Deconstructing the “Tomboy” | By Navneet Khinda

The word tomboy first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1556 and was defined as “a rude, boisterous, or forward boy”. In 1579, a second entry states that a tomboy is  “a bold or immodest woman”, and in 1592, it is “a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden”.

Growing up, I was the girl in the park, swinging on the monkey bars and doing daredevil tricks, like rollerblading down a hill, or jumping from swings and doing backflips on precarious pieces of playground equipment.

I enjoyed sports and I liked to curse. For a year in elementary school, I went through a phase where I would wear baggy pants and had short hair. Though my sense of style has evolved greatly, there are still elements of the way that I composed myself as a girl that I carry with me to this day. One of these is the fact that I have always gravitated towards boys and men in regards to my friendships.

This doesn’t mean I dislike girls or anything of that sort, I just mean that many a time I find myself connecting to my male peers in different ways, and sometimes more meaningful ways, than I do with my female peers. So because I would hang out with the boys, and because I enjoyed rough sports and dressed a certain way, I would be called a tomboy. And that left me with two reactions, and though I didn’t explicitly recognize them at the time, I’ve now realized how much it affected the way I think and interact with people.

When people meant it in a good sense, as a compliment, they affirmed the notion that male characteristics are good and to be favored.

When they used it to shame me, like “oh, your daughter is such a tomboy!”, it signified that because I’m a girl, it was wrong for me to adopt certain traits.

Now those are other people’s opinions. But why did I enjoy being a “tomboy”? If you asked me that a decade ago, I would say one of the following:

“Because I like having fun!”
“Because I like to run around and tackle people!”
“Because I feel strong and fearless!”

If I were to answer that question now, I would say, “because I like feeling powerful”.

Being associated as a tomboy was something that I liked. I always gravitated towards being friends with boys and playing with them. And I think it’s because I don’t like feeling disempowered. I mean who does? Early on I internalized the notion that only boys can do certain things and be good at them, so if I wanted to be good at those things, I should be like a boy.

I like feeling powerful. It’s extremely problematic then, if the predominant way that I could feel powerful as a young girl, was to associate myself with boys or male characteristics. For that reason, being called a tomboy was a compliment.

But I think this represents a major shortcoming in the upbringing of children and in the ways that we as a society shape their identities. By being called a tomboy, it reinforces the notion that only boys can be athletic; that’s it only acceptable for boys to take risks and be daring and loud.

And that’s just on the playground. How does this translate into our professional and adult lives? I think it’s no surprise then that we see fewer women at the top of their chosen career fields if they’ve always been told that risk-taking is only for boys. So if we want to improve the situation for everyone, no matter what gender, one thing we can do is reevaluate the way we react to children and the way they play. It would have been great to have people say to me, “oh look at her, she’s so athletic!”

We can start by not calling our daughters tomboys, as either a compliment or derogatory term. (The same goes for its opposite – the “girly girl”). And then hopefully this will help distill the notion that only certain characteristics are normal and accepted behaviour for any gender.  Yes, many people may see the word “tomboy” as a positive thing; that the girl they’re describing is confident, active, and not bound by gender stereotypes, yet this fails to realize the simultaneous reinforcement of these behaviours as “boy” behaviours; if a girl is confident, she is acting like a boy rather than a confident girl.

On the flip-side of this discussion, we face the reality that it’s actually less acceptable for boys to adopt female characteristics or to enjoy “girly things”, as it is for girls to enjoy “boy things”. For example, society is at the point now where it’s acceptable for women to wear pants and sit on a horse properly. However, if a boy were to paint his nails, he’s labeled as gay. Similarly, girls who are called tomboys are sometimes thought of as lesbians.

This practice of categorizing actions and personality traits as male or female, and subsequently as characteristic of tomboys or sissies, is wrong and unproductive and ultimately harmful when manifested in adult life.

I enjoy being in a position of power and influence. But that does not mean that I should feel like I have to be assertive, like a man, or be rough and risk-taking, like a man, to feel powerful. In order for all women, or actually all people, to gain access to this power, they must first feel that they are allowed to access it within their own skin.

Because surely, by now, a thirst for adventure and a desire for independence isn’t solely reserved for the “spirited boy” or the “wild romping girl”.


Image courtesy of Anna on flickr.

You can follow the author @navneetkhinda

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