Coming of Age: Womanhood
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
-Simone de Beauvoir
The transition of a young girl into womanhood is one that is culturally celebrated worldwide, honoring the death of childhood’s glowing innocence, and the importance of strength, leadership, responsibility, fertility, femininity, and respect within the new woman. On every corner of the globe, we honor her beauty, her grace, her significance as the mother of life and the sacred nurturer, goddess of fierce tenderness and warmth. Depending upon a culture’s beliefs, this transition will be greeted and celebrated with parties or rituals, with social ceremonies or ceremonies of pain. Regardless of these differences, each Coming of Age ceremony can be broken into three essential, symbolic parts: the leaving of girlhood, the transitory stage, and finally, the reception of a new identity and status. Below are listed some of the most diverse Coming of Age rituals and their cultural significance.
Debutante balls- Especially popular in the Southern region of the United States, these American balls are a symbol of social status. A debutante ball is a wealthy girl’s chance to be shown off to society as a young (assumably eligible) woman of dignity and grace. The young lady being shown off would often wear a ballgown, and the evening would be filled with dancing. Delicate snacks and light beverages would usually be served, and many young gentleman would be present.
Seclusion of girls at puberty- While it may seem like an unkind gesture, this ceremony is one of great cultural significance and necessary in the eyes of the tribe for purification. When a young girl first bleeds, she is taken to a tent with other women who are menstruating. She remains here, talking and occupying her time. In some cultures it is believed that while menstruating, she must not touch the ground or see the sun. When her period has ended, she is cause for an enormous celebration, full of feasting, merriment and gifts. But first, she must purify herself in the sweat lodge, perspiring in the domed tent until her body has become clean of toxins. This tradition differs between regions, but is a popular practice among Native American peoples.
Bat-mitzvah- This party is thrown for a young Jewish girl when she reaches the age of 12. The words literally mean daughter-commandment and imply that after this period of time, the daughter’s parents are no longer responsible for her actions, and she must be responsible for herself. After her bat-mitzvah, the woman is expected to participate in all realms of life in the Jewish community. The party includes a lavish feast, much dancing and music, and often an oration performed by the new woman to her parents or a rabbi, often a recitation of a passage from the Torah.
Scarification- Common in tribes of West Africa, scars can be created by means of burning, etching, or cutting into the skin to create intricately designed patterns or pictures. These scars are more apparent on darker skin than the ink of a tattoo, and are often times used to symbolize a tolerance for pain. In the special case of the new young woman, scars on the abdominal region are used to prove she is ready to be a mother, and is able to stand the enormous pain of childbirth. Scars are also considered to be very beautiful, and the process of scarification can release large amounts of endorphins that cause a feeling of ecstasy.