Posted by diagnosemylife
When most people hear the phrase “tomboy” or “tomgirl” they think of images like these:
But that can pose kind of a problem for people who look like this:
The phrase “tomboy” is complicated for many reasons. “Tomboy” can mean a behavior, like the stereotypical “tomboy” who enjoys playing sports and hangs out with guys. “Tomboy” can also describe a style of clothing, which is more masculine (but typically feminine enough to be socially acceptable, for example “boyfriend” jeans). And finally, you have a definition of “tomboy” as a personality…someone who would be considered a guy if they weren’t (by others’ definition) a girl. Personally, I detest all of these versions of “tomboy”, but the last is probably the most problematic, so I’ll divulge into that first. Get ready for some gender ranting, folks.
Back in the day before people really talked about transgender issues or the existence of non-binary people, gender non-conforming people were just lumped into the “gay” category. Granted, some of these people were gay, which seemed to confirm the stereotypes that gay men are feminine and lesbians are butch, but some weren’t. The femme lesbians and masculine, gay men were pushed under the rug because they didn’t fit the stereotypes or standards of queerness that society set up, and because they often could “pass” as straight since they maintain their appropriate gender roles. But they weren’t the only ones throwing the general public for a loop…there were feminine men and masculine women who were heterosexual. These other people, who were also unexplained by stereotypes, were dealt with in a different way.
Society made no room for feminine, heterosexual men. Often they were taught as children to be ashamed of this part of themselves, bullied into hiding their feminine interests, and/or ostracized. Being feminine is still viewed as a negative trait for men, and still associated with homosexuality. So many feminine men hide their true feelings in order to avoid ridicule, because society praises masculinity.
Which brings to light the masculine women. Women began to gradually expand their gender roles as they began joining the workforce, professional sports leagues, and other traditionally male-dominated spaces. With time it became okay for women to express masculinity, because they were in spaces that typically rewarded masculine traits (for example, as women climbed the corporate ladders they dressed more “professional” in blazers and pantsuits, as well as became more assertive and independent in their attitudes). So, in order to put a name to these new changes and differentiate from the traditional feminine woman, “tomboy” was born. Like the feminine men, as children most “tomboys” were encouraged to assimilate to society and often bullied. But this was more relaxed, because many girls just “grew out of it”. Hmm, I wonder why that is…maybe because “tomboys” didn’t attract men? Men, in the efforts to once again avoid ridicule (not to mention maintain their privilege), avoided pursuing masculine women because the affection for a masculine person would probably “look gay”. So during puberty, when earning the affection of the opposite gender is important, heterosexual “tomboys” would abandon their masculine inclinations in order to look attractive. Or, if you’re looking at today’s “tomboys” they try to find ways to glam it up…adding jewelry, keeping a feminine haircut, wearing makeup… Which brings me to the stylistic aspect of “tomboy”.
The fashion industry has broken ground for non-binary people and opposed gender roles, true, but in the name of commercial pursuit the industry tends to go back to restrictive gender roles. Clothes geared toward “tomboys” tend to still emphasize the feminine shape of a “tomboy”‘s body, they use sparkles or pinks and purples to make it more traditionally “girly”, and they ultimately try to break down the masculine aspect of the clothing to still look attractive to men. That’s where I get peeved…it’s still all about looking hot for men, and looking “girly” enough to protect the precious egos of many men.
As for the behavior part of “tomboy”, it seems that society is doing a bit better lately. For a long time, traditionally masculine interests like sports, hunting, and technology were seen as strange interests for women, but because more women have pursued these interests it has broken out of the boundaries of “tomboy”…now, a woman can be sporty or outdoorsy without getting some sort of bullshit label. Those interests are gradually expanding in their definitions to include women. It’s no where near egalitarian, but it’s a start. I still cringe when I see the pink hunting gear, the short skirts female players are required to wear in tennis, etc. but hopefully these efforts to maintain the subordinate female gender role will fade with time.
A lot of positive change will only occur when both gender roles are dismantled. It’s not enough to erase the term “tomboy”; we must work to expand manhood as more than masculine… Femininity will never be seen as equal to masculinity until men feel comfortable enough to express it, or acknowledge that it is not an indication of weakness.
With all of that being said, I can finally get to my reason for bringing up this predicament of “tomboy”: the existence of “tomboy” often delegitimizes the expression of non-binary people who happen to have female parts. This is why it’s not always seen as such a dramatic transition when someone who was female comes out as female-to-male transgender or non-binary/genderqueer…because maybe they were just a “tomboy” before, and don’t necessarily look that much different now. Because the difference is not always a big contrast, a lot of cisgender people don’t always realize the significance of this change. And that’s how they can so easily misgender someone again and again…
“Tomboy” is what a lot of people see when they look at me. And I understand why they would think that, since I am attracted to men. It’s like when they assume I’m a butch lesbian; I understand why people would make that assumption because it’s true that I’m attracted to women. But I’m not either of those things, which leaves me wondering how I am supposed to express myself. How does a pansexual, genderqueer person look? What do they wear? How can you correctly identify them? I never thought I’d miss having someone correctly assume my gender identity, but I do…it can be so frustrating to constantly be seen as something other than your true self.
So that’s my “tomboy” rant. One thing I’d like to add to the discussion is that I’m not trying to imply that women with a “tomboy” style are wrong for doing so in any way—If that is what a person wants to wear, and it makes them feel good about themselves, then I have no room to tell them otherwise. I’m simply trying to express my frustration that society doesn’t always distinguish women with “tomboy” styles from non-binary people. And okay, I don’t always think the “tomboy” style is as feminist as it wants to portray itself, but that’s just my perception. If you think “tomboy” clothes are an expression of feminism, then you do you and wear them! My beef is with society and the meaning of “tomboy”, for all the complications it poses. However, it’s one situation that not going to resolve itself over night…