The Semantics of Growing out of Girlhood

By Willa Umansky PZ ’27

I was working on a series of essays for a little zine on the late teens experience as a female-bodied individual, and after reading through my work, I discovered that I had yet to refer to myself as a young woman (rather than my preferred title of teenage girl) throughout the entirety of my musings. This distinction is incredibly important to me with where I am in my existential journey. I thank God every day for the short time I have left not being a woman (even if all I am thanking God for is my ability to fool myself into the deluded notion that I am somehow still a young girl). I was writing a song the other day about transitioning into college life and how terrified I am of getting closer to death — just some light topics, I know — and I wrote the lyrics, “if every piece moved up the board was one more day then I can’t afford to win the game.”  I’m not sure when one crosses the threshold into womanhood, but I know I haven’t yet. I haven’t yet because girlhood is something I’m grasping at desperately and struggling to grapple with the concept of letting go of. Girlhood is something I’ve known my whole life, not something to be grieved.

My relationship with my girlhood has shifted innumerable times in the last couple of years, but I can share a few of the big moments in Willa x Her Girlhood’s recent relationship history. I lost a friend when I was far too young through disturbing means and I finally, relatively recently, reflected upon this event and mourned him as a child lost too soon, rather than a friend whose loss broke me. I viewed it through the lens of a grownup rather than a girl who lost a peer. I realized this meant I was outgrowing the grief in a way, rattling my relationship with my girlhood though not altering it completely. 

 On a very different note, I had sex for the first time and still felt in touch with my girlhood, though my hold on it loosened slightly. No matter the difference I felt when I looked in the mirror, post virginity loss, there I was, still a girl. Though my reflection felt palpably older and more woman-like, in a fantastical way where I could look in the mirror and see something to be kissed, my not yet developed relationship with sex allowed me and my girlhood to stay strong. I got into college, had a map of life through my early twenties, and somehow that didn’t even affect my relationship to my girlhood in the slightest. I gained ownership of my sex life, and finally started to enjoy things that I was doing. But goodness, that didn’t bring me closer to womanhood, because I can just will the maturity of it all away and see my growing sexuality as a game of play-pretend. 

I turned eighteen. I dreaded the day I turned eighteen so abysmally. I even wrote a song entitled “Grieving My Girlhood” about the immeasurable trepidation that I felt for that day, but I got through it and still wore my girlhood on my sleeve. I fucking moved across the country, away from my ever caring parents, and somehow I still feel like the same girl I always was — only this girl has to text her goodnight kiss to mom and dad. 

Since I have such a bamboozling and nuanced relationship with my girlhood, along with some pretty fleshed out ideas and reflections surrounding that relationship, one might begin to wonder just how long I have recognized the gravity of the concept of outgrowing youth. Well, I have felt this way for a disturbingly long time. Towards the end of senior spring, I shared an emotional moment with my dad where I ended up crying and admitting that I just didn’t want things to change. He told me a story about how on the last day of kindergarten, way back when, the teachers asked the class if we were excited for first grade. Every single kid in the room said yes with a smile on their face — every single kid except for me. I apparently, oh so melodramatically, looked at my teachers with tears in my eyes and boldly asserted that I in fact was not excited for first grade because that meant I could never be in Kindergarten again. I have felt a longing for girlhood since a very early age, a longing for girlhood and a loss for what once was. 

I distinctly remember being ten years old and experiencing what I would now categorize as a depressive episode, but then classified as a deep longing for being a “little kid.” The profound and painful nostalgia that I was experiencing was tangible and manifested physically in the way that depression can nowadays for me. I remember the pinging in my chest and the void in my stomach so vividly. To quell these feelings of being too big and missing the days that I sat in my mother’s lap, I begged my mom to take me to the American Girl Doll Store. If you grew up in New York with some degree of privilege, you know that no excitement matched going to the American Girl Doll store on Fifth Avenue. For me, it was a once-a-year journey, taken with either my mother or my Bubbie if she was in town, that occurred during the holidays. This pilgrimage to the street of excitingly extravagant winter window installations was oftentimes paired with a light flurrying of snow, crafting picture-perfect memories to reminisce on — ones that you can somehow begin to long for even while they are still happening. 

So, when I was in fifth grade (experiencing a precursor to the more overt depressive episodes I would be plagued with in my later years), I made my mom take me to the American Girl Doll Store on Fifth Avenue because I was already in the mood to reminisce on my earlier years. My mom had even cautioned me against going to the famed Fifth Ave American Girl Doll store due to the fact that it was I was outgrowing the dolls and it was probable I wouldn’t continue playing with them for very long, but she still agreed to take me because I think she probably yearned for my girlhood a bit too. That day, I got home and played with my new doll, Grace, and my trusted Rebecca, the Jewish doll that my Bubbie insisted on buying me who still lives under my bed at home. I played with them for about six hours that day and I do declare that may very well have been the last time I ever played with my American Girl Dolls. The reason I share my American Girl nostalgia narrative is simple: I believe that any emotionally aware person is designed to mourn their childhood and that any culturally aware young woman is designed to grieve their girlhood. I was just a socially aware child who experienced a lot of death way too early and therefore I began viscerally yearning for youth while I was still experiencing it.

What even is this ‘girlhood’ that I keep referring to? I believe that it is a conceptual

measurement of time that doesn’t truly exist but contains the years in which you experience

femininity before womanhood. So this definition then begs the question that I touched on in the first paragraph: Is it already gone? How am I to know when I have crossed the threshold? Is this thing I hold onto desperately a soothing concept I’ve created out of a grief for something that died the last time I played with my American girl dolls? Is this distinction so important to me because of the way society views youth as desirable in femme people and with age, my price tag supposedly decreases? Or is it rooted in a nostalgia for girlhood, this beautiful and painful thing that every woman or female-bodied person or feminine entity must experience or endure to get to where they are? I’m not sure of the answer to any of these questions. All I know for certain, is that as I pretentiously mused about my thoughts and feelings that no one probably wants to hear for a zine that will probably never fruitify, I would much rather refer to myself as a girl because that’s something I’ve convinced myself that I still have going for me.

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