What "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" Taught Me About Womanhood
When Alice falls down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book, she enters a world of constant criticism, confusion, and wonder. She has no idea what to make of this new place, and its inhabitants certainly don’t know how to appraise her. Thrown into an entirely new world, Alice must navigate her changing body, conflict with the local characters, and her evolving identity. Looking back on Carroll’s story, one that I’ve loved for many years, I’m struck by how much Alice’s story reminds me of my own journey into womanhood.
I’ve read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass three times each (which is a lot for someone who doesn’t reread books). Alice’s Wonderland is the magical destination she’s been longing for in summer daydreams. Like every little kid, I had daydreams too - of magical escapes to fantasy lands, of who I’d be if I was untethered from school and my boring hometown, of becoming the heroine of my own story. Wonderland symbolized the impossible made real, and as I was immersed in a childhood of isolation and tension at home, I wanted nothing more than the impossible - the fantastical, even - to be part of my everyday life.
Alice’s curiosity (and the fact that she is fully immersed in her imaginings) is ultimately what drives her to follow the white rabbit down the hole into Wonderland. Once she arrives, Alice learns, as I did too, that even seeing her childhood dreams come to fruition can be a trial rather than the adventure she’d hoped. I can say the same. My curiosity was developed through books. I was homeschooled for most of my education, and spent the years I wasn’t being educated at home at a religious school. I didn’t relate to other kids when I was around them and most of the time I wasn’t even around people my age.
Alice moved through Wonderland under a microscope with her every move critiqued by its inhabitants, and I progressed through puberty with my baggy clothes, inflamed acne-prone skin, and lack of social skills fully attuned to the negative remarks peers and adults were making about me, sometimes to my face, sometimes just within ear shot. Alice was surrounded by people but still somehow alone with no one to help her navigate this new world. I wish I could say I always had the tenacity that Alice had. Maybe I did underneath all the fear. But mostly, I felt what a lot of little girls feel, a sensation that I was both an alien in my world and in my own body.
Growing up isn’t easy for anyone, but it can be especially hard for girls as they enter a society that teaches them to assimilate their actions in order to belong and be liked. Alice’s first interaction in Wonderland is with Mouse, who she immediately offends by mentioning cats. Their conversation is indicative of how Alice is received by most of the other inhabitants: either she unintentionally offends or she’s told she has presented herself in the wrong way, like when the Hatter tells her she shouldn’t talk because she’s disagreed with him.
Similarly to Alice, my entering womanhood, especially my experiences in middle school, brought an onslaught of criticism from parents, teachers, and peers. I listened to people express their disappointment with what I wore (it was never feminine enough to appease gender stereotypes) and mean comments about my weight (I was “too skinny” half the time and the other half I heard a chorus of “You’re getting fat!”). I was pushed out of friend groups when more interesting people came along to replace me, and I never quite knew the social rules, just like Alice. I dealt with social anxiety that left me feeling like Alice trying to explain to the Caterpillar who I really was even though I had no idea myself.
Alice taught me that what I think of myself, how I talk to myself, and where I want to go in life is what matters most. The things other people plan for me or push me toward can be taken as suggestions and not commands. No matter how frustrated and confused Alice became, she never took anyone’s word for it. When the Caterpillar asks, “Who are you?” Alice cannot answer because she feels she’s changed too much too quickly to even know who she is. She could have answered him in an agreeable way, going along with the negative labels she knew he already ascribed to her, but she never lowered her ideas of herself to appease other people’s opinions. It would have been so easy to internalize the criticism she heard, and while she wasn’t totally immune to the experiences she’d gone through since falling down the rabbit hole, I think her confusion came from a commitment to herself. She was open-minded enough about her identity to say she didn’t know, but she wasn’t insecure enough to put on the labels other people supplied for her.
Alice is still teaching me to keep an open mind. Each time I revisit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, her curiosity and fiery personality delight and inspire me more.