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On becoming a goddess in central South Carolina

staff note

When I was a young girl, I hated Aphrodite.

Like most children, I underwent a brief phase of total and fanatic fixation with Greek mythology, reading every story and relishing the sword-and-sandal fantasies so steeped in the vengeful, poetic magic of the gods. As a bookish, shy girl whose aspirations seemed limited entirely to academics given my ugliness and timidity, I sought refuge in Athena, empowered by her intellectual superiority. She was the embodiment of the “not like other girls” phenomenon; here was a woman liberated from patriarchal values, honored for her brains rather than her beauty and too wise to mind herself with silly trivialities like romance or looks. 

Aphrodite, on the other hand, seemed modeled after the very girls I had never fit in with. She was vain, lecherous, shallow — invariably blonde and invariably conceited. Afraid of losing my lone-perceived strength and poisoned by the rhetoric that any girl concerned with appearances or other vapid pursuits was to be othered as a cruel, mindless Barbie doll, I demonized Aphrodite as the villain of every mythological narrative. After all, nobody liked a mean girl.

It would take several years of maturation and introspection to reprogram myself. The “not like other girls” phenomenon dominated internet culture during my formative years, permeating every corner of my social spaces and coaxing me into adopting that toxic mindset. Countless posts depicting a brunette, bespectacled girl standing in a crowd of heavy-breasted, made-up blondes and having the courage to hold a book instead of a cell phone circulated forums and feeds, contributing to this bizarre narrative that the only way to ditch conformity was to resent anyone who conformed. This rhetoric offered me a refuge from the countless men dead-set on mocking teenage girls for being “Twilight”-loving, bauble-headed sheep. I could insulate myself from a society that loved to hate young girls by joining in on the ridicule, masking my membership to this hated group in haughty derision.

It wouldn’t be until my sophomore year of high school that I finally realized there was no “other girl.” After extricating myself from an emotionally and eventually sexually abusive relationship, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t that bookish brunette anymore — and I didn’t want to be. My identity had been cracked and duct-taped haphazardly back together by years of anxiety and bullying and longing to be liked until I no longer recognized who I was underneath my desperate attempts to be someone desirable. Once I had peeled back that ugly wallpaper, I found that the girl beneath was just like Aphrodite. 

I started dying my hair blonde, which granted me a confidence that was at once unfamiliar and beautifully fitting. Instead of relegating myself to jeans and T-shirts to avoid standing out and emphasizing my “real girl” appeal, I wore the very pink dresses and skirts I had once scorned. The makeup I had been applying since sixth grade became less of an armored shell and more of a form of expression; I became a veritable expert in winged eyeliner. 

What surprised me most about my radical transformation was that I felt deeply empowered by these external changes. The sensitivity, the sappy compassion and the vulnerability that I had learned to hide in order to avoid being labeled an overly-emotional, hysterical girl crept out as I softened my appearance to match my insides. I fell more in love with love with every passing day.

There have been countless feminist retellings of the myths of Aphrodite, reframing her historically misogynistic portrayal as a morally-bankrupt, insipid sexpot to better reflect her true nature. She could be materialistic, she could be short-tempered, but she was fundamentally a good woman whose femininity didn’t have to be shrunken down or weaponized to be useful. 

I was not born from sea foam, nor am I pretty enough to start wars between mortals, yet I feel a particular kinship with her so different from my hasty alliance with Athena. We prioritize love, allowing ourselves to be guided by our hearts instead of our heads and luxuriate in the warm, pink glow of passion in all of its forms. In spite of her godly status, it seems to me that Aphrodite knew better than anyone how to be human and enjoy our limited time on Earth: by loving unconditionally.

To this day, I am still learning how to be a better woman and uplift all of my sisters. I dress myself in hearts and eat strawberries and send pink letters sealed with lipstick-kisses as a form of devotion to myself, to the idea that I can embody the undefinable, unstoppable love we feel for life and for each other. I can epitomize beauty without being beautiful; I can be woman without man. I can be the other girl.

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