Young girls who are assertive and unconcerned with being “girly” are often called tomboys, but what are we really saying to our daughters when we call them that?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
If given a choice I have always dressed in exactly the same outfit my entire life: a black shirt, black pants and sensible boots. It’s not just because I am always dressing for efficiency, but also because that is the aesthetic that I find most appealing. Even as a child, I hated having to be decked up or colourful. I liked having my hair cut short and I enjoyed being outdoors. I never really could understand the value of combing my hair or ironing my clothes. I was outspoken and that often led to my parents worrying about me and trying to avoid letting me come in contact with their more conservative friends. There was a term that was used to describe me, a term we use to describe all rough-and-tumble girls who don’t take to make-up or softness. They called me a tomboy. I thought that was just a neutral descriptor but over the years, I have come to feel that it might be the most offensive thing we could say to a young girl.
Let me explain.
Right off the bat, when we say the term ‘tomboy’ what we are saying is that this is a girl who acts like a boy which means we have already decided the manner in which girls and boys are to behave. I was called a tomboy because I was interested in politics, social reform and never cleaning my room. I was called a tomboy because I had short hair, I liked black and rolling around in the dirt. I was called a tomboy because I wore baggy t-shirts, unflattering trousers and talked about my career a lot. It was presented to me as if “tomboy” is an acceptable gender based identification prescribed to someone like me. I didn’t know it was for me to choose, and I didn’t realise it was even about gender. To me it was presented as acceptance, because I didn’t feel accepted within the gender I was assigned at birth, it felt like an olive branch that I was all too pleased to take because it felt like I was then normal.
I believed I had to be a tomboy and that meant I had to judge women who care about their nails and ones who buy pink diaries. I had to be unemotional about everything and focus on always being the responsible one in any situation. I had to focus on functionality and never on aesthetic. I had to fight for everything and do it loudly on behalf of people who never even asked me to do it. That way I could be secure in my identity as a tomboy, afterall what I wanted from life was to be a black-clad, smooth-talking, career oriented, weight-lifting, tax paying, social justice warrior and being a tomboy seemed like it was exactly that.
But I never should have been encouraged to call myself a boy just because those were the things I wanted from my life. Tomboys don’t grow up to be women or men in view of society, when we grow up we become women who are trying to be men and we do it to gain acceptance from men. It should never have been taught to me that I had to aspire to manhood to be able to have the goals I and the right to speak as loudly as I desired. As I grew older I began to crush my own desire, I stopped allowing myself any indulgence in aesthetics, even when I wanted to decorate my world. I wouldn’t let myself experience emotion because that was the womanly thing to do, as if emotion plagues only those that bear vaginas. I stunted myself because I was taught I was always trying to be a man and I had to continue to do that.
But what is it that we really way about men and women when we do this?
We say that men are the ones who speak loud, the ones who care about career, the ones who are allowed to shed focus from appearance long enough to get dirty, the ones who focus on solution and not emotion when one can obviously do both at once. Then when we call girls of similar persuasions “tomboys” we strip them of their gender and tell them they are aspirational boys; we tell them that they want what boys get and they want to live how boys so. Instead I should have been taught that women come in all forms, just like men. That I could a girl who liked mud or a girl who liked pink and it didn’t really speak to my gender orientation. I should have been taught that women have as much right to ambition and ego as men do.
What happens when we call girls like me tomboys is that we tell them they are trying to eat from the pot of another. We are trying to take what belongs to men by acting like them. That’s what the patriarchy wants, it wants women to believe we have less rights to opportunity and economic advancement and it wants men to believe that every opportunity that a woman gets is an opportunity that they lost. It wants to explain women as opposed to letting us grow into whomsoever we have the right to be. When you call a tough girl, a boy, you tell her she is taking the rights that belong to a specific gender. They aren’t just the rights of men though and young girls deserve to know that. They deserve to be able to be sweaty and confrontational without being told they are boys for doing so. They deserve to know their own rights without feeling like they are borrowing them from another.
I am not a tomboy, I never was.
I was just a girl who wasn’t taught that I don’t have to be a man to be free, and that is an offence most severe.