In Support of the Tomgirl
We are born unique. We are born with innate knowledge of ourselves. We are born with limitless potential.
We are born into a world that has expectations of us. Those expectations vary from culture to culture. One facet of those expectations is being a boy or being a girl. Look like it. Act like it. Pick one. Be one.
Enforcing gender conformity in behavior does nothing to serve the children. What it does is make those around them who buy into the cultural construction of gendered behaviors more comfortable. The decision between making others (read: the adults) more comfortable or cultivating an authentic, fulfilled and happy child should be a no-brainer for all of us.
For many children, the process of being themselves is incidental to all of the other development. Choices are comfortable, easy, seamless and culturally sanctioned. No judgment. It just is. They are diverse and complex in many ways, but not in ways that create dissonance with the culture around gender.
For other children, the process of being themselves takes a more significant place in their development, because their uniqueness is manifesting just as it should although not according to cultural expectations. They are diverse and complex as well, including in ways that require them to challenge culture norms, not because they wish to be activists, simply because they wish to be themselves.
Enter one group of people born girls who love the rough and tumble, trucks, dirt, climbing trees and playing flag football on the playground. Their behaviors are unrelated to who they may ultimately choose as a partner or what body feels right for them, because those are deeper considerations then what they like to do for fun on the playground. These girls are the tomboys. They are encouraged to embrace their toughness wearing t-shirts that say “kick like a girl, “throw like a girl and “girl power.
It is important to remember, it wasn’t always the case that these tomboys were supported. Only a generation or two ago, tomboys were chastised with “unladylike behavior viewed as a barrier to finding a partner or achieving professional success.
Let’s consider what changed. It wasn’t the behaviors. It was the evolution of our culture into accepting and valuing those so-called boyish behaviors in girls. Although we still occasionally observe the discouragement of these behaviors in girls, the culture has evolved to a point that we admire women like Mia Hamm, Serena and Venus Williams and Lindsay Vonn. (Although, as a culture, we still demonstrate our confliction with strong girls and women by juxtaposing their accomplishments with an image sexualized not on their terms, often seeing media coverage of the “hottest female athletes.)
Even though their behavior can occasionally make waves, we have grown as a culture to ascribe value to it and to entangle the boy-like behaviors with confidence and success because those behaviors reflect the dominant power structure. We hear sentiments like “that competitive fire will serve her well, or “her confidence comes through loud and clear. The evolution into accepting and embracing these behaviors in girls demonstrates that, regardless of the fact that they aren’t traditionally accepted, those behaviors will be useful to them. Therefore, those behaviors are allowed to become part of the evolving conception of what it means to be a girl.
Now enter one group of boys, some who have described themselves or been described as tomgirls. Boys whose innate uniqueness includes sensitivity, creativity, perhaps a soft spot for sequined clothing and playing house. These boys, as part of their innate knowledge of themselves, are engaging in behaviors that are fun for them, bring them happiness and allow them to exist in the world in just a way that feels right. The behaviors they enjoy are separate from whom they may want to date or how they relate to their own bodily boyness despite the mainstream view that these behaviors are indicators of sexuality.
That these behaviors are viewed in our culture as girlish behaviors is irrelevant to them. They are being themselves in the truest sense the best they know how. It is actually the cultural construct of appropriately gendered behaviors that is posing the challenge, not the boys’ behavior. Even though children tend to gravitate toward certain behaviors according to gender, it is important to recognize that that is not always the case.
It is especially significant to examine the fact that our culture has evolved to accept and embrace the tomboys, but heartily resists and discourages the tomgirls. Perhaps when our culture evolves to the point of valuing the traditionally-defined feminine attributes of sensitivity, emotional compassion and creativity, we will find ourselves accepting and embracing the tomgirls. Reveling in their relationships skills, emotional sensitivity and enjoyment of beauty can only come when we, as a culture, recognize these so-called feminine attributes as valuable and useful in the world.
We know that being exactly who we feel we are is an important component to life fulfillment and a centering peace. If you have ever struggled with the challenge of trying to be someone you are not to please others or to fit in, you’ve experienced the discomfort that comes with repressing an authentic and innate part of yourself. It is like trying to divert the waters of a river, it requires a vast amount of energy and inevitably results in negative consequences. Ultimately, we observe people spending a significant amount of energy as adults seeking that uniqueness that was chased away when they were children.
As responsible, caring and supportive adults, when considering those brave tomgirls, our focus must be on the wellbeing and happiness of the children, not on the comfort of the culture-reinforcing adults. We need to lead the way in accepting and embracing the authentic manifestations of the tomgirls. We also must challenge the hidden homophobia as misplaced as it is. Our job is to let the tomgirls know we value them and what they bring to this world. We need to actively support them and encourage the cultural evolution toward allowing people to be exactly who they are from the time they are born, instead of chasing their beautiful uniqueness away for the comfort of others. Just as the praise of the tomboy is integrated in our culture, the time is overdue for supporting the tomgirl and all he teaches us.