Cream lace gloves delicately covered my hands, strategically hiding my cut and completely blackened nail in my first communion photo. A very apt cover-up looking back now. In the run up to that day a wrath had been unleashed inside me, questioning anything pink, cute, and ‘holy’. The frustration that began then was a frustration that would rear its head in later life and that I wouldn’t be able to brush aside - it was the culmination of many put-downs, casual sexist slurs, and stark realisations that had become overwhelming. All not unique to me, but universal to women.
The mouth that day - washed with bubble gum flavoured toothpaste and coated with my mother's Burt’s Bee’s lip balm - was the mouth receiving holy communion wafer without any real say. It’s the same mouth, that unbeknownst to me, in later life would be bolted open in disgust as I came to know about the forgotten women of Ireland's Magdalene laundries. A mouth like many, that would go on to be subtly silenced in many facets of my life. But at that age, as a young girls, how are we to know? Ideals around sanctity, sin, and sex are all wrapped up in communion money and ivory dresses.
There is a saccharine quality to the voices of parents speaking to their own small children. Often so high-pitched it would give insult if it were used in normal adult conversation. That sickly-sweet tone I feel is all too familiar to ‘lovely girls’. When used on me as a youngster I had a fierce aversion to it. That jolting effect of being called ‘a lovely girl’ usually resulted with me looking at my dad, looking back at the compliment giver, wincing, grinding my milk teeth and saying, “But, eh… I’m a boy.” Forever conflicted about my own femininity, that tightrope was walked on - am I laddish girl, a girlish tomboy? That universal feeling, felt by many, of speaking out of turn, questioning, not settling. I was a ‘continuous challenge’ in school, as often remarks such as “You should act more ladylike,” were met with, “What the fuck does that actually mean?” It’s a perplexing minefield as a teenager feeling exiled for being a girl, wanting to be treated less like a girl.
Religious rights of passage such as holy first communion, weigh extremely heavy on my mind when trying to make rhyme or reason of the insufferable discomfort I feel for young girls today navigating the confusing world of sex and sexuality. I often think of young girls accompanying their parents to buy a communion dress, blissfully unaware of the oppressive malevolence and frankly sinister hold that the same institution would later have on their bodies. Or the mangled practice around sex education that would enshrine them into a cyclical cycle of information deceits and punishing shaming repercussions.
“Try and look back, look back, and be with your younger self. What does she look like?” No greater cathartic exercise than churning up conflicting childhood feelings that have yet to be resolved. And yet it serves a purpose. Women who assert their womanhood , who use their voice, who most importantly want to own their bodies are cast aside as outliers. Made to feel that the kick back and step up is asking out of turn.
Accepting and relaxing into my womanhood has brought with it an acute awareness that my childhood discomfort, humiliation and disdain towards the ideals placed on me weren’t in any way unfounded. It’s relative but in essence, I was not free, I still am not, none of us are. We are bound together in our separateness. The intertwined range of prejudices that permeate Irish culture, culminate into the fight we are now faced with. It’s not new, it’s ongoing. The lash-outs against the pre-prescribed notions of who I was to be or what I seem to be have taught me what I truly wanted for my younger self, and not only convinced me of what I want for my daughters, but for women.