How to Be a Woman, by Ambika Thompson

“That’s why today most young women are whores and slobs,” my mother said as she authoritatively walked through my apartment. “Just look at you. How can you be a twenty-six year old woman living on your own? Look at the state of your apartment, you might as well have rats at the dinner table! And all I see is dust on the shelves in place of where photos of my grand babies should be. You’re going to end up living alone for the rest of your…” She trailed off as she disappeared into my bathroom, but not long after followed a blood curdling scream. “Your towels are all mismatched! How can you have a green striped towel hanging next to a black-polka dot towel, and is that a faeces stain in your toilet? I can’t believe you’re still going through this phase.”

The phase my mother was referring to was my break-up with Noah, where, according to my mother, I had lost all hope of ever leading a normal life, and might as well bury my head in the sand and just quietly die. My mother had been in love with Noah, probably much more than I had ever been, and she seemed to even love him more than she loved me. In all honesty, she actually told me this. Her exacts words were, “I wish Noah was my child. I love him more than you.” She said this to me out of the blue at my Uncle Joe’s funeral just as they were lowering the casket.

Noah had left me for our neighbour Sarah, and now lives with her across the hall, which has proven to be quite uncomfortable. For months before he left, Sarah had been coming over in the mornings to borrow something; a clothes pin, a cup of sugar, garden shears, our George Forman grill; and then she would stay just kinda hanging around. I’d usually be sitting in my pyjamas on the couch watching cartoons, or repeats of The Cosby Show, eating cereal with milk dribbling down my chin, having a glob of toothpaste stuck to some part of my face where a pimple was festering. She never really seemed that interested in talking to me, and when I think about it now, I realize that maybe there were some clues. Maybe it was strange that she put on a high-pitched flirty little girl voice when talking to Noah. Maybe it was strange that she always referred to him as the perfect man she wished she had. Maybe it was strange that when he went over to her place to help her with something he always came back hours later, quite sweaty and smelling of sex.

For my twenty-seventh birthday my mother attempted to remedy my “phase” by signing me up for a week long seminar called ‘How to be a Woman’ at our local community centre which included a free sandwich, and unlimited cups of coffee daily.

“Don’t worry,” she had said during my birthday dinner, “I’ve talked to your boss at work and he’s agreed to give you a week off. We booked it for March. He thinks you should… How did he put it exactly… Become not so butch-dykish.”

We were at Saul’s Roadhouse Steakaria. My mother wanted to surprise me, so she asked me to come over to their house for dinner, but instead my father coerced me into the car. “C’mon we need to pick up your Aunt Mary,” which is what he says every year with a bored drawl to his already monotone, expressionless voice.

Then my mother would come running out of the house, “Wait up now, I’ll come too. I haven’t seen Mary’s new carpets.” Last year it was Mary’s new bathroom tiles. The year before that, Mary’s new matching towels. And the year before that, Mary’s new catheter which she had just gotten second hand from Ebay.

As usual, before we even left our driveway, my mother would already be calling Aunt Mary, “We’re on our way. Meet us out front, and don’t make us wait. Reservation is for 7.” Then we’d drive to any number of one of my parent’s favourite steakhouses.

I am, for the record, deathly allergic to all animal by-products.

“But it’s perfect. Look at the salad bar,” my mother would say, when I’d embarrassingly remind her of my ability to die whilst ingesting certain foods. “They have lots of other things on the menu, and the salad bar is to die for.”

Every year I would look at the salad bar on offer as we were escorted to our seats, and every year I’d see the potato-ham salad, a beef-barley soup, a dozen or so variations of a bacon-bits pasta salad, and a fruit tray which would inevitably be hovered over by some old man who had never learned that it was polite to cover one’s mouth when one sneezed.

My father was too busy ignoring my Aunt Mary, who was rattling on about her cataracts, and how if Joe was alive today, she wouldn’t have this problem, since he was now in death some sort of super hero, though when he was alive all she did was complain about what a pig-assed fucker he was, to ignore my mother who had just told me that she had wasted half of my year’s holidays so I could learn how to be a woman. “Honey, you’re not saying anything. I thought you’d be thrilled. I sincerely hope that you’re not sneering a gift horse in the kisser.”

I remember looking down at my apple slice, the only thing I could find at the salad bar without meat in it, and even that I wasn’t too sure about. “I’m not sure that I really would like to do that,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Well…I’m not too sure that it’s really going to help me?”

My mother started sobbing and then my father tuned in.

“What the hell have you done to your mother now?”

