Growing up, I certainly worked hard to earn the label “tomboy.” I eschewed dolls and dresses in favor of dinosaurs and torn blue jeans. I preferred to play Egyptian Pharaoh instead of house. And I certainly did not like the color pink. Not one bit.
And so adults would smile, shake their heads, and say, “She is such a tomboy.” Initially, I liked that idea. I’d rather do boy stuff than girl stuff anyway. Sometimes I even used the word “girl” as an insult, on one memorable occasion shouting at a girl who liked to pick on my in the 5th grade locker room that she was “too much of a girl!” What I meant was that she was a prissy little snot who needed to leave me the heck alone, but what came out was that she was “girl.” And that of course opened me up for more mockery.
As I grew older, I began to internalize the idea that I just wasn’t very good at being a girl. I didn’t genuinely want to be a boy, but since I wasn’t good at being a girl, what could I do? I was stuck feeling frumpy and out of place. A perpetual outsider.
Looking back as an adult, I wish that someone had taken me aside and explained to me that there are as many ways to be girly as there are girls in the world. The word “girl” doesn’t describe the way someone behaves. It describes what someone is. Girliness has nothing to do with dresses and colors and toys. And the reality is that there is no such thing as boy stuff and girl stuff. It’s all just stuff that anyone can play with.
Now, my older daughter also seems to be earning that title, and I am trying to stamp it out whenever I can. Just like her t-shirt says, “There are so many ways to be a girl.” The girl on the far right with the tutu, boots, and robot is my daughter. (No really, that’s actually her. Cool, huh?) Whether my girl plays with action figures, pretends to be a ninja, or chases a soccer ball all afternoon, I want her to know that she is great at being a girl and she is awesome at being herself.
Let’s banish the words “tomboy” and “girly girl” from our vocabulary. Let’s work together to celebrate all of our children for who they are instead.
Dear Mom I Saw in the Baby Store a Few Weeks Ago,
I saw you and your son on the way out the door as my daughter and I were choosing finger nail polish, and the two of you have been on my mind ever since. Your son was rocking a Princess Anna dress and I could tell by the smile on his face and the bounce in his step that he was feeling amazing. I want to thank you Other Mother. There are so many ways to be a boy, and you were letting your son shine in his own way. I have an older daughter that has taught me that there are lots of ways to be a girl, too. I wanted to say something to you, but you were on your way out and I know that you have to take advantage of the toddler momentum when you find it. Also, I was a little choked up. I said to my own toddler what an awesome mommy you were for letting your son be who he is, and I hope you heard me. You caught my eye and smiled at me, so I think you did. Thank you for letting your son be just exactly who he is.
I wish you both well,
I posted this letter in my local mom’s group hoping this mom would see it, but I don’t think she ever did.
Why was it so important to me to reach out to this woman who I had never met? Because I imagine other people are reaching out to her, and my guess is that they aren’t doing so in a positive way.
There is often a great deal of pressure for little boys to grow up quickly. “Little man” is a nickname many boys earn straight from the time they leave the womb. “Girl” has become an insult thrown at little boys who aren’t acting tough (or sometimes violent) enough. While there is a well-meaning word for little girls who enjoy traditionally masculine pursuits, “tomboy” (more on that one later), the words for little boys who are interested in traditionally feminine activities go from rude (“sissy”) to bigoted (“f*****”) in short order. Parents feel the need to spend hundreds of dollars to replace cribs, car seats, bedding, toys, and high chairs upon the addition of a boy to the family lest he come in contact with something pink or purple.
With so much pressure for boys to avoid femininity and softness at all cost, is it any wonder that I was so surprised to see that sweet little boy in a dress?
Little children play. They play dolls, heroes, blocks, pretend, and dress up. This is universal. Wearing a dress to a shop won’t change the way this little boy was born, and it certainly won’t affect him in later life.
Except that it will.
He will grow up knowing his mother loved him completely and unconditionally, and that knowledge is the most powerful thing we can instill in our children.