I used to describe my daughter as a tomboy. I thought it was enough that I celebrated the fact that she wasn’t into typical “girl stuff,” and didn’t try to shoehorn her into princess dresses and glittery shoes. “Tomboy” was a label I’d grown up with in books and in movies, and the natural way to describe a little girl who shuns fairies in favor of superheroes and would rather climb a tree or ride a scooter than push a doll around in a pram.
Over the past 12 months, however, I’ve made a concerted effort not to use the word “tomboy.” As my daughter (and her big brother) grow up and progress through the school system, deal with the inevitable friendship dramas and playground politics and begin to work out their place in the world, I’ve started to see life — real life — through their eyes.
From my daughter’s perspective, that’s life through the eyes of a little girl who is always drawn toward the “boy” aisle in the toy store, who really, really never wants to wear a dress, and who has very little interest in going to Frozen-themed birthday parties because she knows if she goes dressed as Olaf, all the Annas and Elsas will stare at her.
It was last year, when someone else referred to my daughter (now 5) as a tomboy, that I realized how wrong it is. “What’s a tomboy?” she asked me.
As I quickly ran through the possible responses in my head, it struck me how much bullshit they are. Whatever I said — “a girl who acts like a boy”; “a girl who likes boy stuff” — made it sound as if she were somehow doing something wrong, going against what nature intended for her. The best I could come up with — “a girl who likes to be active and have adventures and do exciting things” — was still completely flawed. There was no getting away from the fact that the label has the word “boy” in it, which suggests that my daughter is less of a girl than the other, princess-dress-wearing, non-tree-climbing girls.
Our tomboy conversation left me frustrated, and I sensed that she was a little confused. It’s no wonder, when everybody is telling her that girls and boys are different and have to conform to certain stereotypes, yet her mother is saying, “Nope, that’s rubbish, there’s no such thing as boys’ stuff.”
It’s the little ways these outdated stereotypes are reinforced that bug me. When my daughter was in pre-school, her class had two advent calendars in the buildup to Christmas. Each day, a different child would open a window and get the little square of chocolate. One calendar was Spiderman, and the other was Disney princesses. No prizes for guessing which was for the boys and which was for the girls. This might sound like no big deal to some people. But for me, as the mom of the little girl who was desperate to open the window in the Spiderman calendar, it was.
Another reason I hate the “tomboy” label is that my daughter is so much more than a girl who acts like a boy. She’s extremely nurturing and compassionate — typically feminine traits. She’s quiet and sweet-natured and loves to write, draw and invite me to tea parties.
I want her to know that all these different interests and parts of her personality can coexist, and that her version of being a girl is just as authentic as any other girl’s. She can be feminine when she’s chasing a football around the park or scrambling to the top of a tree — just as feminine as she would be if she were painting her nails or arranging her tiara collection.
The last time we spoke about being a tomboy, I told her it was an old-fashioned word that people shouldn’t use any more. It was the best I could do, and I think she bought it. So please, don’t call her a tomboy — because she’s just as much a girl as any other.
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