The Tomboy Who Wouldn't Grow Up

I was a tomboy. (Quite a confession, I know. I’ll just wait for the shock waves to subside.)

I was a rough-and-tumble, dirty-kneed, baseball-playing, plaid-shirt-wearing tomboy growing up. I haven’t changed much. My earliest playmates were boys and we dressed alike. It was the 70s so we were all in plaid and corduroy with our page-boy hair swinging. A change occurred at about 7 years of age. I was suddenly no longer allowed to take my shirt off outside like the boys did. It was confusing. I understood the pants part, but shirts? I mean, we all looked exactly the same.

My understanding of the differences between boys and girls at that age can be summed up as follows:

  1. Boys have penises, girls have vulvas.
  2. Boys do cool stuff like play cars and baseball and street hockey. Girls do lame stuff like play with dolls and dress up in stupid dresses and wear lipstick which feels gross.

Looking at this comprehensive list, I know why, for a short time, I prayed to wake up as a boy. (Didn’t peeing standing up seemed like a huge perk?) I was lucky that I wasn’t pressured at an early age to do much gender conforming (apart from the shirt thing). I developed a wicked side arm pitch, I could pop-a-wheelie and make really long skid marks on my bike, and I could burp the loudest and longest of anyone on my block. Of course there were family and church functions where dresses were required and I was terribly irked by the inconvenience of the outfits—”No running, no cartwheels, no climbing trees. Someone might see your panties.” Panties. I shudder even now at that word.

But for all my wanting to be like a boy, I remember feeling embarrassed when I was actually mistaken for one. I wasn’t trying to be anything other than what I was, and I would think, “Can’t they see who I am?” When I learned the term “tomboy” I was so pleased. A girl who is like a boy. Yes. That is me. I found comfort in knowing there were others like me out there. That we had a name. Tomboys. I met a few others growing up. I admired them, seeing in them what I hoped others could see in me. As I grew older, that admiration turned into attraction and I would think, “If I were a boy, that is the girl I would want.” I hadn’t yet learned about lesbians.

The problem with tomboy was you were expected to grow out of it. It was fine for young girls. It taught them leadership, autonomy, physical skills. I mean, who doesn’t smile at a spunky little tomboy and admire her for choosing her own path. (Our “sissy” brothers don’t have it so easy. They are rarely granted the freedom to explore their non-traditional gender presentation, the fear of femininity in boys so often leading to violence.) I remember hearing the Beach Boys’ song “Hey Little Tomboy” and wanting to love it because it acknowledged what I was. But listening to lines like, “Put away your baseball mitt your rough living days are through,” and “Time to turn you into a girl,” filled me with dread. I didn’t want to give up who I was and what I liked about myself.

So when did it happen? At what point was I no longer applauded for my pluck and spirit? When did society’s discomfort begin? It had to do with sexuality, of course. It was fine as a non-sexual little girl to play like a boy, but as I continued that way, there were concerns that I wouldn’t attract a mate, procreate, or contribute to the family lineage. Being a tomboy was okay. Being a butch, and all that it implied, was not.

So the rug was subtly and slowly pulled out from under me. At a certain point it was impressed upon me that what had, up to this point, been accepted and even celebrated, was now something wrong, something embarrassing and even shameful. It was a great betrayal. Abandoned by my family and society, there was little choice. I had either to conform or stay true to myself and prepare for the fight ahead. But I wasn’t a fighter. Not then. So I compromised. I did what I could stomach and kept my clothes as neutral as possible.

I no longer do that. Now I open my closet and love the sight of the men’s shirts hanging there—striped button downs, bright checks. I love my sweater vests, the trousers that fit just right and my ties. But even now there are times when I feel the urge to tone it down so as not to upset people. And then I get angry. Angry that the fear and discomfort of others made me uncomfortable in my own skin and in my own clothes for so many years.

I received a comment from a 19-year-old woman recently who wrote that she has never enjoyed dressing in girl’s clothes but is now embarrassed when she is mistaken for a guy when shopping, especially when with her family. She says she wants to change her style and start dressing more feminine so that it won’t happen any more. I want to run to this girl and hug her and tell her she should not change anything for anyone else. That the best look is the one that suits how she feels inside, and that when she finds that, she will strut with confidence and not give a crap what anyone else thinks (and that if anyone has a problem with it they can take it up with me because I am a fighter now)! And I know that all of you would stand in solidarity with this young’un. (And maybe some of you will leave comments after reading this to tell her that.) I want her to know that there are people out there who will be crazy attracted to her because of the way she dresses now, and if she changes that she won’t get to meet them and feel sexy and loved for who she really is. And nothing, I mean nothing, feels as good as being appreciated, adored, and yes, lusted after, for exactly who you are.

