Why The Term 'Tomboy' Needs to Go

5 years ago

I used to be a tomboy. Technically, I suppose I still am a tomboy.  I was always proud to be identified as a tomboy. It meant I wasn't a girly-girl. It meant I was good at sports.  A couple of decades later I realize that I was, still am, and will always be a girl/woman/lady/female who has always loved to run, jump, and play with little regard for how girls and women are 'expected' to behave.  This in no way makes me a boy of any type.

I will use Scraton, Fasting, Pfister and Bunuel's (1999) article about elite women soccer players in Europe to explain the problem with the term tomboy. The self-identified tomboy term was discussed easily by the interviewees in the excerpts below:

All of the women talked constantly about themselves as being 'other' to female or feminine, particularly describing their childhood experiences:


I was like a tomboy. I spent a lot of time together with the boys. It was fun and little rough. (Inger, Norway)

I've always been a tomboy. I can remember me and my Dad playing and then waiting to join in with the boys at junior school. (Jenny, England) 

I always wanted to be a boy because girls are not allowed to climb trees, to be a member of a gang, to play cowboys and Indians, to play soccer and to be involved in all these exciting adventures. (Gudrun, Germany) 

I was a tomboy, a tough guy, climbed trees and did many bad things. I preferred to play cars instead of dolls and I loved ice hockey...girls were stupid, they always started to cry, they could not run. (Andrea, Germany) 

In the experessive, almost sad quotes, the women are relationally constructing a self via what they consider themselves not to be - that is, girls.  They distance themselves from anything that they define as feminine, almost to the point of misogyny. (p.104)

I would have said the exact same things a few years ago (well, except for the part about wanting to be in a gang). But, what is interesting to note is that the older women get the less tomboy becomes an identifier. As a 10 year old, you might be the tomboy of your class. When you move into high school the self-identified tomboy probably plays on a sports team or two and has made friends with similar interests.  By the time university comes along the term tomboy, in my experience, is barely used. It might be used to refer to the way someone dresses but rarely have I heard an adult woman say that she is a tomboy. However, I do hear a lot of "I used to be a tomboy when I was younger" statements.  And it's not necessarily that we no longer play sports but, I think, it has more to do with the fact that you now know whole teams of women who love to compete, sweat and be physical. It's just who you are - an athletic woman.

I think that sad is an accurate way to describe the above quotes.  The tomboy label is a lose-lose identifier for all females.  It makes girls who like to play with dolls seems less than because on a scale where men rank the highest the tomboy has more value than a 'regular' girl.  However, the tomboy is also positioned as less than with regard to other females.  She becomes the 'other' just as Scraton et al., (1999) have identified.  If girls can think in such derogatory terms about other girls no wonder boys and young men think so little of their female counterparts.  Who also becomes lost and devalued in this equation is the little boy who isn't as boisterous as one would expect.  He becomes a wimp and a sissie.  He gets chosen after the tomboy for kickball.

To be a tomboy does not challenge gender norms, it merely reinforces them - boys do this and girls do that. Therefore, it is time that tomboy falls away from our vocabulary just like other derogatory terms have.  She who climbs trees and plays soccer in the mud is not a tomboy. She is a girl who likes to climb trees and play in the mud.  She may not be in the majority but neither is she abnormal.  She is a girl and whatever she does is what a girl does.  Every time we refer to a little girl as a tomboy we acknowledge the fact that girls aren't supposed to behave in that manner.  Just as I have consciously changed my opinion about girls who wear pink jerseys, I will now need to refrain from using the term tomboy which has been so deeply ingrained into my psyche. 

Works cited:

Scraton, S., Fasting, K., Pfister, G. & Bunuel, A.  (1999).  It's still a man's game?: The experiences of top-level European women footballers.  International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34, 99-111.


"Transformation is a present activity, not a future event." - Jillian Michaels

Please check out The Rabbit Hole, my socio-cultural commentary on anything related to sport, physical activity and health.

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