As a girl, I didn’t want to become a woman. At 16 my body resembled a plank, everything was flat but reliable – nothing stuck out or wobbled. I knew my body well, and its plainness was comforting. Then all of a sudden everything erupted. Boobs ballooned out of my flat chest and my butt stuck out like an aeroplane tray table. I felt embarrassed, I hung towels over the bathroom mirror so I wouldn’t have to see myself. I felt like I was the big round butt of some weird joke.
After school I went to university, still feeling like a child in a woman's body. I moved in with three boys, one of them my long-term best friend and boyfriend at the time. I thought this would be an excellent idea. There would be no girls, no one to be intimidated by; I’d just be “one of the guys”.
Unfortunately feeling like a crappy woman didn’t guarantee I’d be more of a man. Yes I could down pints of beer like the best of them but the space I occupied in that house, both physically and figuratively, became smaller and smaller until it barely existed at all. I hid tampons in boxes because the idea of them knowing I menstruated mortified me. I’d put makeup on at university so they wouldn’t walk in on me applying foundation. One of my housemates hung dirty women’s underwear up on our noticeboard as some sort of proof that he’d had sex that night. I was terrified that the underwear might have been mine and not his one-night stand’s. Maybe my underwear had ended up in his washing? From that moment on I carried dirty laundry from the bathroom to the laundry basket in a plastic bag – just in case. Living in that house made me erase my femininity and in doing so I erased a big part of myself.
After uni I moved to London. I met my new housemate Ilayda online, where she told me she was looking for someone to move in with her and her long-term boyfriend. I wasn’t scared about being a third wheel; I was happy about this setup because it meant they’d be probably be too busy to notice me around the house.
(In case you're wondering, that's the beautiful Ilayda, who luckily said "Yes" every time I asked to take pictures of her rolling in a muddy field.)
When I walked down our north London street for the very first time, fresh off the plane, Ilayda was walking towards the house as well. She wore a rugged leather jacket, biker boots, and a purple scarf. We got to the door and said our first hellos. We chatted about my journey and how excited we were to be in London. We were both foreigners in a big city: I’d come from Holland and she was Turkish. She said she liked my hat and I told her she had nice eyes. “Thanks,” she replied. “It’s usually the first thing people notice about me.”
Her comment had made me wish I’d chosen something else to compliment – had “eyes” been too obvious? But here’s the thing about Ilayda’s eyes: They’re magnificent. They’re big and round and an inviting shade of blue, the type of blue you’d expect a swimming pool to be in the south of France.
Ilayda was the housemate who made our house a home. I’m happy to drool over Pinterest boards but when it comes to putting things into practice I can barely remember to put old socks in the wash. Ilayda made sure we had a kettle, nice tea towels, and oven trays that weren’t caked in years of bacon fat. Ilayda was also a great cook; she’d make hearty Mediterranean salads while I lived off potato waffles. I was intimidated by how together she was: Oh here we go, I thought, Another woman who can out-woman me.
One afternoon I came home from work and Ilayda was crying. She wasn’t covering it up, her face was red and wet and she stood in the middle of the hallway. I took a step towards her and asked her what had happened. Ilayda worked as a part-time children’s entertainer and recently she’d asked if instead of being a clown or magician she could be a Disney Princess. The agency had told her she didn’t look “dainty” or “princessy” enough. I shook my head and said “Fuck 'em!” over and over again because I had no idea what else to say: “Just fuck 'em, they know nothing.” Slowly she stopped crying a little and repeated, “Yeah, fuck 'em.” I went back into my room and felt mildly accomplished.
More situations cropped up where we just needed to say “fuck” on repeat. I came home from a writing class on a Thursday afternoon and a male literary agent had read a scene from my play where women discuss anal sex. He’d handed it back to me and muttered, “I’m sorry, but women just don’t talk like that.” I stomped home and barged into my room. Ilayda followed me, smelling my rage from across the hall. We both shouted “Fuck that guy!” over and over again. “What the fuck does he know!”
Later that year I found out that every moment my (now ex) boyfriend and I weren’t together he had been having webcam sex with girls on the internet, and we rolled about my bedroom shouting “Fuck him!” while I kicked my legs in the air. When that boyfriend eventually dumped me, Ilayda and I punched my pillow and marched around my room in a blaze of fury. For once I didn't plummet into a post-breakup pit of “There must be something wrong with me.”
Ilayda helped me be angry, she helped me give that anger a voice, even if the anger was directed towards my body and myself. There was a terrible period of about three months where I had cystitis every single day. There wasn’t enough cranberry juice in the world to deal with it. I took antibiotics and even ordered dodgy pills on Amazon – nothing helped. Normally I’d suck it up and deal with it myself but Ilayda listened to me describe the lava that seemed to flow through me; she made talking about our bodies the most normal thing in the world. Cystitis, constipation, thrush – nothing was off limits.
I stopped feeling like my body was my nemesis. I didn’t hide behind a towel draped over a dusty mirror; I began to look at myself. When Ilayda’s boyfriend was out for the day we’d yell “Naked Tuesdays” and just waltz around nude without a care in the world. We grew mutually obsessed with a Tumblr called Love Your Labia, which then became a springboard to talk about our own insecurities. “Does this nipple hair bother you?” “Does this bruise on my butt remind you of Abraham Lincoln?” “Is it weird I can only orgasm when I shake my legs like this?” All our body worries were answered with our favourite tagline: “Don’t worry about it! Remember, LOVE YOUR LABIA!”
Other women used to scare me. It seemed like they were all in on a secret I would never know about. Ilayda made this fear go away. She made me realise there’s not one way to be a woman; instead it's like one of those bizarrely multifunctional dresses you can wear in different ways. It can be a halter dress or a jumpsuit or a scarf, and one day you completely ditch the instructions and wear the whole thing like a giant sleeping bag, which makes you feel cozy and pretty damn pleased with yourself.
After our two years together as housemates, it was time for me to leave Ilayda and her partner to move in with my own long-term boyfriend. It was bittersweet, but I felt ready to go forth and be a woman without my trusty sidekick. I still go to Ilayda if I need help outing some rage but I’ve also learnt to find her voice within myself. And when I'm particularly low, I tell myself softly "Love Your Labia", and everything ends up OK.