The question jolts you, wakens you from your daydream like the shrill cries of your Scooby Doo alarm clock.
What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Your knees are dirty, raw and scabbing from the playground bumps and falls courtesy of lunch time stuck-in-the-mud. Your hair is pulled messily into pigtails, the pink checked scrunchies perfectly matching the pattern of your ripped school uniform. You always enjoy the walk back from school, the sun beating down on the tarmac as your small feet nimbly skip along the edge of the pavement, but you are especially happy today; you came top in a maths test and you swapped a Pokémon card with the scrawny blonde boy in PE for the Vulpix you’ve been wanting for ages. But the question puts you off-balance, and hands come from nowhere, pulling you out of the road as you futilely try to keep your balance, your thin arms scrambling and swimming through the thick air.
You let your sister answer the question as you have no idea. You are curious about the world, you read everything and anything and most importantly, you know that you can be anything you want to be. Every picture you paint is a masterpiece, every song brings a tear to the eye and every day is a new adventure. In the morning you are a doctor, by lunch a sculptor, a comedian, a playwright, a housewife and a scientist all in time for tea. The vast possibilities of the adult world are too far away, untouchably glittering in the horizon. To your classmates, they are golden ferries, bringing them the experiences and opportunities that they yearn for. For you and your sister as you whisper, hidden under a bed to the light of your Harry Potter nightlight, they are sharks. War, murder and evil are incomprehensible to you as you skip naively from day to day. Adults share knowing looks as they tell you that time flies, but you refuse to believe them, so trapped in the moment that the magic of innocence is lost on you.
But the ever-turning wheel of time makes no exceptions for you, and suddenly you are fifteen, thick eyeliner roughly outlining your wide eyes. Your childhood is gone, shiny memories trapped in old VCR’s and Polaroid photos. You and your friends are seduced by the magazines aimed at those older than you that you pore over, dreaming of one day being like the girls on the shiny edited pages. People slowly begin to be interested in you, questions fired in games of hesitation and intrepid texts sent under the midnight sky. Every day is a struggle, a fight between the person you want to be, the person society expects you to be and the person you are. You have lost sight of what you wanted to be, your hopes and dreams put on hold, muted by the voices you hear every day.
Slut. Virgin. Bimbo. Nerd. Whore. Bitch. Anorexic. Fat.
There is no space for you to squeeze in amongst the false dichotomies of teenagers so you don’t, you lie apart from them and shrug off the words that sting your eyes. When you lie awake at night, you try to think of the future, of who you want to be but the image is trapped behind the sun, it hurts and burns your eyes and you have to look away before it takes any real shape. Your answers to the question have changed to superficial, transient ideas. Gone are the idealistic childhood dreams. You can’t be an astronaut, girls aren’t good at science. A comedian? Girls aren’t funny. A doctor? Boys are doctors, girls are nurses. A soldier? None of the soldiers in any of your toy sets are women. The Disney princesses of the time weren’t saved by their Prince Charming for their witty banter and mental maths abilities. You now want to be accepted, to be beautiful, to be loved.
But this too fades into Facebook posts and yearbook photos, as you are whisked off into the world of adulthood. You become aware of the world around you as you try to become that better version of yourself that seemed so far away. You read into feminism. You watch Frozen. Most importantly,you find your friends, the people like you. You still have no idea what you want to be, but you’ve accepted that, as you know you want to travel, to fulfil your ability and to make the world a better place.
You realise the question shouldn’t be what do you want to be, but who.