How I got to be Such a Tomboy

by julie swanson

I went from this in 5th grade…

…to this in 6th. So much happier because I was finally allowed to get my hair cut and wear boys’ clothes.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the word ‘tomboy’ and how I’ve come to see it differently. I’ve thought a lot about the whole notion of being a tomboy and have a lot to say about it, at least about the kind of tomboy I was.

Why? Well, I’ve spent much of my life wondering why I was such a tomboy. As a kid I’d look around at the other girls–my sister, cousins, the girls in school, girls at church–and think How can they be happy? How can they be OK with it? How can they stand it? Am I the only one who hates being a girl? Why? Why don’t they feel like I do? 

My question was never, “Why was I a tomboy?” (I got that; I had two older brothers and wanted to do what they did and be just like them, I was born with a strong and capable body and delighted in seeing all that it could do, I had a natural affinity for the out-of-doors and nature, and I spent much of my childhood in a rural area. Exploring in the woods, weeds, dirt, and water, catching critters, running and jumping around, throwing things and climbing, riding bikes–those things were fun!) My question was, “Why did I become such an extreme, anti-anything-feminine tomboy?”

It’s taken many years, but I think I finally have it figured out  (and I share it here because I’ve never read anything on this, and I would’ve liked to. I would’ve liked to know I was not alone in this and that someone else understood. I know I can’t be the only one to have ever felt this way. There must be others out there. I’ve talked to people who can relate to a point, but never to anyone who can totally relate. So here it is, for those of you who were like  me–or still are–and would be glad to know you’re not alone, or for those of you who might better understand such a tomboy by reading this):

I was raised in a culture (my family, our religion, the area we lived in, the larger society of that time) where women were seen and treated as weak and inferior. Many of the men in my life were of the Archie Bunker mindset, and many of them women were less comical, more intelligent versions of Edith Bunker. I heard men saying that women weren’t as capable, that they talked too much, were too sensitive, that “women and machinery don’t mix,” that the short-haired stranger who’d nearly sideswiped us on the highway “must’ve been a woman… because only a woman driver would do something like that.” Anything that didn’t work or broke, “must’ve been designed by a woman.” My uncles would tease one another after a bad toss in horseshoes by saying, “Shit, Ricky, a woman could’ve done better than that!”  It wasn’t that I never saw women loved, appreciated, or respected, but it was women and not men who I saw getting poked fun of, criticized, blamed, ignored, oggled. Women cooked and cleaned and babysat all weekend while men played golf and cards. Men rolled their eyes at women, waved or pointed them away.

One time, as a newlywed visiting my parents, I wanted to go somewhere with my dad and Steve (my dad had said to him, “Come on, let’s take a ride. I’ll show you a house I’m working on and then we’ll stop and get a burger,” something like that…), but when I asked if I could come, or said that I was, my dad said, “No, you stay here. You’re just a woman.” He meant it. He wasn’t teasing (even when he did tease, there was always too much hurtful truth in his teasing. But I knew the difference between his thinnly veiled jabs and his serious comments; a mischievous look accompanied the one and not the other). I was furious and immediately told him how his ‘just a woman’ comment bothered me, but his reaction validated that he honestly didn’t get how what he’d said was at all offensive. It was as if, for him, it was simply a fact–I was just a woman. He couldn’t understood why it would bother me and I had to explain it, finally getting through to him by asking him how Mom would feel if someone were to ask her what she did for a living and then, upon hearing her answer that she was a teacher, remark, “Oh, you’re just a teacher.” He acknowledged that such a comment would be insulting and finally saw my point. Phew.

A small event that had a huge effect on me happened when I was five. My dad and his brothers were playing pool in our basement and I was watching, hanging around close by. I’d been there a long time, hoping one of them would let me play or at least take a shot. They finished one game and began racking up the balls in the triangle to begin a new one. Seeing this between-game opportunity, I gathered my courage (I was extremely shy) and asked, “Can I play?” One of my uncles bellowed, “No, women belong in the kitchen!”  All my uncles (and probably even my dad; I didn’t want to look) laughed at his ‘joke.’ I was hurt and angry and said, “I’m not a woman!” To which this uncle said, “No, but you will be, go on…” and he pointed me up the basement stairs to the kitchen. Refusing to be scared off like that, I went and sat backwards on a nearby bar stool with my arms crossed over the back of it and my chin on my arms, glaring up from under at them. All I could think of as I fumed (and tried not to cry) was, No, I won’t! I’ll never be a woman! I want to have fun, too, you know. When I get big, I’m not spending my holidays cooking and cleaning up for you! 

For 40 years that seemed the right response to me—“I’ll never be a woman!”—but it’s only in the past five years that I’ve come to see how twisted it was that my answer would be to say, “I’ll never be a woman” instead of, “You’re crazy, women don’t just belong in the kitchen. They belong wherever they want to be.”

