Why girls become tomboys
When I was growing up, between ages nine and I think, twenty I was labeled a tomboy by the people around me. I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I felt I was just being myself. The earliest age I remember exhibiting tomboy traits was age five. I don’t remember how it started or why. Looking back, I can only point to a few things that may or may not have shifted my thinking as a girl child and changed my identity.
One of those events was when my dad went on a trip for some years and returned. He brought with him some presents for me and my little sister. Most of them were gifts meant for boys. We got a lot of boy boots, cargo pants and t-shirts. We got Sega and PS1. My sister showed zero interest in playing sega at the time, being 4 years, she just wanted her dolls and colorful storybooks. I showed a lot of interest in playing the game and played I did. Until we had some cousins and male family friends at our house over for the holidays and suddenly I couldn’t play anymore, because the adults said let the boys play the game, they are not really meant for girls.
When I was nine. My mom would prohibit my sister and me from playing football outside with the neighbor’s children who were boys. I mean, we had female kids in the neighborhood, but they too were prevented from staying out to play ‘rough’. The girls were only to be seen around when being sent on errands by their mothers. While the boys were always seen chasing each other in the fields, playing football, riding their bicycles and generally being silly. Now that I’m older, I get that it’s probably the case that mothers thought they were being protective of their daughters, but it still sucked being restricted like that.
In primary school, I would have the same experiences of girls sitting pretty on the bleachers, while the boys played football and ‘rough’. The girls were never encouraged to take up sports or anything. I got the feeling that they were prioritized on the playground and children’s swings. Then you would hear teachers in classrooms favor the boys more than the girls in everything from sports, competitions, school outings. Or hear a teacher say something like “How could you let a girl surpass you in so and so subject”.
To me, those boys represented freedom. They represented being unencumbered. They could roll around, scrape their knees and be as dirty as they wanted. It seemed like pure joy. I wanted every bit of it, like you wouldn’t believe. The adults, around me were having none of it.
These events probably seem petty, but as a little kid, they were the greatest injustice in the world to me. I wanted to get ahead of it. I wanted that privilege. I wanted to join the men’s club, if that was where it was.
Subconsciously, over the years, my identity as a tomboy developed. It didn’t hit the brakes even when I got enrolled in an all-girls boarding school for 5 years. In fact, it made it worse. By then, I had become a full-blown tomboy. I only started to shed the tomboy identity little by little in my third year of university up until now. Currently, depending on who is asked if I am a tomboy. The answer would be one of yes, no and partially.
Recently I got curious about my development as a kid and it got me asking myself what made me develop this identity. After doing some research about what triggers it in girls, I found answers I didn’t see coming.
Who is a tomboy?
The first thing that probably pops into your head is a girl who dresses like a boy or maybe a character like Arya Stark and you would be partially right. But it’s so much more than that.
In the 16th century, the term was first used to describe a rude and loud boy. Now, it’s used to describe girls that exhibit a range of behaviors and traits that society deems appropriate to boys only. One tomboy will definitely be different from the next one. They come in different and complex shades.
Here’s a list of traits one might notice in a tomboy
- dressing or walking like a boy
- being aggressive
- liking cars and sports
- being a gamer
- hating make-up and dolls
- hating pink, skirts, and dresses
- Loving swords.
- breaking things and putting them together
- playing rough, not caring about getting dirty or about looking pretty
- very active physically and a risk-taker
- a lack of interest in prom, babies, motherhood, marriage, housekeeping
Some mark their identity strictly by rejecting female clothing. Some may not be masculine but prefer clothing that helps them play sport freely( an athletic girl would avoid heels and skirts).
Ultimately, the evidence of whether a girl would be labeled a tomboy or not would boil down to how she plays, dresses or spends her free time.
There’s a misconception that tomboys end up being lesbians. This is actually quite false. Only a very tiny percentage of tomboys end up as lesbians.
Why they act the way they do
The question has come up time and again as to what causes the development of a tomboy. To what degree is it caused by nature or nurture? There’s some evidence that girls, who were exposed to a male hormone (androgens) in the womb were likely to be tomboys. But these occurrences are very rare, it accounts for a tiny percentage of tomboys.
I want to explore some of the deeper motivations behind why girls might end up as tomboys according to research. I’ve distilled what I found into several points.
when you find someone running fast in one direction then you can conclude that he doesn’t want to be in the opposite direction
The dynamics in a girl’s family play a large role in affecting her psychological makeup and her desire to become a tomboy. The family is where nurture begins.
