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:
- Boys have penises, girls have vulvas.
- 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.