simpler. “manhood=sex” wrote female interviewee L.H. “Boys are definitely any sign of body hair via chest or penis” D.W. confidently reported. 4/5 women believed sex was the defining moment of manhood for men.
Men saw women in an equally narrow point of view. “The first time they wear makeup to hide their insecurity” wrote S.K. “When they finally decide what they want” J.E. added. A.A. shared similar, perhaps more polished, sentiments. He proposed that a woman enters adulthood “when she can stand up for what she believes in regardless of the repercussions that may follow”.
-J.R. (an interviewed Male asked to define a specific moment of emerging womanhood)
“I don’t know. I am not a woman”.
So if each gender believed their experience into adulthood to be so personal and so difficult to define, why could the majority so easily come up with an response for their counterpart? Are men typically seeing women as predictable and themselves as complex and vice versa?
Concluding Thoughts: A Spooky Perspective
When I created this research question I expected lighthearted answers. I hypothesized women would primarily discuss sex or periods and men primarily shaving or sex as well.
What I did not expect was the openness from each interviewee on how difficult the road to adulthood could be, and how vulnerable being an adult is. A majority of those interviewed (men and women) came up with their quote after first stating they could not think of one specific experience signifying adulthood.
With consideration of the conversations I have had in the last week researching for this column- My perspective has changed as well. My “womanhood moment” came from exploring New Orleans in high school entirely on my own. It was my first time feeling truly independent. Each person has a story in which they came to understand the end of their adolescence.
In conclusion- There is no right answer to my question. Sure, many men have sex and many women have their periods and feel a significant change afterwards. But humans are too complex for hasty generalizations on such interpersonal topics. If nothing else, I feel this research will help open conversation on what growing up means, and how it cannot be defined in simple terms.
-A.A. (Interviewed Male)
“Different men have different ideas of what it means to BE a man