There is nothing natural about being a grown woman. It's a constant, mysterious process. Even those of us who profess not to give a shit live in a state of vigilance. Stray hairs must be plucked or waxed or shaved into oblivion. Our boobs must be harnessed. Do our buttocks have a pleasing shape? Is our lipstick the most flattering shade for our skin tone? How many things are we fucking up without even realizing it?
The cover of Jessi Klein's new book, You'll Grow Out of It, endearingly mimics the pamphlets that were distributed to pubescent girls in the 70s and 80s to guide them through the passage to womanhood. (These were usually published by manufacturers of feminine-hygiene products.) You will bleed, the books told us, your moods will change unexpectedly, and you will get pimples, but at the end of it, you will be shapely and graceful and rewarded by attention from boys! Womanhood is great!
Those pamphlets, in case you never had to read one, were total bullshit. Womanhood can be great, but it's also a minefield. In the essays in You'll Grow Out of It, Klein, the Emmy-winning head writer of Inside Amy Schumer and a stand-up comedian in her own right, describes how she learned to live with the notion that being a woman is not something you are, it's something you do.
For a long time, she was blissfully unaware. As a college student, she writes, "while the girls around me were starting to exercise, hunching over a StairMaster in the way that people did in the '90s, sensing, as they should have, that now was the time to start laying a foundation upon which firm booties and high tits would remain forever tightly slung, I wasn't aware that any such activity was necessary." A few years later, a boyfriend comments on her unpainted toenails and "I felt a pang of primal shame, the female grooming equivalent of Eve suddenly losing her innocence upon realizing she was naked, like a total idiot." She is a "tom man," she realizes, and a tom man not as adorable as a little pigtailed tomboy.
At 30 she decides she's tired of dating immature man-boys and that to attract a Grown Man she needs to give up her tom-man ways and start acting like a Grown Woman. "But when I looked at what it would mean to become a woman—one of those standard grown-up ladies, like the ones from commercials for gum or soda or shampoo—it all seemed to involve shrinking rather than growing."Yes! I thought as I read this. I totally agree! Let's discuss this more! But the essay ends there.
In subsequent pieces, Klein discusses other things meant to appeal to grown-up ladies—lingerie, Anthropologie, Pure Barre—and how they sell the idea that if you buy enough products you too may be able to maintain an image of perfect commercialized femininity.
The essays share a common theme: no matter how many knee bends Klein does at barre class or how many gauzy tops she buys at Anthropologie (which she sincerely loves), she can't change her essential nature. At heart she belongs to the tribe of wolves, as opposed to poodles; like their canine counterparts, the two share some DNA, but poodles, she explains, are "magical lovely women who inherently radiate femininity." It's not about beauty: "There are millions of beautiful wolf women out there. It's how much of the beauty feels like work, like maintenance," she writes. "I often wonder, if I would wave a wand and magically transform myself from a wolf to a poodle, would I? Most of me says no. . . . My whole life is about trying, about speaking up in order to be seen, about howling with laughter or howling out how I see the world. But there is another part of me that immediately yells, Yes, I would give anything to feel that poodle confidence, to feel comfortable as a woman."
Are poodles actually confident that they've mastered the unwritten rules of womanhood? I wondered. I hoped Klein would find a poodle and ask her for me and then analyze her response. It is such an interesting question, how some women manage to perform femininity more naturally than others. And does a successful performance require shrinking rather than growing? But instead, as she does in the "tom man" essay and almost every other piece in the book, Klein ends a few sentences after arriving at the main point, leaving me with no answers to all the questions she just raised, only a new way to identify myself. (I too am a wolf, I too am not a bit tamed, although I have been known to shop at Anthropologie.)
It's true Klein is a comedian, not a gender theorist, and it's possible she's approaching essays like an improv performer, setting the scene and doing a few riffs before handing it off to the reader to continue the line of thought on her own with a "yes, and." It's like the beginning of a beautiful all-day Gchat conversation. On a sentence level, her writing is hilarious and smart, sometimes even brilliant.
But the underlying feature of the book as a whole is laziness, as though Klein squeezed in writing the chapters between her many other responsibilities. The riffs alternate with more personal stories about bad boyfriends, trips to spas, and the agonies of waiting for a marriage proposal and or a pregnancy. These are arranged according to no particular logic: the infertility piece, for instance, is completely devoid of suspense because the essay immediately before it is called "Get the Epidural" and the one before that is, in part, about breast pumping at the Emmys. (This is, it must be said, close to the ultimate in wolfishness.) I so wish someone, either Klein or her editor, had put more care into the whole project and let some of those brilliant ideas develop from quick observations to genuine reflections on the state of being a woman. But even for an idea, growing up is hard. v