One of the major instances where girls reject femininity would be if they didn’t see their mothers or women around them as worthy role models they wanted to emulate. In a paper I read about a study on tomboys, one of the respondents Tamika, said
I’m watching my mother. And I’m like “Wait a minute!” She’s going over to work. She comes home. She’s cooking. She’s washing clothes. She’s washing dishes… Ironing his boxers. But even though my father did cook from time to time… We loved for him to cook. ’Cause he could cook! She could cook too, but it was just special cause he did it. And then on like Saturdays… he would go and bring in crabs… So it was exciting, watching all of this go on. meanwhile , my mother’s in there, ironing clothes. I didn’t like her role. It was always like, “I’m not gonna be waiting on any man.
Some found it difficult to relate to their mothers as role models because they viewed them as victims, submitting to men. They viewed them as having boring lives, as weak, less adventurous, unambitious, less smart, overworked, unrewarded, and dependent as opposed to their fathers who they thought were providers, strong, outgoing, adventurous, being waited on and served like kings. They looked up to their fathers, they wanted to identify with him, they wanted to be like him.
Quoting another respondent from the study, Manuela
“Did I want to be like my mother? Absolutely not. because I thought she lived a pretty boring life…. She used to play bridge. That did not seem to be the least bit interesting to me. Playing bridge. And like my mother, my mother was always — alright, here it comes — was always weaker. She always seemed to be weaker than my father. All ways. Like everything. like she didn’t appear to be as smart as my father. She didn’t appear to be as physically capable as my father. She didn’t do all that fun stuff that my father did. She did boring things. Like play bridge. And shop.”
The message being passed to these girls from their family dynamics was that femininity is weak, less rewarding, less valuable, and simply without mincing words, less than masculinity. They didn’t think being a woman was cool, neither did they like the future they saw in being a woman, looking forward to the rest of a life where the goal was just getting married, having children and serving a husband. So they flipped. As they grew up, they started to distance themselves from stereotypical female roles like house chores, cooking, sewing, playing with dolls (in their eyes, a child), looking like girls, and started to gain interest in things like sports, camping, etc
Another family influence could be that while a girl is growing, she is more likely to spend time with other children of the same gender. If she spends more time with little boys, she will learn about masculine specific mannerisms from them. These kinds of girls are more likely to start dating/using makeup later than other girls. For example, an only girl with several male brothers, especially older ones, has a higher chance of turning out as a tomboy because the family is more active and boy-focused. Being surrounded by boys, the only way to cope might be to emulate her brothers while growing up. She might take up their activities as her own. She might be more aggressive, athletic, rugged, etc. Chances of tomboyishness will be low in a family of girls.
The tomboy identity is one that protects a girl from the negative aspects of what it means to be female in our society.
Some girls, as they grow up, witness abuse/harassment in one form or the other from men to women. It might be to their person or their mother or sister. The abuse might be sexual or in the form of physical violence. This experience might make them develop hatred, distrust, and fear of the opposite sex. Ironically, they embrace acting and dressing like the very men, whom they are repulsed by, as a means of defense. They discard their feminity in a bid to not be seen as vulnerable. The rationale here is “if I act tough or dress like a guy, no man would see me as someone to rape or beat up”.
In reality, the protection the identity offers is limited. It’s a coping mechanism. In a way, they hope that acting like a guy would protect them and the people that they love. They view maleness as physically safer than femaleness. They sacrifice a great part of themselves for that feeling of security.
I get the feeling this identity camouflage (so to speak) would work with male predators who are repulsed by masculine women because they are only attracted to girly girls.
“if women are prey, and men are predators, then it’s not safe to be a girl” .
-a tomboy, somewhere
Wanting male privilege
Right from birth, it is suggested to the girl child, whether subtly or directly — of her inferiority. She sees it everywhere. At home, the church, mosque, school. It becomes internalized.
“I couldn’t accept the weakness, passivity, and powerlessness that such ‘femaleness’ required . — Anon
An instance would be if a girl’s parent or extended family members kept complaining directly or indirectly about how they wished they had a son instead of a girl; or say, a girl grows up in a household where brothers and fathers receive more attention and praise than mothers and sisters.
Some tomboys expressed some knowledge of the advantages of being male. Some activities were made available to boys but not to girls, like some sports or certain classes such as woodwork or mechanics. Boys were encouraged to go into science and technology while girls were encouraged to go into the arts. Boys were exempted from house chores and babysitting. They were allowed to go out and stay out later. They were taught to aspire to wealth and greatness, while their sisters were taught to aspire to a married life with babies.
They could sense that there was something different about how society treated men. A different level of freedom. A different level of power that they didn’t feel like they had as girls. It seemed like maleness had power. Maleness could control things. It seemed like having a penis meant you were really important.