But that was how I coped as a kid. Instead of seeing that I could be a different type of female than what I saw modeled by the women in my life, I denied I was a girl, that I’d ever be a woman, and I sided with the men instead, the boys. I tried to be just like them, one of them—Strong. I came to look down on girls and women just as they did. I saw feminine girls as weak and prissy, trivial, disgusting, kissy, frilly, giggly, sissies, crybabies. I valued nothing about being female. I didn’t want to look or act like one. No way did I want to be a girl, not if meant people were going to see me or treat me as weak and foolish and all the bad things I’d heard said or implied about women. No way did I want to be a girl if it meant I had to grow up and swallow all of that with a smile, if I had to be a maid and a servant and just a pretty face who pretended she felt or liked whatever it was the men wanted her to.

So I denied I was a girl. Instead of standing up for women when my uncle told me “Women belong in the kitchen,” instead of saying, “No, that’s not true,” I said, “I’m not a woman” and thought, I’ll never be one, either. I really came to believe it was impossible that I’d grow up to be a woman, that it was impossible for me to transform into such a disgusting thing. I didn’t want to be a girl. I hated being one. I convinced myself I was not. Deep inside, I was not a normal girl–I wasn’t sure what I was, a boy or something in between a boy and a girl, but at my core I did not believe I was a girl, or that I was meant to be one–and I was sure time would prove me right.

If you’re reading this and you’re a female who faced sexism growing up, maybe you took a different strategy, the one I should have, and when confronted with sexism as a girl or young woman you said or thought, “Yes, I am a woman, and this is not fair, and I’m going to fight to show you that I belong wherever you belong, and that I should be able to have whatever you have, and do whatever you do.” Or maybe not, maybe when you were young, you were a lot like me only you woke up earlier to the twisted psychology you were using, the same twisted psychology I operated under—unconsciously—for so long. I mean I was conscious of not wanting to be a girl, but I wasn’t conscious of the real reason why I didn’t want to be a girl, not until just recently. All these years I thought it was because I truly despised so many things that are thought of as typically feminine (and not that I was conditioned to think that I had no value if I was those things, or that I was of a lesser value, unless I was like a boy, a man).

I had real gender issues as a kid, and as an adult. Even though I’m happily married and have three kids and I enjoyed staying home to raise them, there have been many times I’ve stood among a group of mothers or wives chatting about their kids’ nap times or potty training or husbands or any number of wifely/motherly subjects, and I’ve wanted to shout, “GET ME OUT OF HERE! I AM NOT ONE OF THEM!” It’s taken me all this time to realize and accept that, yes, I am one of them—or that I’m a female at least, a woman—but that I’m a different kind of woman, my own kind of woman that defies so many of those labels and stereotypes I cannot stand.

When I realized what I’d been doing all those years—in denying I was a girl—I felt like such a traitor. Instead of fighting to improve the ship, the Girl Ship, I jumped ship. Instead of being mad at men and our male-dominated culture for making me feel so bad about what I’d been born as, I looked down on girls and women, including myself and who I was as a girl. I disliked what I was so much that I was in denial that I was even female.

Really, as a kid, I thought I’d die before it was possible that I could ever go through puberty and change into something undeniably female. How ridiculous was that? It would be like a black person growing up with all sorts of prejudice and deciding that they weren’t black, somehow believing they just weren’t black! How incredible is that, that I could convince myself of that, and truly not see myself as a girl for so long? Yes, eventually, around 14 I had to accept the ‘sad’ truth, but even then, I identified with boys and men, not girls. I know people might not be able to understand what I’m saying because when I was just starting to understand this all myself, it blew my mind. It was a slippery little realization starting to take form and make sense and break into my consciousness. Sometimes I got it and sometimes I lost it; it was like a flickering flame of understanding. And then it felt like an epiphany. I felt like at 46 I was just finally growing up and understanding things about myself that I should have long before that.

Up until two years ago, if someone asked me if I was a feminist, I would say, “No,” but then go on to explain that I was all for equal rights and everything, and I thought it was still a man’s world and that women were unfairly treated, but that I didn’t like how those traditionally labeled as feminists went about their crusade. I’d seen too many ‘man-hater’ feminists over the years. I didn’t want to be identified with them. I’d known and loved too many men who were good, or at least who had too many good things about them for me to want to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ as these strong and angry women seemed to be doing in what I saw as reverse sexism.

But lately I’ve been seeing that I too am a feminist, and in fact always have been (in a way I was the biggest little feminist as a girl, but a closet feminist), and that I shouldn’t be afraid to call myself one. I see now that, just as I don’t have to be a prissy girl and can be any kind of girl I want, I can be the kind of feminist I want to be, too. I can be a feminist and like men. And I can like men and still be angry at/with them.