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Stop telling young girls they’re “tomboys”

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about our favorite activities when we were little. I told him that in kindergarten, I spent most of my time playing with toy cars. In primary school, I had a few girl friends with whom I got along very well, but I especially liked to challenge the boys on climbing games. It was who would do the best face upside down without falling or breaking their wrist – which caused me to break one. I also loved climbing trees, running, biking, playing soccer and basketball with my dad, and walking on stilts.

Growing up, I became less daredevil, but I discovered another passion thanks to my brother: video games. I spent literally hours there and even though in college days I had quite a few friends (mostly boys), I was only looking forward to after class: to get home to play online on computer or listening to music on the internet. I paid little attention to how I dressed compared to other girls my age, but I felt good.

What’s funny is that my friend had practically the same taste as me when she was little, even though we both thought we were a bit unique in our own way. A little on the sidelines, even.

Genuinely concerned parents

Once back home, I searched out of curiosity the definition given totomboy». The expression would have appeared in the XVIe century, designating first a “presumptuous woman, a prostitute” and then, from 1590, “a wild, mad girl, who acts like a fiery boy”. Its French version“tomboy”, did not appear until the middle of the XXe century. The adjective “failed” already implies a lot in itself: the girl would lack something for her to be a proper boy; and at the same time, she would lack something to be a girl.

I came across sites where parents were worried about their daughter “only playing with boys”.

As author Erell Hannah rightly notes on the website of the association Osez le féminisme!, if the expression “tomboy” is still commonly used to designate a girl with an attitude considered masculine, a boy who has “girlish habits” will not reap the qualification of “tomboy”. He will simply be called a “girl” – apparently being a girl is already an insult in its own right.

Then, I came across the most frequently searched questions on Google containing this phrase: “How do I know if I am a tomboy?”; “How to stop being a tomboy?”. And in English: “Is it okay to be a tomboy?»; “How do I deal with my tomboy daughter?»

I’ve scoured the forums and this is indeed a question that comes up many times: “My daughter is a tomboy, what should I do?” I came across sites where parents worried because their child “only play with boys” and that she is more interested in “physical activities” by “the emotions”. I also read the testimony ofa parent whose 12-year-old daughter gets dressed “like a tomboy”, and who was looking for advice because he didn’t know what to answer to the latter when she asked him if she could appeal to boys of his age in this way.

I imagine the scene and the havoc it may have wreaked on this girl’s self-confidence. Of course it can appeal to boys. Beyond the fact that the most important thing is that she feels good about herself in the clothes she wears, if she feels beautiful, chances are that boys will find her beautiful too. (Recall in passing that boys are not only attracted to flirtatious girls who wear floral dresses.)

Gender expression has nothing to do with gender identity

As a committee of pediatricians linked to the Canadian Pediatric Society explains, parents play an essential role in their daughter’s quest for identity. This quest begins at the age of 2, when children understand the differences that there can be between boys and girls and they begin to identify with one or the other – knowing that this kind “does not necessarily correspond to sex assigned at birth”say the doctors.

“Some children’s gender identity remains stable throughout their lives, but others may alternate between being ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, or even assign themselves other gender identities to various times (sometimes even within a single day). This is normal and healthy”can we read a little further on the site.

By age 8 and up, while most children have a gender identity that matches the sex assigned at birth, pre-adolescence and adolescence can turn everything upside down again. Pediatricians insist: “Because some children’s gender identity may change, especially around puberty, families are encouraged not to rule out any possibilities for their child.”

Finally, it is very important to differentiate between “gender identity” and “gender expression”. The child can express his gender very clearly by saying, for example, “I am a girl”just as he can also do it through his dress and his haircut, the choice of his toys and his activities, his social relations, his nicknames…

Gender expression, on the other hand, does nothing to determine gender identity. A young girl may very well refuse to wear dresses and heels, have her hair cut short, practice a combat sport, have more boy friends than girl friends, like to be called by a boy’s name and s identify (deeply) with the feminine gender.

