I know, the heading sounds so provocative but please read on about this project that I took part in :-) It was with a photographer who ...

When I knew I wasn't a woman yet

I know, the heading sounds so provocative but please read on about this project that I took part in :-)

It was with a photographer who was venturing into the realm of "Womanhood". I didn't know who Charmaine Poh was and I had never seen her past works before. So I was completely spontaneous in my decision. Last year, I helped fill a survey about Womanhood that my friend Jeremy had shared on Facebook on her behalf. I thought hey, I want to learn more. I had a sudden interest on what it means to be a woman and what feminism is like. 

And then some time this year, she reached out to us again and asked if we'd like to take a step further - To be photographed.

Since I had nothing to do in March and I was so game, I was like, why not?? I'd never been photographed before.

In our email exchanges, I had to reveal some of what I thought about womanhood: What female-ness meant to me. And to describe the time when I felt that I had transformed into a woman. 

I gave a little think to the questions and I emailed to Charmaine my thoughts.

She replied and told us that her project was called "Room". So naturally, she wanted us to be photographed in our bedrooms.

She also had another request:

That we be photographed in our secondary school uniforms.

Once again, I spontaneously agreed.

I go all-in when I feel like it.

As I was saying, I didn't even know her at all. But I didn't think it'd be uncomfortable or awkward or anything like that, I just knew that it was something I'd like to do, so I went with it.

When the day of the shoot arrived, I waited for her arrival at my home. It felt strange to have a stranger over at my home and have her shoot in a place that was intimate to me. Other than my family, only close friends had ever stepped into my room. But I suppose that was the objective of the project. To be photographed in a place that only I knew. I'd literally grown up in this room. All of my memories are here. The good, the bad, my room witnessed it all. And this idea had never occurred to me... though it was actually kind of blatant. I guess that's what art translates. And I came to trust the concept.

Soon enough, I came to trust Charmaine as well. When she arrived, I let her in to this private space of mine. What's amazing, (and on hindsight, I really must applaud her for this) was how she eased me into conversation. All social anxiety went out the window as she created a safe space where sharing stories was so easy. No judgment. No awkward social cues. It was as if I had already known her for a period of time. I think it takes a certain skill to do that.

She asked me when was the time when I felt like I had transformed into a woman. It was the one question that I had found difficulty in answering when I was filling out the form. I thought about it, then gave a vague answer about how there never was a defining moment and I just became a woman.

She went on to ask, "How was life during secondary school days?"

I knew it was a question that was supposed to probe further and beyond. And I knew my answer would frame my story for her project. I thought about it and stared out the window whilst thinking about the past. As with all interviews, I knew it was a question to probe the senses. And I knew she expected an answer that was emotional and heart-wrenching. Like a time in my life that was traumatic. I thought about it. Hard. Then I replied,

"I know you'd like me to say something heavy about that period of my life. That I had been through a tough time. But... Life for me during my secondary school days... was Happy. And I can only think of happy times, the good times. There never was anything particularly difficult during that point in my life. JC, maybe. But Secondary... not at all"

It was true. My time in Coral Secondary was only happy and light-hearted. I hadn't been through anything difficult or dramatic. It was pretty smooth-sailing if you ask me, except for the typical didn't-do-well-and-kena-lousy-grades-but-only-i-got-affected kinda thing. Other than that, I was a happy kid. Even at home. There wasn't anything that rocked the boat to turn me into a sad or angry kid. I was fortunate.

That was when it hit me... I was fortunate. And have always been fortunate. I had been sheltered so lovingly by my family, my friends, and my achievements at school thus far (well not many achievements though haha). I had been a very, very, fortunate, lucky girl. Luckier than even some of my peers. Luckier than so many others. I was privileged, in a sense, to have been brought up well-fed and well-everything. I was a good kid raised with good values. I didn't have to go through any emotional turmoil since my family was stable. And I am grateful for all those years....

But it made me aware that all my life, I'd been backed by a lot of love and support. I didn't have my fair share of trials and tribulations. Since I hadn't been through those, could I say that I was the grown woman that I thought that I was?

I didn't have to worry about money. Although it sounds very superficial, I think it's fundamental that during a child's growing years, a household needs to have enough to cover the basic expenses. Not every family has that so I've come to realise that, having parents who had enough to provide for both my brother and I meant everything. It wasn't easy. My parents never made it to University. All they had were their O levels certificates. To eventually be able to bring us up without having their kids to worry about money is a feat. It was a privilege that my brother and I had. And it didn't just end there. My parents have never asked me to support them even after we were done with University.

So the M word was never an issue. My parents have always believed that as long as they're still working, they can support themselves, whereas we are young and have nothing and need to learn to save up for ourselves. To take ownership of our lives because they ain't gon' last forever.

