You might be surprised at some of the answers.
They range from guilty pleasures close to home (the domestic goddess Donna Reed) to Olympian heroines of ancient times (the Greek goddess Athena).
Check out the first answers here; we'll be publishing more responses all week.
I wish I could say that I fantasized about growing up to be Billy Jean King or Eleanor Roosevelt or an English teacher like Molly Peacock, the wonderful poet, who taught me in 7th grade. My mom was a social worker, and though I barely understood what that meant, I knew she was helping people for no money. While her life's work is so impressive to me now, at the time she was just my mom who was cranky and brought us take-out chicken on her late days in the Bronx.
The truth is that I wanted to be Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. My sister got mono when she was about 10 and I was 8, and my parents rented a Betamax so that she could watch movies while she was sick. A babysitter brought home The Blue Lagoon, and we watched it over and over again. I'm not sure why I was so mesmerized by it, and by her. Maybe part of it was the idyllic setting, and her being stranded with Christopher Atkins. But the most compelling part for me was how tan she was. That's right, I really wanted to be tan all the time. Soon enough, this segued into wanting to become an actress.
I guess it's strange, then, that many years later, Brooke's memoir about her post-partum depression, Down Came the Rain, pretty much saved my life. When my daughter was about six months old, and I was out of the woods, I approached Brooke, whom I'd never met, at a fashion party. I told her how harrowing the shame was, and how if it hadn't been for her book, I wasn't sure I would have been able to accept what had happened to me. I remember hurrying down the steps of the Met after our talk, eager to get home to my husband and baby, and feeling a deep sense of peace and closure now that I'd finally been able to thank Brooke Shields.
Even while training in gymnastics, I wanted to someday become an undercover FBI agent. I was always intrigued by criminal law and criminal justice. My mom was a big fan of Nancy Drew, so we had every book from the series around the house. I also remember being intrigued by the Jodie Foster character in The Silence of the Lambs (I watched a lot of scary movies back then, even though I avoid them today), and thinking that could be me someday.
It wasn't an ambition I spoke about to anyone—I didn't feel like I could go up to my teachers and tell them I wanted to become a secret agent. Eventually I opened up to my Olympic teammates, and we all joked that maybe my newfound fame would be a perfect cover: No one would suspect that the gold medalist gymnast was an undercover agent! Years later, in my 20s, I befriended two men sitting next to me on a plane who turned out to be FBI agents. I told them my plan, and they laughed. Apparently the cover story my teammates and I had forged would never work; I was already too familiar a face, they said, to make it as an undercover agent. Who knew a gold medal could hold you back from your dreams?
I really wanted to be Wonder Woman.
I actually made myself a training program. Every day I would jump down the stairs, gradually increasing the number of stairs as I got used to it. I thought if I jumped down enough stairs I would be able to become a superhero. I also did a lot of spinning because I thought if I spun fast enough that I would explode into that costume
I grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and New Mexico. It was remote. The nearest town was about 35 miles away. My early companions were my parents and the cowboys. I spent much of my youth on the back of a horse, riding around the ranch.
I loved my life on the Lazy B Ranch and I wanted nothing better than to be a cattle rancher myself when I grew up. Alas! That was not to be. Nevertheless, I had a pretty good life, I must say.
I am riding on the back of an Arabian stallion. I am wearing a turban secured with a large ruby. (I have practiced walking and sitting with a turban after every bath for weeks now. The towel is about a foot high when wrapped, and the general effect, with my blue towel cape, is one of a certain fierce, regal hauteur. Especially without my glasses.) My bandoliers gleam in the hot afternoon sun. (See Yul Brynner in Taras Bulba.)
I am urging my small, ragged gang onward and suddenly we are at the edge of the river. My horse whinnies and balks. The enemy is bearing down upon us. I can hear their gunfire. I can feel the hooves of their horses pounding the earth I'm standing on. If I am captured, all is lost. I have no choice. I prepare to leap across the river. I move back for a running start and push off from the shore. I am aloft, I am leaning forward, stretched out as far as I can and...I become a boy. I land safely on the other shore. My horse swims across and as I put my foot in the stirrup, I am a girl again. In every dream I have as a child when exceptional action is called for, I change gender. I have to assume that a boy, an exceptional and heroic boy, is what I wished to become.
I used to have a newspaper clipping announcing my parents' marriage. They were tall and handsome, holding hands and smiling. On the other side was the headline, "Russians Have H-Bomb." Thus was my fate decided, or so I thought throughout my childhood, because I was obsessed by nuclear war.
Alongside The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew and The Black Stallion, there was always the nightly news, announcing the latest little step toward mutually assured destruction. No doubt this is the know-your-enemy reason that I went to summer school to study physics between fifth and sixth grades, even though I had no math aptitude and had always run the other direction when my older boy cousins tried experiments. (How high would three firecrackers blow an empty tin can into the air, and would they blow the can apart?) But that summer, and for another year or so, I loved the atom. In those days it seemed so simple—electron, proton, neutron, everything adding up so benignly until you made you way up the periodic table to U-235 (nice uranium was U-238). I liked those inert atoms best (helium, neon, argon, krypton)—they were harmless and minded their own business. But every element was like a character in a book, and I thought I would study them that way, once I grew up and became a nuclear physicist.
When I was a child I identified with the princess on the pea, that aristocratic ragamuffin constitutionally incapable of mistaking the second rate for the first rate. Later, in college, my literary friends and I were startled, first by George Eliot's Dorothea Brook, and then by Henry James's Isabel Archer—women of high seriousness whose instinct for the first rate fell far short of that of the princess. What this was all about, of course, was finding "the right man," the thing for which Dorothea and Isabel clearly had no talent. We each swore that we would settle for nothing less. Thus we all spent a lifetime walking down a road littered with "the wrong man."
I did not understand then, or for years after, that we—restless, talented, ambitious young women—were born to find the wrong man, as were Dorothea and Isabel. That's what we were in business for. If this had not been the case, we would have found some useful work to do quite early and long forgotten the whole question of the right man. But as we could not forget it—given the world as we knew it—not finding him became a defining experience. Prideful dissatisfaction, with us, was an emblematic stance. One day, I realized that it was the same with the princess. That moment when she feels the pea beneath the twenty mattresses—the world in which she must operate—that is her moment of definition. The prince is an anti-climax. It's her dissatisfaction that matters.
When I grew up, I wanted to be Prince. I loved how shamelessly flaunty-sexy and powerfully talented he was, and how one didn't distract from the other, it all enhanced. And I loved that my mother didn't understand why he wore make-up.
He had this THING that the other boy rock stars didn't have, this feminine boy power that drove me absolutely crazy. But I remember specifically wanting to be him more than I wanted to do him, you know?