Gentler gendering

A few days ago a friend posted an article on Facebook which lamented the vanishing childhood tomboy. It got me thinking about my childhood and how I got to be the woman I am.

Anyone who has known me many years would know my life is an open book, so to speak. My childhood was spent reading, and my childhood books were littered with girls who were no more and no less than only exactly girls. I can’t say for sure that they were tomboys. They were gently gendered and not confined to any stereotype.

People who know me only recently may not realise I myself was a tomboy. I spent my childhood in t-shirts and cords. I was carefree. I had messy  hair and loved catching salamanders and digging snow tunnels. I didn’t have tea parties with friends, I built forts where I could hide and read. The girls in my books played On the Banks of Plum Creek and solved mysteries.

pippi 2Maybe I was a tomboy because it’s hard to build tree forts in a dress and pretty tights, and it’s hard to hide with bows in your hair. Maybe I was a tomboy because I was inspired by my books. I can’t say for sure. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t girlie.

nancy 6This didn’t change as I grew up either. I spent high school in jeans and a rolling stones t-shirt. I wasn’t building tree forts anymore, but I still liked the anonymity of  less feminine clothes.

I never chose to dress like a boy. I never chose to dress like a girl. I chose to dress like myself. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a girl. I never saw a contradiction between my clothes and being a girl, but there was definately a contradiction between dressing overtly girlie and my favourite passtimes.

judy blumeI wasn’t raised with a contradiction between being a girl and dressing in pants. In retrospect, I now realise it is because I have really good parents. There was no different set of rules for my brother. My parents never acted like puberty or sexuality were a big deal for my either brother, or myself and my sister. In fact as a testament to my mother’s determination to thwart any gender bias, she chose the name Darcy for me so that people wouldn’t know my gender when they saw my resume. She didn’t give me a boy’s name, she didn’t give me a girl’s name. My parents gave me a name, and a childhood, with no strings attached. I was allowed to reach young adulthood pretty oblivious to the fact that being a girl was ‘a thing’. I didn’t know that I was a tomboy. I just was.

After I left  university I started feeling a little pressure to be gendered, but I kept the tomboy uniform to keep my identity clear. I knew I was a girl, and I knew I was pretty. I didn’t like what that meant I had to deal with. I recall being told I should wear skirts all the time because my legs were nice. I had a boss who thought it was OK to pat me on the backside. A boyfriend’s creepy cousin actually put his hands on my hips to show me how to dance sexier. All three of those things were offensive to me for reasons I couldn’t, at the time, articulate. I wasn’t uncomfortable being a woman, but I really angry at being sexualized. I also remember being asked why I dressed like a lesbian. With this sort of talk directed at me, being a tomboy suddenly became a conscious choice.

I dressed to downplay my womanhood and play up my personhood. I went through university in jeans, Doc Martins and baggy sweaters. I didn’t like being pigeonholed as a ‘girl’. I’m not sure which came first, my attitude or my influences, but both changed as I completed my degree and started my adult life. The little girl who loved Pippy Longstockings became the woman who read Kate Chopin.

scarlet letterDifferent literary heroines filled my reading hours. I got married, I became a mother and I was faced with reconciling expectations and sexual stereotypes with my self image. The middle years were all about that conflict, and my books were filled with women who chafed at being caged.

anna kareninaI hated being told to be virtuous yet sexy, and to be content as a devoted wife and a matyr to motherbood…all of those things, by the way, were defined external to my sense of self.  I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to be let alone.

I am told 40 is a common turning point in women’s lives. It was in mine. At 40 I was done with marriage because it had tried to define me against my better judgement. I also rebelled against all the influences that had led me to get married in the first place. I wanted to be defined by my education, intelligence and humour and ability to stand alone. Thank goodness I made a better break than Anna Karenina or Edna Pontellier did. I abandoned the tomboy and became a strong woman on my own terms.

Scarlett_7_poor_dressI now wear dresses and high heels but I didn’t do that until after I turned 40, when I finally began writing my own story instead of living one written by someone else. I had learned enough from my heroines to know how to apply their lessons to my choices.

The childhood tomboy had been free to choose how she faced the world, and now the woman was free to do the same.

I don’t lament the lost tomboy, but I don’t hold the woman with 20-some pinterest boards dedicated to fashion as an evolution either. Both are me, both will always be me. That is the beauty of choice. The great thing is, where I am now I can actually choose every morning whether to be a tomboy or a fashionista. The great thing about my childhood is I was never forced to choose, because I was allowed to experience life on my own terms.

hermionie I don’t know where the tomboys have gone or if they are even really gone. Maybe they are still around, but they are just refusing the labels and changing things up a bit. Maybe they feel comfortable being girlie. Maybe they have merged both versions of womanhood. Maybe the ofDisney-Princess-Meridaprincesses today are not so unlike the tomboys of yesterday. Maybe growing up is inverted for girls now, and all the little princesses will one day grown up to be tomboys. Or maybe they won’t. They have their own heroines. Those heroines wear dresses and are princess, and maybe that’s OK.

My life’s arc has taught me that tomboy and princess can both be powerful and confident, so long as it’s who I am choosing to be.

I hope all the little girls in pretty pink dresses, all the young women in overalls, and all the over-40s in a chic blouse and pearls are dressed exactly the way they should be. I hope  it is their own choice as much as it was (and is) my own choice. I also we stop reading so much into their choices.  Frozen_Princess_Anna_and_Queen_Elsa_Poster

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