Gender stereotypes have always been a very personal struggle for me. Dresses, make-up, and purses were never my thing; I wasn’t girly. Though I played sports growing up and, overall, acted masculine, I wasn’t a boy, either — I fell somewhere in-between, a perpetual tomboy.
Learning ballroom dance offered me a more well-rounded view of femininity. However, I wasn’t always open-minded. A few years ago, I was talking with a female acquaintance who, in many ways, was the portrait of a girly girl: she wore make-up, carried a purse, and always styled her hair. As we stood in the hallway, she said, “I can’t believe what a tomboy I am.” And she meant it.
My immediate response? You’re not a real tomboy.
This girl was wearing a dress. For fun. Compared to me — and my jeans, sneakers, and ponytail — she was another species.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I know annoyance pervaded it. How could this girl consider herself the same breed as me? I couldn’t decide if she didn’t realize her girlishness, or if she was a poseur who recognized the superiority of tomboys and wanted to be one.
Either way, I wanted nothing to do with her.
In high school, I saw tomboys and girls. I was too narrow-minded to consider anything in-between. Girls who liked sports and pink? They were girly-girls in disguise. Real tomboys, like me, didn’t own high heels or skirts or anything pink. The following image sums it up:
Now that I’m a little older, I recognize that acquaintance as a tomboy with a girly side, a shade of gray between feminine girls and masculine ones. I also recognize the girl-hate I nurtured: I viewed tomboys as the superior type of woman. I played sports and worked out; I held my nose in the air and often reminded everyone how different I was from other girls.
In one way, this helped me: I didn’t suffer from body image issues in high school. If people judged me by looks instead of personality, I avoided them. What I didn’t realize was the unhealthy method in which I obtained this confidence: my own complicity in girl-hate. I judged feminine girls by their looks and avoided getting to know them because I assumed we had nothing in common.
I was the type of person I disliked the most.
It took me a long time to unwind my high school prejudices. Writing has helped. I’ve spent the last year working on a literary YA novel about a masculine girl struggling with gender; her foil is a girly girl with a tomboy streak. It’s been a cathartic experience. Even so, I occasionally catch myself making assumptions about feminine girls. The difference is that now, I recognize those unfair thoughts — and I start up a conversation with the girl I judged whenever possible. It’s amazing how often I’ll find a fellow athlete or reader or writer in someone I wrote off as “unlike me,” someone I would have once seen as inferior.