Which was perhaps why, I felt that after University, I had to spend a bit of my life living on my own. And if you ask me, I would think, my time in Myanmar and subsequently after that, was a time when I braved being out in the real world. Perhaps, that was what drove me to go there. A place where I knew no one. Not its people nor its language. Where I had nothing to rely on, but myself.

I went through a fair bit. Surviving on USD300 a month, bouts of loneliness and boredom, spikes of happiness through my curiosity and adventure of the unknown~

I thought it was essential that I got out there on my own.


If Charmaine were to ask me the question again on when I thought I had become a woman, I think, my answer would have been... "When I stepped into Myanmar." That would have been my first chapter in my transformation into a woman.

But that day, I stared out of my bedroom window, feeling like something was amiss.

I knew... I was not yet a woman.

What's strange and actually kind of revealing, was the fact that..... Back a few months ago, I remember stepping into my bedroom when I came back from all my travels around Southeast Asia and my first thought was, "Omg, this room... is a little girl's room."

I suppose, that should have revealed to me what I thought was happening to me. But I didn't know it then.

During the conversation that we had, Charmaine observed, and didn't continuously probe. She respected my story. And I was very grateful for that. I suspected that she knew that I was still struggling to find my identity as a woman, but she didn't try to twist my words or dig deeper into something that may not even be there. She let my story be, for what it is. My childhood was happy and she respected that. And that made me respect her. She had an ability of letting her subject dwell on the matter, and have everything unfold on its own. Allowing me to discover what was within me by myself. That was amazing.

And I think that was the beauty of her craft. The beauty in a photographer's craft. I now have a greater sense of appreciation for photographers who have honed their art of storytelling.

Before she left, we continued talking about other matters in life. She also told me, my story was one of the more light-hearted ones that she had had heard so far in her project. So you can only imagine, what the stories of the other women were like...


On 1st May this year, I attended Charmaine's exhibition that was held for a week at The Substation.

Stories of my own and 15 others' hung on the wall

It was strange seeing my own picture staring back at me.

But what was more intriguing was how... every woman's story seemed to connect to another. We were each tasked to write a "Letter to My Younger Self" and all of the handwritten notes were left in a bundle at the side. Visitors could read those letters that were so private to each individual. I didn't read all of them but those that I did, spoke of pain and struggle... Yet they were also stories interwoven and laced with self-discovery and empowerment - each comforting their younger self, egging them on to heal their young wounds and reminding them what they were made of.

Because the writer already had a glimpse into the crystal ball.


The entire showcase at The Substation was a collaboration by three artists, one of whom was Charmaine. And the Exhibition's name was "If home was a word for illusion".

As you all know by now, I don't catch things very quickly or I just can't be bothered to think about abstract things (haha probably the latter), so I didn't really give much thought to the name of the exhibition.

But since May 1st was the final day of the exhibition and also a sharing session with the artists, I started to comprehend what the title meant after seeing the stories of the other women....

Because we often associate "Home" for words like comfort, familiarity and solace, I had certain assumptions that it is a place where everyone would feel they most belong in. Where we can kick off our shoes by the end of the day and shake off all pretence. Where we can be vulnerably seen for who we truly are, by people who know us for who we are. But after reading all the letters of struggle by so many other women, I realised that "Home" didn't feel like a home to many of them...... And I was indeed one of the lucky ones to actually feel like Home was a Home. There were so many stories of how parents weren't accepting of who they were. Weren't approving of what they did. Even spoke of their daughters with words of disdain and suspicion.

The idea of a "Home" wasn't a home. It was an illusion.

I was quite gobsmacked I must say. And once again, reminded of the fortunes in my life. How I had a very different upbringing from so many others...


I came out of this project, quite awakened of my identity and self as a (growing) woman.

It took me a while to really understand the concept of Charmaine's project. I mean, I still am trying to understand it since it's been more than a month since I attended her exhibition.

Till now, I can't define "Female-ness" or "Womanhood". I mean what makes me a woman???? What IS a woman?

Although I haven't had to go through any form of trauma when I was younger, I don't think I am less of a woman because of that. I believe that it is also BECAUSE of what I didn't go through that has built my identity today... I grew up with a free spirit. A free mind. And a body that only I possess. All of that has made me, well, me.

I will continue to grow. And I will never stop growing. I still believe that I haven't outgrown my mindset of a girl. And I am slowly becoming the woman that I want to be as my self-beliefs form and take shape... I think it's about having a healthy balance of my idealism and the realistic demands of the world. I choose to think that I'm becoming smarter and more strategic in my ways as I grow older. And I think that's ok.


Before I end this whole post, let me share with you my own little project of finding out what "Womanhood" is by asking who else, but the woman who raised me up.

I asked her the same question, "When was the time when you felt that you had become a woman?".

She chuckled and asked why I would ask such an absurd question.

But what my mom replied, both irked and moved me at the same time.

"It was when... I fell in love."

Awww.... But also.... Ew.
Gees parents, grow up.

Or maybe, it is me who needs to grow up lol.

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