One way or the other they start to get the feeling, that girls are inferior to boys. A potential tomboy will either start to hate the fact that girls are weak or hate the fact that she’s a girl.
When culture degrades the roles of women compared to men, more girls feel like becoming tomboys. It’s a kind of protest, really. A tug of war between who they are and who they want to be. They protest against their gender. All this can happen subconsciously or not. If you ask her, she might tell you she just loves her boy clothes, she probably does not know why consciously. By rejecting female clothing/mannerisms, girls and women may be trying to deflect negative stereotypes, especially the notion that women are weaker and less competent than men. Or even worse, girls might actually believe these stereotypes and try to distance themselves from feminity.
In a way, it can be said that the reason some girls turn out to be tomboys is because they reject male superiority. They develop the “if he can do it, I can do it” attitude. While some turn out that way because they have accepted male superiority in the form of a defeat. It’s like saying “ Society treats boys as superior or more important, never girls. I want to be seen as important and worthy. The only way to do that is to be a boy.” So they develop the “If you can’t beat them, join them ” attitude.
No Reason, maybe it’ s just who they are
Here’s an idea, in the lives of some girls, tomboy-hood may just be a phase where they are highly energetic, physically active, have an “I don’t care attitude”, highly curious, and just all-around adventurous. But because it does not fit in the narrow confines of what the society defines as feminine, they get labeled tomboys. If we genuinely believed girls could be whoever they wanted, we wouldn’t need that label.
In countries like Canada, Israel, and Australia where you are expected to enjoy the outdoors and be active, it’s interesting to note that fewer girls identify as tomboys. Now, compare that to a country like Saudi-Arabia where women’s activities are very restrictive; you would be more likely to be labeled a tomboy if you did anything slightly “unfeminine”.
Do tomboys shed their identities?
Around puberty, girls grow older and develop girly parts, they may begin to shed their identity due to a number of factors.
They start to get bullied more and may face difficulties with other girls. Boys may not find them as attractive as other girls.
In high schools, the girly-girls are likely the most powerful girl social groups. A tomboy may want to fit in and tap into some of the advantages that come with being more feminine and attractive.
It is during this stage they start to develop their first crush. they leave the identity behind if they believe it would help them attract the object of their affection.
Some don’t want to come across as lesbians probably because of homophobic things that have been said to them in the past.
Others leave tomboyishness behind when they encounter strong female role models they would like to emulate and realize they don’t have to act or look masculine to be strong.
The majority of tomboys stop being one at adolescence, and just a few maintain their tomboy identity into adulthood. Good examples are Ellen Degeneres and Pink.
Tomboys, ultimately are just people trying to adapt to the world around them. Trying to put forward the best version of themselves, they believe would favor them the most in the world.
They get a lot of pressure from their families, especially their mothers on how to behave in a socially acceptable way as females. Whenever they try to do stereotypically male things, they get a lot of pushbacks for that like “don’t do that, you are a girl”. To stand out like that, and choose to remain who they want, requires a lot of confidence.
In my case, I had a masculine complex. I wanted to do things, others considered to be hard. In fact, I made a point of doing things girls would generally leave for boys because I was trying to prove a point to myself and to whoever was watching, that I wasn’t weak. I tried to be as independent as I could, and I generally sought out activities that were considered masculine. I’m ashamed to admit that at some point, I thought I was better than my female peers because I was “the strong one”. In retrospect, I realize, that was my way of coping with the inequality I saw around me. Of course, things changed as I started to grow older. I realized I could be strong and competent while still being feminine.
Every human being is a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, whether by nature or nurture. There’s nothing feminine about pink or masculine about blue. Society made it so. People are always going to judge because they like to put others in neat little boxes. We are unique and complex beings. We are who we are, and no one can change that.
Being a tomboy isn’t a bad thing. Although, some of the underlying causes that might have created the identity are less than good. We as a society need to find a way to actively make girl children comfortable in who they are. They need to feel equal to their male counterparts. Not because we don’t want them to become tomboys, but because we want them to grow into confident human beings. We don’t want them feeling inferior. We want them to be free to be whoever they want to be. We want them to believe they are competent enough to change the world.
- Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory — C. Lynn Carr
- Tomboy as a protective Identity — Tracy Craig, Jessica Lacroix
- Tomboys and cowgirls: The girl’s disidentification from the mother — Diane Elise
- Who are Tomboys and why should we study them? — J. Michael Bailey, Kathleen Bechtold Kortte, Sherri Berenbaum