What Exactly is a Tomboy: Have You Ever Thought About It?
by Lucy Smith
Copied from the May 2008 Issue of Island Parent Magazine.
When I was a child I was called a tomboy. I remember processing it as a compliment, not a taunt, and took it as praise for being athletic, a fast runner, interested more in the outdoors than talking about dolls and boys. I was naturally athletic and I loved competition. I ran and played soccer and basketball at school. I sailed all summer, loved camping, hiking, rock climbing and back country skiing: anything that tested my physical limits. I took pride in being brave and fearless and tough. As the third and youngest child in an active family, I no doubt got positive feedback for having an independent attitude, and early success in sports only served to encourage my athletic interests. I had boys that were good friends, and all through high school had more boys that were ‘chums’ than boyfriends.
As a child, I felt happy identifying as a ‘tomboy’, and during my adolescence, I believe my athletic abilities gave me inner strength to weather the high school scene. As I became a young woman, however, I gradually came to wonder how the boyish label fit with being a girl: I also liked nice clothes and shoes and had heartbreaking crushes on countless boys. I home permed my hair (with disastrous results) in grade 12, experimented with make-up, and stared at fashion magazines, all the while training for the Provincial Track and Field Championships.
By the time I had reached University and my first women’s studies classes, I had outgrown the tomboy label and was a bona fide elite athlete, starring as a distance runner at University and going on to travel the world competing on national teams. At 23, I knew I wanted to be an Olympian and carve out a career as a professional athlete. I had forgotten all about the word tomboy, until I got to that inevitable crossroads in early adult life, where I had moved away from home and was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from my life.
Over the next few years as I became aware of the forces of sexism in our culture, it slowly dawned on me that tomboy was a strange sort of expression to apply to girls. Why would we label an active girl to be ‘sort of’ male? It seemed a little confusing to me, as the messages that I saw around me, mainly through the media, seemed to suggest that being a girl and a woman, had a lot more to do with choosing the right eye shadow and preparing for the perfect dream wedding. Tomboy seemed to be a good thing when I was little; now that I was growing up into a woman, what was I?
For a while in my late twenties I lived in Paris, racing as a professional triathlete on a French women’s triathlon team, but still mainly training with, and hanging out with male athletes, as women professionals were pretty scarce. While I loved the adventure of being in Europe, nothing could have felt more glaringly odd to me as a young woman than being a female athlete in the city of breasts, fashion and fragrance. I looked around at the billboards displaying airbrushed photographs of women without muscles, wrinkles or body hair. I knew that no amount of cream would melt fat or cellulite. I decided that someone was delusional, and it wasn’t me.
Like a lot of women born after the start of the feminist movement I had learned to be wary of media images of beauty, and had learned to be a critical reader and observer of popular culture. Nevertheless it was hard to be an athlete and a young woman and to never, ever see myself reflected in those popular images around me. I didn’t know what to think for many years. I felt so strongly that I needed to reject the ‘girly girl’ image that seemed so false (and dangerous, as I noticed eating disorders, low self esteem and disempowerment) that in a very concrete way, I was rejecting the ‘buy in’ to the culture of beauty that I felt was so demeaning to women because it refused to celebrate who women really were. In rejecting female stereotypes, I did in turn embrace a lot of characteristics that are part of the gender roles of males. And that is the essence of being a tomboy by most definitions.
From a pure etymology angle, tomboy is a word with an interesting history. At first a derogatory word to describe women who dressed like men way back in 1590, it gradually came to mean, as fashions changed and most women started to wear trousers, a women who acted more like a man than a woman, and by the time I was 10, it was considered cute to be called a tomboy.
Or did it only serve, for a while, to give me permission to be less like a stereotypical girl? One has to wonder, why should a girl or a woman who is athletic, sporty, strong, confident, competitive, competent, brave and smart be compared to a boy?
Women, like me, who are athletic and who like to wear mascara off the playing field, are just that: women who like sports among a whole host of other passions. I also like reading and writing and cooking and looking after my kids. As I reflect on my youth, I see that being called a tomboy was more confusing than helpful to me as it created a barrier to people (and myself included) seeing who I truly was. It would have been so much easier as a kid if I could have just been able to accept who I was as an active girl without having to deal with trying to decipher what being a tomboy meant.
Now that I am forty and balancing my athletic career with raising my two young children, my athleticism and accomplishments are embraced and respected. I am honoured to give inspiring talks to women who are beginning a journey to fitness and I enjoy giving back to the community that supports me by being a role model for kids, talking to them in gymnasiums and racing them around soccer fields. Nobody calls me a tomboy anymore and I see many young women who are fearlessly choosing to be athletes. Girls can play hockey, soccer and golf, though still not with the same opportunities as men. The balance is far from equal—there are far greater professional opportunities for male athletes than female, but girls just don’t need to be called tomboys anymore. And when the word disappears from common use and into the history of the language, that will be a good day.
I have noticed that in the post-feminist “Girl Power” movement, there is a strong reclaiming of the term tomboy amongst girls. I see girls trying to infuse power in the term, by saying they are proud to be tomboys. What I envision is a possibility that girls and women can transcend the whole issue of what their position is in relation to traditional power. Instead of responding to the term, I would like to see girls embrace a reality for themselves and one that embraces the whole of their radiant natures.
I have a seven year old girl. She has girl friends that I care about. I want these girls to grow up happy to be who they are. If they want to play with Barbie, then they should be happy about that need to explore. Barbie is an invitation to conversations about why every single Barbie has such crazy long legs, no muscles, such a tiny waist and big breasts, but I still think that if they want to play with dolls that’s just fine. And if my daughter feels like running, skipping or mastering a skateboard, I would like to think that she feels free and happy about that too, and I would hope she doesn't feel that she’s a little bit of a ‘different’ girl and tomboyish because she exhibits such daring and strength.
Last month, I sat on a small chair at a classroom table with my daughter and her grade 2 teacher. The three of us were in the classroom discussing friendships among a group of girls in the class. Her teacher, a compassionate and motherly woman, mentioned that my daughter might like to find other friends who were into sports. ‘You’re sort of a tomboy; maybe there are some other girls in the class who share your interests,” suggested her teacher.
My daughter paused before answering, glanced at me, then looked at her teacher and stated. “I don’t really like that word, tomboy, as it means that I am sort of like a boy, and I’m not. I’m a girl and I like sports and running and stuff. I’m a sporty girl. The word, tomboy doesn’t exist for me.”
My heart did one of those mother bursts: I felt such respect and love that she could reflect on her teacher’s use of words so well. I was surprised that our conversations about what it means to be a girl in this world had created this kind of awareness in her. I admired too, the way her teacher took the comments. She sat up straighter and opened her eyes in that sort of ‘aha!’ way that people get when they look at something through a different lens for the first time. This is a woman with a daughter too, a girl who is passionate about soccer. “I never thought about it like that”, she said. “I can see how you wouldn’t want to be compared to a boy like that.”
Having a career in sports has been a rewarding life path for me. I have travelled the world, had experiences in different cultures, and have met interesting people: all these have enriched my life. I have overcome obstacles and challenges. I have learned how to live with extremely stressful environments and people. I have learned how to stay balanced and in the moment while dealing with the highs and the lows that sport inevitably brings. The knowledge gained from a lifetime of athletic experiences helped me through childbirth and has made me a better parent and partner. After doing three Ironman triathlons and giving birth twice, I am not afraid of anything physically challenging or stressful. By staying true to my dreams, I feel that I have transcended my early tomboy label, and found true joy in my career path.
I am not a tomboy. I am me and tomboys don’t exist for me either.