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  • Quit reading my childhood diary, Titus! I, too, have oft experienced the discomfort that comes from being mistaken as a man. At aworkshop at the Michfest, someone said that when folks call us ‘sir’, they aren’t misidentifying. They see something in us and respond to that. Which I think is kinda true. You and me are different, in some ways an altogether different genus. I also feel awkward when I’m addressed as ‘lady’ (not nearly as much as ‘sir’) because I don’t feel like I’m putting whatever that means out there either. All interesting quandries for dapperQ’s. Eager to hear how others respond!

  • Thank you! I loved reading this!

    My wife-to-be has often told me about her childhood, playing house with a girl (wanting to be the daddy), and playing with all the neighborhood boys sports and games. She was also confused with a boy all the time because she was such a late bloomer but she didn’t mind. Her brother would also get her to fight the older boys that picked on him because she was much tougher than him. She also hated all girly things like ribbons, ponytails and dresses.

    I appreciate the time you took to write this. I now feel like I have a better grasp of what she went through as a child and teen to become the beautiful soft butch I am marrying on August 13th.

    Thank you 🙂

  • It goes without saying that this is an excellent post. What I want to address is not that, but rather the 19-year-old you spoke of- and others like her.

    Please- do not give up who you are to fit with society. Do not be embarrassed of what you are, of how you dress, how you present. Do not give up who you are in order to make someone else more comfortable- and in turn bring discomfort on yourself. Their discomfort is their responsibility- not yours.

    I know that it is hard and the pressure is there. I know because, at the same age you are now, I gave in. I conformed. I dressed feminine, tried to behave like a ‘proper lady’. For TEN YEARS I did this. Those were the worst years of my life because you see, it’s not about the clothes. It’s about locking your true self away. It’s about hiding who you really are so that you are able to go through life without making someone else uncomfortable because they cannot see outside of a binary. It’s unacceptable, close-minded and wrong of them and it will only change when we stop hiding, stop conforming to the binary so that we don’t rock the boat.

    I read something a while back that went along the lines of ‘You are not responsible for anyone’s actions besides your own, no matter what it may seem like at the time.’ I don’t remember who wrote it but it rang true with me on many levels and it applies in this situation as well. You are beautiful, handsome, sexy, dapper and strong because you are yourself. If you choose to change, feel free to do so, don’t feel locked in- just be sure that you are changing because it’s what YOU want and not some other reason. <3

  • Yes, yes, and yes! I only recently started shopping for a lot of my clothes in the men’s section. I decided to say, fuck it, and just wear what I feel comfortable with. And while shopping for dress vests with a girl I’m seeing, I asked her if it looked all right and I could die happy at the look she gave me. I had that realization that there are girls out there who are crazy attracted to girls like me, and it feels great.

  • I’m not sure if I can keep quiet much longer. I’ve been following your posts and they really speak to me. What is most striking and wonderful for me as a straight woman is that what you are talking about – this journey of self-discovery – is universal. It’s like you are plucking the thoughts from my mind and taking the words out of my mouth!

    To the 19 year old I say…please do not spend any more time acting small for the sake of others insecurities or ignorance. Wear what you enjoy because it is you. There is only one you in this world and if you do not let yourself be who you are, embrace yourself, love it and live it, you rob yourself and the rest of us from the amazing opportunity to really know you. You owe it to yourself and the rest of us! 🙂

    Titus is right: the best look is you!

  • I still remember the hot summer day day when I was informed that I could no longer take my shirt off while riding my bike and playing baseball. Up until then I never realized that there were differences betweeen boys and girls. Sure I knew that we were different “down there”, but I didn’t know that would ever affect what I could or couldn’t do. A few years later I was informed by my mother that I would have to start wearing a bra. I was so humiliated! I don’t think my brother could have felt any more humiliation than I felt had he been forced to wear the hated garment. I was officially a second-class citizen, and I didn’t even see it coming.

    I am often mistaken for a man, even when wearing fairly gender-neutral clothing like jeans and a T-shirt. I was so embarrased 2 years ago when shopping with my daughter-in-law. I was holding my newborn grandson when a woman asked me if I had “daddy duty today”. Looking back I should have felt proud that I could be mistaken for a young new father instead of a 50 year old grandmother!

    I think that people today are so busy that they only give each other a quick glance and don’t take the time to see the whole person. Short hair + baseball cap = sir. I have finally tried to stop dressing the way others expect me to. I have added more button down shirts, sport jackets and ties to my wardrobe. People still sometimes look at me funny but at least I feel good about myself. Imagine my surprise the last time I walked into the club wearing a nice dress shirt and a bowtie. Several women (at least 20 years younger than I) approached me and told me how much they admired my style. They even remembered that I had shown up on New Year’s Eve wearing a tuxedo shirt and a silver bowtie! It was the first time anyone ever called me “dapper” and I loved it!

    I have a quote on my desk at work which reads: “Never sacrifice who you are just because someone has a problem with it.” I wasted too much of my life worrying about what other people thought, and trying to fit in. Funny thing is, if you are not being yourself you never will fit in. So maybe the (mostly straight) 50 year old men and women (and at least one straight woman who reads this blog) don’t like the way I look. The lesbians, young and old, dig it. I think I can live with that.