Lesbian stereotype

In the many testimonials that I received, many women did not see the problem of adopting, at a younger age, certain so-called “masculine” codes. For them, it was not even a subject. It was the people around them (adults, their classmates, society in general) who labeled them “tomboyish” and implied that something was wrong with their attitude.

Dominique told me how it went for her: “Adolescence was a nightmare. When you’re 15 and no one talks to you because you don’t normally act like a “girl”, it’s hellish to live with. From “tomboy”, I had gone to “dyke”. I tried once or twice to dress in a skirt and feminine shoes, but I was very uncomfortable, I felt like everyone was laughing at me. So I quickly put on my jeans, my sweatshirt and my sneakers.

This is another hard-to-find stereotype: a girl who dresses in a masculine way would necessarily be a lesbian. However, in the same way that the way of expressing a gender has nothing to do with identification, it has nothing to do with sexual identity either. The only person able to know their sexual orientation is themselves. “Around 15, I felt like an alien, 27-year-old Leslie told me. I had a big identity questioning and the fact of suffering from my “masculinity” prevented me from discovering myself sexually. I was only able to discover my sexuality much later, once I got rid of this shackles of femininity imposed on women.

Millions of ‘remodeled’ girls

Jack Halberstam, specialist in gender studies (gender studies), talks about the difficult transition to adolescence for girls in her book Female Masculinity: “Teenage tomboyish presents a problem and tends to be subject to the harshest reorientation efforts. One could say that being a “tomboy” is tolerated as long as the child remains prepubescent; as soon as puberty begins, however, all the weight gender conformity falls on the girl. It is in this context that the ‘tomboyish’ instincts of millions of girls are reshaped according to codes consistent with femininity.

Like many girls, going to high school was synonymous with big changes for me. I started dressing and adopting very feminine attitudes, but for the wrong reasons: I did it because I felt that was expected of me as a girl.

For Elisabeth, things got even more complicated when she entered college: “The rejection of which I was the victim in class ended up waking up in me, precisely, a rejection of the norm. They called me a “tomboy”, so I was going to become totally a boy, I told myself. In fact, I stayed away and I do not have a good memory of this period. Things started to improve from high school, where I met people who looked a little more like me and where I began to rediscover, little by little, my femininity.

“At 50, my relationship to femininity is almost non-existent”


It also took me some time to finally manage to (re)construct my own vision of femininity. Even today, at 30, I know that this work is far from finished. And for other women, the wound may be deeper. “Today I am 50 years old and my relationship to femininity is almost non-existent, Dominique told me. I’m still just as uncomfortable with my body and I hide it as much as possible. I still hear, sometimes, unpleasant reflections on my passage. But today, even if I hear them, they no longer affect me like when I was a child or a teenager. Somewhere it’s a strength vis-à-vis others, but deep inside me, it’s a pain. I have the impression of having missed out on my life as a girl and as a woman.

Neither “real girl” nor “tomboy”

Under the rise of feminism, things tend to change. Although there is still work to be done, a multitude of books, comics, series, films and female artists defend an uninhibited and more open vision of femininity, allowing young and old to find their way around. .

For Clémence, the revelation took place after having read The emotional charge by EmmaClit. “I realized that I was being exploited for just that, being a ‘tomboy’. Already at work: “She doesn’t create ‘feminine’ conflicts and works well with men? Let’s put her in charge of a search party, but don’t pay her more because she’s a woman.” And then with my spouse: “She doesn’t moan like the other girls when we behave like a kid? Let’s continue this momentum.” I was expected to take on so-called “feminine” tasks while remaining “a good friend”. When I left my husband, he told me that I was acting like a princess, that I was “worse than a girl”. It freed me!”

Spending thirty-seven years of her life believing she was a “tomboy” has been “an experience that is too long, difficult but above all stupid”. “I understood that I am simply a complex human being, like everyone else. That being a “real girl” or a “tomboy” serves as an excuse to make someone fit into a mold. Me, that’s it, I’m out of all that, I finally feel free.

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