Aunt Mary, in all good spirit, was still going on about her cataracts and Joe, “He could go and suck a snake’s eyeballs right out of its tail, and blow them right up my ass and right into my eye holes so I could see good again, and we’d have a helluvatime doing it. Dat’s how fantastic that man was, and don’cha know it, Eve,” she said as she attempted to elbow me, though I was actually sitting across the table from her, and thus she ended up falling on the floor and breaking her hip.


The Monday morning of the seminar I found myself in the gymnasium of the community centre surrounded by a hundred or so of my comrades in failed femininity. A woman stepped forward with a microphone and addressed us. She appeared to be about a hundred and fifty years of endeavoured concealed old, with a tan from a dollar store jar, a face stapled to the top of her head by a bun of hair the colour of dandelions, and a knee length yellow business suit which resulted in the effect of her looking like an over-cooked wiener covered in cheap, Chernobyl mustard.

“Welcome Ladies! Or soon to be ladies,” she said and then laughed a boisterous laugh, followed by her clapping her hands together like one of those toy circus monkeys with the cymbals who all seem to be hopped up on amphetamines.

“No time to waste. We know why we’re all here. I’m Mrs. Waterford and I’m going to make you be who you want to be.” Before we could officially start, she told us, we needed to be tested, to check just what areas of our “womanness” we needed to work on.

The “Are You All the Woman that You Can be?” test consisted of twenty multiple choice questions, such as: Do you do number twos in public restrooms? Do you talk candidly about sex with strangers? Do you have problems serving the needs of others? Do you tell people what they want to hear?Do you wear red lipstick to the green grocer’s?

Turned out that I was in group five, which meant the least womanly-like group that needed the most guidance, and Mrs. Waterford would be our instructor for the week.

“Ladies, you are all here because you flunked section B on the Evaluation test fantastically,” as Mrs. Waterford said this, the woman sitting next to me burst into tears sobbing wildly.

“Now now…” said Mrs. Waterford as she condescendingly patted the woman on the top of her head, “Don’t despair, this just means that you need to focus particularly hard on these specific aspects. This course deals mostly with bodily functions and images of the corpus: Healthy Self-conception and Concealment of Bodily Imperfections. It seems that you all have a huge disregard for how you appear to others.”

As I looked around, I realized that we all kind of did have the same way of portraying ourselves; sweat pants, ponytails, no make-up, no bras, chipped nails; the list went on and on.

That day though we started with menstruation.

The morning passed by in a blur of learning how to conceal tampons and pads in our pockets when we went to the bathroom, or, if no pockets were available, where to conceal our goods, and how not to draw attention to the incident by not bringing our bags, how to subtly get what we needed out without anyone noticing, and how to make sure we washed properly afterwards so no traces of blood could be found on our hands, and certainly not under our fingernails.

“Now, you don’t want to be coming out of the toilet with blood on your hands and have to recite Lady Macbeth’s monologue at dinner to cover up the fact that you don’t know how to wash your hands properly. Of course, that would only work on a few men, none of which any of you will probably ever be dating,” she had assured us which was then followed by her signature boisterous laugh.

Lunch consisted of a lecture learning how to not take too much food. Not to eat too fast. Not to ask for seconds. Not to complain. Not to eat garlic if you wanted a little kiss after, and not to burp, fart, piss or shit yourself at the table.

After an afternoon spent discussing how to deal with body hair, we were allowed to go home and decide whether we wanted to kill ourselves or not, and as I contemplated wanting to kill myself, I started to think about how I had let Noah down. I mean, if I really wanted to be honest with myself, I really never tried. I was lazy about hygiene. I mean, sometimes I didn’t even shower everyday, and sometimes I would put the same clothes on that I was wearing the day before. And shaving? I’d had the same razor for five years, and it wasn’t the kind where you change the blades. In fact, I couldn’t even remember the last time I had removed any hair from my body. I think I thought that if I just waited long enough, it would eventually just fall off.

By Thursday, after Tuesday and Wednesday’s lessons about feigning interest in topics that nobody should give a shit about, and how to dress for sexual success, I had started to feel so bad about what I did to Noah that I really couldn’t almost handle it anymore. This all made sense to me now. Thankfully though Thursday was dedicated to sex, and I couldn’t help but feeling a little bit intrigued.

Mrs. Waterford had prepared a slide-show to help us in the bedroom. I can’t claim that Noah and I had had a great sex life. He was really into oral sex, as in getting it, and I had gotten really bored of giving it quite quickly. Mrs. Waterford taught us that though fellatio can be boring for us to give on a regular basis, men almost always require it, and it had something to do with evolution, which I now forget what she said, but something like a reverse nipple sucking thing, and being weaned too early from their mothers, and bottle fed, etc. She said, that these times when it is required of us to perform, if we can’t completely find ourselves in the moment of it, we can at least sort out our everyday lives. These are the times, she told us, when we can think about our grocery lists, interior design schemes, or the sale at the mall. We can see this as a time to exercise our jaw muscles which will ultimately make us better speakers, and with time, we won’t even notice that we’re doing it anymore. A real “woman” she says, can do it for at least an hour without getting bored. She also showed us an animated educational video of a woman sucking a banana with thought bubbles floating over her head of things she could possibly think about, like visiting her sick grandmother in the hospital, and what she should bring her as a gift.

