Tomboys or Just Kids? (Outgrowing Labels)

This weekend I read an article in The New York Times titled “Outgrowing ‘Tomboy'”, and it got me thinking. It examined how the term “tomboy” had fallen out of fashion. The article argues that our ideas of those historically viewed as tomboys have changed in light of a growing acceptance of transgendered children. Now children who once would have been described as tomboys are “gender non-conformists” or “gender-expansive.”

Clearly those formerly known as tomboys are still running around, playing in the mud, and that’s just one shade of grey in identifying little girls, and people in general. After I finished reading, I kept thinking: do we really need to continue to put people (tomboys, or anyone) in boxes? We categorize individuals to make it easier for us to understand them. It seems the number of “boxes” in which we could place people proliferates by the day (gender fluid is a prime example), so isn’t it time we skip this step and accept individuals as…brace yourself…actual individuals? Can’t someone just be Bob, without a qualifier?

I was considered by many to be tomboy, although I didn’t understand that phrase until later in life. That fact proved painful at times, and now I wear it as a badge of honor, maybe because of the painful parts. When I asked my mother about my tomboy tendencies, she said she didn’t think of me as a tomboy but, she declared, she certainly “wasn’t going to raise any sissies.” Full disclosure: my mother was a total tomboy so she likely thought this was perfectly normal. And that’s just the point: it is!

I loved to play and watch sports, I wrestled with my father and brother, and was teased for playing with “boy” toys and not Barbie. When I realized the latter was a bad thing, I remember making up an excuse to those first grade mean girls that I only played with them with my brother. But I was made to feel bad…and different (maybe even worse for a child) because I liked GI Joes, He-Man and Transformers (let’s face it, they were way more fun than Barbies…because they transformed, duh!)

My father emailed me the picture below, one of his best friends sent it to him. He recalled the context, “You are smiling despite a bloody nose from diving for a football. You were goal oriented even then.” While nursing that bloody nose, it appears I chose to wear a plastic Wonder Woman costume (good thing it was plastic, a bustier is a little much on a five-year-old). Not only is this photographic evidence that I developed my keen fashion sense early, but also of the duality of what being a child is in many, many cases. Can’t we play football and be Wonder Woman? If I had a pink bow in my hair would that be better or worse? If I had a short, “boy” haircut, would that mean I wanted to be, or felt as if I was a boy? Who cares!

Plastic was on-trend in the '80's I swear

Plastic was on-trend in the ’80’s I swear

For me it was a phase, I came to enjoy Barbies, but as my mom points out, all my Barbies were “professionals,” frequently journalists, covering breaking news in our basement. I grew to embrace dresses, and boys became more than just playmates. But had this metamorphosis happened a few years later would I have been the subject of high school bullying for what I was perceived to have been?

Was I really a “gender non-conformist” as a child or was I just a kid doing kid things based on preferences and not society’s traditional gender assignments? I can’t imagine my mom ever referring to me as “my gender non-conformist daughter.” And I will never refer to my future daughter as that (although I will not raise sissies either). She will just be my daughter, whether she hates pink, or loves it.

Will we every be able to accept each other as just Bob…or Emily…and lose the labels? I hope so. Maybe retiring “tomboy” is a step in the right direction.