I was always a tomboy; preferring to play with cars rather than dolls, always climbing trees or playing in mud, spending time with my Dad in his workshop rather than being in the kitchen with Mum. When offered a new dress as a treat, I declared that, “I’d rather have a pair of dungarees.” It was all the more evident by the fact that my sister was the absolute epitome of femininity.
When I was born, my Mum was desperate for another son to save my sister from the rough games of our older brother. As it was, I turned out to be, in her words; “The best brother he could have wanted.” But why are such traits and activities seen as being reserved only for boys? And why are girls with such traits labelled as tomboys?
As a little girl, running around in my muddied dungarees was considered cute. And throughout childhood it was still no issue that I had more boys as friends than girls. It was something that made the Mums smile to one another. It was just a phase, something I was sure to grow out of.
But when primary school gave way to secondary school, and childhood gave way to puberty, my once-innocent tomboyish behaviour suddenly became a problem.
As the girls around me started to turn into women; develop curves, grow breasts, start their periods; I remained stubbornly boyish. As my brothers often said, I was “so flat I made the walls jealous.” While my friends were kissing boys, I was merely friends with them, ‘Just one of the lads’.
I developed later then most of my friends. But when I did, all of my puppy-fat, almost overnight, moved up to my chest. Suddenly I had two very big problems, and my unflattering school uniform didn’t hide them. Then there were hormones, and feelings, and I was still just ‘one of the lads’. In my youthful naïvety, I couldn’t even imagine the problems that lay ahead.
The formative teenage years are a difficult time without introducing serious gender identity issues into the mix. The thing is, it wasn’t me that had the issues, it was everyone else who had issues with my gender identity.
As a shy, overweight teenager I never felt feminine, and I certainly never felt sexy. While my friends bounced between boyfriends, I couldn’t even entertain the idea of any boy finding me attractive. Whenever anyone did show an interest, I went running for the hills. I was much more comfortable sitting in the friend-zone. But that’s not how other girls saw it.
More than once I was accused of ‘flirting’ with someone’s boyfriend, more than once I was accused of ‘fancying’ a boy I only viewed as a friend, more than once a boy mistook my friendliness for something more. And all of this because I talked to boys like they were human, not like they were an alien species. Just because I wasn’t awkward or giggly or coy around them. But just as I saw boys as nothing more than friends, they mostly viewed me the same way. Because I wasn’t any of those things. Because those are the things you have to be to be feminine.
This seemingly unusual ability to speak to boys on my own level took a sinister edge by the time I went to university. It was a small campus; the kind where everyone knows everyone else’s business. I very quickly got myself a reputation as ‘easy’. Not because I slept around, but because I happened to choose the two wrong guys to sleep with. Two high profile guys. Two guys on the same sports team. And then I was seen hanging around with guys, laughing with guys, drinking pints with guys.
Having grown up in a very small country town which had barely any representation of social diversity, university was the first time I was introduced to lesbian culture. I quickly gravitated towards these girls who, like me, wore jeans and trainers, drank pints, and didn’t giggle around guys. And then came a new twist in my tomboy lifestory. In my teenage years I was presumed a flirt, in my early twenties a slut, and, as I ascended through the decade, a lesbian.
Just because I wore jeans, drank pints, had no maternal instinct, talked to guys with ease, society didn’t see me as ‘feminine’. I didn’t fit into its safe little gender category boxes. I wasn’t what society wanted from a woman, but I wasn’t gay either.
Mid way through my twenties I met my best friend. Within a few months I knew I wanted to marry him. Just over a year later I sported a diamond ring on my finger, and people couldn’t have been more surprised. Even people who knew me well came out with, “You’re getting married? I didn’t think you liked men.” While half of them still presumed me gay, the other half viewed me as some kind of uber-feminist man-hater.
Because even in the 21st Century, society doesn’t quite know what to do with a feminist who gets married. Because feminism is anti-establishment, isn’t it? You know what else? I took my husband’s name. But that still doesn’t stop me from being a feminist.
At the beginning of 2012 I surprised everyone again by announcing my pregnancy. Members of my own family still can’t get used to seeing me with a baby. Because to them, I’ll always be that little girl who rejected dolls and dresses. I’ll always be the family’s resident tomboy.
I love being a wife and a mother. I was always afraid of losing my identity to these things, that somehow I would fade away behind these labels. But now I see that these things are my identity. They haven’t taken away from the person I am, they’ve added to it. And even when I’m elbow-deep in dirty nappies and baby powder, still wearing my jeans and trainers, I know that I am feminine, feminist and tomboy. And those things aren’t opposites of each other, they’re just all the things that combine to make me, me.
Angeline is a horror writer and journalist from Devon, UK. She lives above a milkshake shop with her husband, their son, and a rather neurotic cat.