I am a real woman. I stopped growing at the age of thirteen and became the shortest person in my class. Around the same time, I became one of the least popular girls - all things tall, blond, long-legged and athletic were in fashion at the time. I was short, dark, and couldn't run for the life of me. That I could still climb the rope almost all the way to the ceiling at the gym or make up good gymnastics routines didn't seem to impress anyone.
Around the same time my mom's bone tumor resurfaced after nearly 15 years of remission, and I took upon myself the housekeeping duties and helping my dad take care of mom. So, I had this perpetual look of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Health care in the former Soviet Union was already deteriorating by then. Mom was mis-diagnosed and improperly treated, which made her worse. When the error was discovered, it was too late.
I am a real woman. I was fourteen years and two days old when my mom died. I became the head of the household, responsible for grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry (no washing machine), some cooking and all of the money that weren't designated for rent or utilities. The same year I finished my 8-year long music education with straight A's. I was offered to go on to a conservatory, but I chose to stay in a regular school instead.
I am a real woman. After school, at the age of seventeen, I went to a technical college, where there were only four of us - girls - in a group of 25. Our group was experimental with all technical courses taught in English. Two years later I entered and won an exchange program competition. I came to the United States with $300 in my pocket and tuition, room and board covered by the program for the first academic year - nine months. Those who decided to stay on after that would be on their own. I decided to stay on.
I am a real woman. I received my Bachelor's Degree at the age of 22 and my Master's - two years later. I worked full time and went to school full time during my entire Master's program. Nobody at the Mechanical Engineering department was familiar with the topic of my thesis - it hasn't been tackled before. So, when I moved away from my college just after finishing all the course work, I just picked a professor who would agree to work with me long-distance.
I am a real woman. In the course of two - three years after the move, I had to re-build my career from scratch, struggle with immigration issues and divorce. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I survived.
I am a real woman. There is more to me that meets the eye. Some consider me ditsy and superficial, because I enjoy writing about fashion and wearing pretty dresses and shoes. That doesn't change the fact that I am still the same person who wrote a thesis titled Computerized Kinematic Analysis of Spherical Four-Bar Linkages, have read War and Peace twice (among many, many other things) for enjoyment, speaks three languages, does regression analysis and forecasting for a living, and can quote pages out of everything from classics to contemporary science fiction.
I am a real woman. Some consider me too soft and dainty. That doesn't change the fact that it was me who assembled a working diesel engine with the help of just one other person as a part of my engineering internship, or that it was me who received a brown belt in Nihon Goshin Aikido (those who are familiar with martial arts know the grueling test schedule and tough requirements for that level), or that it is me that cuts my own three acres of grass with a riding mower six months out of a year.
I am a real woman. Some think that just because I care about clothes, I must be a shopping sheep, spending everything I've got on the latest and greatest. Actually, the average garment price of everything that is hanging in my closet right now is $20. That's right. Sales and closeout sections of my favorite catalogs, discount stores, eBay - these are my sources for finding clothes, shoes and accessories. I am responsible for our household accounts and for paying all the bills. On any given day, I know exactly, how much is in the bank and what has yet to come out. I have not missed a payment or a bill in over 10 years - not a single one, no matter how big or how small.
I do carry a high balance on my only actively used credit card (out of two I have) - because my house was 75 years old when I first bought it, and its plumbing, electrical and some of the structure needed to be replaced right then and there to keep the place standing. I had my first car for 10 years - bought it new, literally drove it into the ground. It was a Plymouth Neon, and I think it lasted me about three times longer than the average life expectancy for that car. My next car was a used Ford Focus - I still have it.
Every day I engage in the balancing act of keeping the house running smoothly, bills - paid, refrigerator - stocked, and some money left over for emergencies, fun and supporting my family in Ukraine. A shopping slave could never pull any of this off.
I am a real woman. Manhattan Model Search rejected me for being too short, too old and too fat (after claiming they were looking for all types of people and then promptly selecting thin tall teenage girls). I was twenty-four and size four at the time, and didn't think the height would matter that much to people who were "looking for all types". Yes, I pack a few extra pounds. Yes, I do resort to some clever clothing trickery to disguise my substantial tush and a small paunch around my stomach, which I've had since I was three years old. I dress up for myself because I enjoy looking pretty. But I also dress up to make a point. ...Two points actually: (1) a woman can build a stylish wardrobe regardless of her size, if she puts her mind to it; (2) a woman need not adhere to someone else's standards of what "perfection" is to look good.
I am a real woman and I think I am gorgeous. I don't think that all the time, but a lot of the time I do - it took me 20 years to even voice the thought to myself, and I am not giving it back. When no modeling agency or fashion photographer wanted anything to do with me, I started photographing myself. All my modeling photos you see in my 123RF portfolio or in my Facebook and VenusVision albums are me - setting the camera on a 10-second delay, then running to the correct spot, assuming the pose and the facial expression I think I am looking for, waiting for the click, then running back to see how it came out, correcting, re-setting, doing it all over again. The photos sell. Which means someone somewhere does not think that I am too old, too short or too fat to use my image for web sites and articles.
I am a real woman. I am not classically beautiful. I have a big nose and a square jaw. But I also have amazing cheekbones and gorgeous eyes. My eyebrows would make Brooke Shields weep with envy. My hair could give shampoo models a run for their money, despite the fact that I live in a high-humidity climate and use just a basic organic shampoo and conditioner, and a smoothing cream - if I can remember it. I do not use any makeup save for special occasions (I don't think tinted moisturizer and colored lip balm counts). So it's all me - a real woman.