  • Oops! Sorry – I meant to say that at least one straight woman who reads this blog LIKES women who dress dapper!!!

  • I don’t know if this holds for everyone, but at some point, I stopped feeling that little dignity-threatening flush of shame when someone takes me for a man. (Which, where does this come from? Feeling like our femininity is insufficiently disciplined? But isn’t there something, too, like feeling that to be male, a man, or masculine entails some level of misogyny, actually, of denigrating the femininity we’re supposed to have disciplined? Because fuck that noise.)

    The worse thing is if that person then thinks they were mis-taken, tries to apologize, and, well, *straighten* things out. I’d rather just fly under the radar, kind of amazed that I can: my body doesn’t look all that androgynous to me, no matter what I’m wearing.

    The more at-home I feel in being butch, with distending the category of “woman” and reclaiming a radical masculinity, the more comfortable I am with being read any which way.

  • For a long time, I was very scared to shop in the men’s section and dress the way I do now. It took me years to get over it, but I finally did. I became more confident with dressing in men’s clothing. Now, I don’t think I have a piece of women’s clothing in my closet.

    I do find myself dressing in my most feminine clothes when I go to something, like an interview though. I get so nervous about being “mistaken” for a man, especially when I’m going out for a job. I am still working on getting over this, trying to brush it off instead of getting worked up about it. Unfortunately, I think about it almost every day, when I am meeting new people, especially at work. I don’t want them to call me by male pronouns and have my co-workers look at me weird. It’s an ongoing struggle, but it’s nice to know there are others out there like me.

  • Thank you for posting this. My beautiful partner, who is a strong sexy butch, grew up as a tomboy and I think much of this would resonate with her. It certainly does with me, as a femme who loves a now-adult tomboy 🙂 For all the dapper q’s out there – keep it up with the ties, the sweater vests, the boxer briefs, the slacks, the masculinity. It’s hot as hell and femmes love it.

  • My partner and I are Butch on Butch, and we both grew up as little tomboys resisting the pressure to feminize by our families. It was as painful and difficult as this author attests to here, perhaps more so for her since she was from a different background than me in a much stricter situation. We are lifelong Butches. And it is wonderful to have a compadre go into men’s stores or the men’s section and revel looking at clothes that fit who we are, together.

    Because of our struggles, we have a solidarity and a pain we share, but also a joy when we both dress handsome for each other. Be yourself, be true to yourself, and wear the clothes that are the MOST EMPOWERING FOR YOU!

    I don’t see it as ‘distending the word woman’,but rather as embracing and extending the definition of all things FEMALE, and that FEMALE and Woman does NOT necessarily mean feminine. Tomboys have been with us forever, but as tomboys we also have been censored once reaching puberty. I too hated being forced into dresses for fancy family events and I cried and there was always a scene. I HATED being forced to wear bras once I got into junior high, and teased by the other girls in P.E. if I didn’t. Now I let my breasts fly free…and binding them to me is another straitjacketing of our femaleness….I HATE bras, and they are also incredibly uncomfortable. Only for the most formal events will I wear them. And for years the only clothes in my closet are men’s or androgynous clothes that fit. All the women’s clothes are gone.

    So here’s to being Butch for a lifetime and Butch Fashion, not as something vain, but as something empowering, where we don’t have to feel we gotta ‘femme ourselves up’ FOR ANYBODY, and still recognized as the strong, proud Females we are! And for all the little tomboys growing up who hopefully will have less to struggle against than us. Maybe we need to find a way to encourage and even mentor them. My family put me in ‘charm school’ and Girl Scouts but neither worked to feminize me. Instead I eventually got onto the hockey team for a couple years and into martial arts which has been my lifelong love since age 14!

    All this comes down to fear of Lesbianism/Homosexuality, and is something we constantly gotta work on so every tomboy girl can feel proud of who she is, not just in childhood, but in puberty and beyond, and be her OWN Authentic Self without shame!

  • Thanks for writing this. It describes my situation perfectly! I’ve been more consciously ignoring the subtle suggestions to dress more feminine in the last few years. In some senses my chosen career path lets me off the hook a little since what I wear doesn’t matter at work. I’ve settled on pretty androgynous, a little gender fluid, and in many ways I’m still trying to get comfortable with the whole fashion situation.

    I’m glad you figured out the wardrobe situation. You look great. Maybe I will get there someday. I’ve amassed a few clothing items that fit great and make me feel comfortable in the gender neutral territory. I find myself wanting to explore more and get more looks that work. I like the look of some menswear but most of the time am hard pressed to find things that fit me and make me look good. It’s hard enough walking in and dealing with the quizzical expressions. All of it is very discouraging, most of the time. I’m sartorial enough to want to look good but not quite enough to figure out what is going wrong when it doesn’t. Sigh. It’s a process and I’m learning, so thank you to you and others out there who are sharing their experiences and tips. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one dealing with this!

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