The afternoon was spent discussing the Orgasm. Though we were taught to encourage our men to help us achieve ours, we ultimately had to accept that men need more attention sexually then we do. It’s harder for them, she told us, because they have so much more stigma attached to their sexuality than we do, because penis size plays such an important role for men, and can lead to such serious, life-debilitating inferiority complexes.

“Many wars have been started because the wives and girlfriends of the leaders were not capable of telling their men that their penises were large,” she scolded us. “Do you think Eva Braun told Adolph? You can tell by looking at photos of her that her jaw was in no way trained for the pleasures of that man,” and then she slammed the palm of her hand down on her desk, “You must always say, every chance you get, without sounding contrived or trite, that you want their large penises inside of you, on your breasts, inside your mouth, flapping in the wind with a goddam American flag on it, if that’s what their into, no matter what length/girth/shape and/or smell they are.”


Saturday was slotted for our mock dates. The seminar had organized single men to come and ‘date’ us for the evening. They were professionals and would tell Mrs. Waterford how we’d fared, which would play a role in how well we graduated, and ultimately seal our fates for all eternity. My dates name was David. He was, if I have to admit, not really my type. He was okay, but a little too full of himself, and he smelled like pee. He was working in a low position at some get rich firm and all he talked about was wanting to beat the crap out of some big guy he worked with so he could impress his boss and take over the company one day. The point was, what Mrs. Waterford had taught us, is to seem interested, and to ask a lot of questions, even if they seemed stupid to us. She also told us to always kind of hint at sex and make lots of sexual comments. “Sexual innuendo is your ticket to happiness!” she had drilled into us repeatedly.

David had insisted on walking me home after, though I wasn’t sure this was part of the program. Then he tried to come in with me. I kept saying no, it was late, and I had to be back at the centre early in the morning. Then everything kinda got blurry. I had unlocked the door, but wasn’t letting him in. He kept trying to kiss me and push me inside; he was grabbing my breasts and sticking his hand down my pants and though I kinda was curious about trying out the new blow-job technique and really giving my tax return a good thinking, I just really didn’t want this human being touching me in any way, shape, or form. At some point I grabbed the vase on my table near the door and smashed him over the head with it.

He called me a crazy cunt and then left.

I was worried the next morning heading to the community centre. Smashing someone over the head with a vase really wasn’t very womanly, and even I knew that. I had taken extra-care to get my make-up just right, and my clothes just perfect. I even wore a mustard coloured suit. Mrs. Waterford was standing outside greeting everyone as we came up to the entrance. When she saw me, she headed straight towards me and grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Listen, let’s have a little talk first, shall we?”

She took me to an abandoned room and asked me if I wanted to tell her about the night before.

I didn’t. “Nothing really to tell, Mrs. Waterford.”

“You can call me Serena, we’ve developed a relationship, you and I, just don’t call me that in front of anyone else.” A long pause ensued and I could feel her looking me up and down as I stared at my new polished high heels.

“I am very impressed by you,” she said, “You’ve really grown this week. Although it’s not allowed for the dates to actually attempt intercourse with the students, you should really be proud of yourself that you drove him wild enough to actually break the rules. Of course, he has been told that it’s not allowed. We have taken care of him. You’re not upset about it are you? As I said, you should be proud of yourself. I wanted to wait till the graduating ceremony to tell you this, but I can’t contain myself. I’m just so excited. We’ve made you the most improved student, and for that you win another seminar week. You’ve graduated to our intense ‘How to trap that man’ program. Would you like that, Eve? You know if you get rid of those unsightly love-handles, you may end up being the perfect woman.”

Would I? I had grown to like Serena. I had never won an award or a prize before in my life, and I could only imagine how proud my mother would finally be of me. Maybe even I could get Noah back. No, I could maybe even get someone better than Noah and rub his face in it. I checked myself in the mirror in the bathroom on my way to the auditorium. I did look good, I thought.

“This is the new you,” I said to myself, and puckered my lips. As I walked out in front of my peers of new and improved women to accept my diploma and award for “Most Improved Student” I saw a sea of red lips and hair pulled tight from the temples cheering me on, and I felt proud that I had done it. I had really done it. I had become one of them. I had become a woman.

About Ambika Thompson