Amidst all the mixed messages surrounding spirituality I am confronted with as a college student in the 21st century, sometimes I like to revert to my childhood self, lying awake in my twin bed surrounded by stuffed animals, wondering what's going to happen to me in the future and promising God I love Him. Him - that is, the blob of blue and white streamers that I thought travelled in, out, and around me as I struggled through mental math and wondered why I cared so much about whether the boys in my class liked me. When someone in one of my classes brought up the possibility that there could be a "Girl God," my mind immediately leapt to an image of the impressionistic ghostly figure donning stringy yellow pigtails and cherry red lips. It wasn't until years later, when I learned about little things like identity and the Patriarchy and feminist theology (some of which I learned through my Jewish day school education, but mostly which I was exposed to on a campus where the term "microaggressions" is tossed around like a Ping-Pong ball into red Solo cups), when I realized how problematic this vision was. Why was God, by default, assumed to occupy a male identity? And why was my notion of femaleness reduced to cosmetic features (ones which I definitely couldn't pull off, even if I was interested in hair dye at age seven).
The answer lies somewhere beyond religion itself, deep in the systemic roots of sexism that live in our collective psyche. Since I could understand the formation of words and sentences, I was taught that male is the norm: the male body, the male brain, the male perspective. I watched movies with my two older brothers about superheroes, trying to save the world, and of course, kiss the girl. I told myself I was above films centered around girls, mainly because my brothers refused to watch them, and because their narratives usually included less adventure and more cheesy romance. My dad encouraged me to play catch outside until the sun went down; my parents enrolled me in karate lessons and sports teams all year round; and when I repainted my room, I made sure it wouldn't be pink. Pink is for girlie-girls, I told myself, which I definitely was not.
Fast-forward to middle school, when I learned to substitute shrugs for my brothers' old sweatshirts and gauchos for army pants. I still avoided looking like I stepped out of a Juicy Couture catalogue, but I began to embrace fashion as a means of self-expression. I took drawing classes and learned to channel my creativity into design. I dragged my mom into the city to sneak into Fashion Week at Bryant Park (to no avail), and I started blogging in the hopes of becoming the next Tavi Gevinson - Marc Jacobs, if you're reading, I'll still be open to be featured in your ads. All the while, I was learning that femininity and empowerment are not mutually exclusive; that through fashion, art, and design, I could gain a sense of pride and ownership that I never possessed during my carefree formative years.
This coincided with my preparation for my Bat Mitzvah, focusing a little too much on types of flowers and giveaways for my party than the actual Torah portion. However, at synagogue I spoke about Ruth, one of the most important women in Judaism for her active choice to convert after assuring her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, "Your people will be my people and your God my God." Ruth essentially took ownership over her spirituality, claiming both an individual relationship to God and a collective one with her community.
Though sometimes religion and modern feminism can seem incompatible, I think this moment helped plant the seeds for my lifelong interest in women's rights and my impending sense of identity. Only when we acknowledge that we are each individuals worthy of thoughts, ideas, and a sense of belonging, can we say that we have even begun to tackle gender inequality. Blonde pigtails don't count as true representation.
My conception of God is no longer a simplistic pastel drawing; it is constantly evolving, tracking alongside me as I experience the joys and pains of emerging adulthood. Most importantly, though, it is gender-neutral, less of a father figure and more the older sister I never had - one that knows what it's like to experience sexism, embrace vulnerability, and all in all, be me.