I was thirteen years old when I first realized that most people thought of being a tomboy as a childhood phase rather than an enduring personality characteristic.
In fact, this mindset is so pervasive to the point of cliché that it is a plot device in many movies. That is, unless the girl is particularly young, she is presented as a tomboy in the beginning of the movie only as a segue to illustrate her journey into becoming a "young lady", usually at around age twelve [Now and Then (1995) immediately comes to mind]. And these movies seem to reflect the expectation that being a tomboy is a phase that is put to rest around the start of puberty, especially when a first crush enters the picture. In fact, the word "tomboy" specifically refers to young, prepubescent girls. There is no equivalent word for teen girls or adult women that does not have a lesbian connotation.
Like many women with Asperger's Syndrome, I was a tomboy growing up and still identify as one today. By my mid-teens, I got a very clear message that being a tomboy was considered a sign of immaturity. When I was fourteen, I went with my family at Boston's New England Aquarium. My parents asked me to put my baseball cap on backwards. This was really unusual as they both hated it when I wore baseball caps backwards (Dad just hated backwards-pointing baseball caps to begin with; Mom disliked the fact that it made me look boyish), but they asked me to do it so that I would look twelve and be able to get into the aquarium at the eleven-and-under ticket price. When I asked Dad why wearing my hat backwards would make me pass for eleven more easily, he said, "Well, it makes you look like a little tomboy." Yes, and people assume tomboys are little girls.
Over the next few years, I had numerous fights with my mother about my choice of clothing. I preferred T-shirts/sweaters and jeans and only dressed in girly clothes on holidays when Mom made me (I hated it but put up with it because I knew it would be over in a couple hours). But she wanted me to dress girly at school as well. She thought it would stop the horrendous bullying I experienced. During one of our fights, Mom said to me, "You're growing up and it's about time you start looking like a girl!" Again, there was the implication that being a tomboy and dressing like one is immature. These fights scared me because I knew that I would never, ever be comfortable in what I jokingly call boob-neckline shirts, dresses, skirts, and makeup. If I were still this way as an adult, would that make me perpetually immature?
Over the years I have begun to wear slightly more feminine clothing than I used to (still no boob-necklines, skirts, dresses, or makeup), but usually these garments have a bit of a "hippie" edge to them. I have grown to like some of the "hippie girl" clothes. And I didn't start wearing them because I thought people would see me as more mature or because I wanted to impress a guy, but because my tastes slightly changed. Right now I can hear somebody saying, "Well, that's a sign of maturity." But why? Why is conforming to gender expectations considered maturity? What about butch lesbians who dress girly in childhood and then present butch in adulthood? Nobody would ever dream of saying that the fact that they figured out that they weren't girly girls (or simply experiencing a shift in preferences)-- that is, being honest about who they were-- was a sign of maturity.
What has always bothered me is how movies present their tomboy characters going through a drastic, overnight change rather than a gradual, subtle and nuanced change. In Now and Then, the tomboy Roberta tapes her boobs and wears androgynous clothing. But by the end of the movie she has stopped taping her boobs, not because she no longer feels the urge to do it, but because she wants to impress her first crush. And of course by the end of the movie she is wearing girly clothes. I've often said cynically, "Coming-of-age movies about boys and girls have two things in common-- discovery and boys."
Oh, but it's just a movie, you say? Well, I remember in eighth grade one of my best friends went from tomboy to girly-girl literally over the course of a weekend. And this change wasn't superficial. It marked the beginning of a drastic change. Within months, my friend no longer shared my interests and I barely knew her anymore. Things only went downhill from there, and she even eventually sided with the bullies.
Oh, but what's wrong with being a girly girl, you ask? Aren't you being just as bad as those who say that tomboys are "wrong"? No, I'm not saying that being a girly-girl is wrong. I just find myself wondering why so many tomboys change drastically overnight. In fact, I've noticed that with girls in general, not just tomboys. Many girls (by no means all of them, but enough that it left an impression on me) I knew growing up seemed to change their interests and their personalities within the first year of adolescence. The boys on the other hand? Yeah, they grew up, but their interests grew with them. They weren't left by the wayside.
And I will say this: Outgrowing "that tomboy stage" does occasionally happen in the same nuanced and gradual manner of the changes that we all go through as we grow up. And when it does, it seems more authentic and less of a response to peer pressure or a feeling of obligation from a first crush. In the summer of 2000 when I worked at a camp in Michigan, there was an eleven-year-old girl, Karen (not her real name) whom I initially mistook for a boy. She dressed in clothing that clearly came from the boys' department, and she had a boyish haircut. Same deal in 2001 and 2002. When I returned to volunteer for two weeks in 2007, Karen was eighteen years old. She had grown her hair out and her clothing was somewhat more feminine. But she didn't become super-girly-- that is, she didn't undergo a drastic change, superficially let alone in her personality. Yes, there are pictures of her on Facebook in dresses, but there are also pictures of her wearing androgynous clothing (though not the male clothing she wore as a child). When I saw her in 2007 with a more feminine look, I knew that it was still Karen in there. She simply changed the way she dressed and wore her hair. She was still funny, irreverent, intelligent, and athletic Karen. And I had never known her well, but I knew enough to know that she most likely grew out her hair and changed her clothing style as a personal decision, not as a response to peer pressure. She probably underwent a gradual, nuanced change that likely reflected a change in taste. But again, is that a reflection of maturity, or just a change in taste?
One of the reasons I blog is to raise consciousness about unconscious assumptions many of us have. There seems to be an assumption that gender conformity is a sign of maturity. Actually, I think conformity in general is seen as a sign of maturity. More on that next week. Stay tuned!