“Tomboy” Needs to Go

Tomboy Image

By Alexandria Arritt

Gendering begins at birth. Infant girls go home in pink blankets, and boys go home in blue blankets. In a recent study, researchers found that people responded to the cries of babies differently based on the pitch. Those who participated in the study believed higher pitched cries to be the girls and the lower pitched cries to be the boys. Although the pitch of a child’s voice does not begin to change until puberty. No participant could correctly guess the gender of the children based on the pitch of their cries.

This may seem like a minute detail to focus on, but it plays into how infants are regarded from birth based on their sex. Details like this affect how children are raised in the future. Clothing, color of clothing, school supplies, and even toys are gendered. Research shows that gendering toys do more harm than good. All children need access to a variety of toys and activities. “Toys focused on action, construction, and technology hone spatial skills, foster problem solving, and encourage children to be active,” Let Toys Be Toys writes. Spatial refers to the ability to understand and remember relationships among different objects. Whereas arts and crafts are great for fine motor skills. Both boys and girls need the opportunity to practice those skills. Toys marketed towards women tend to focus on homemaking skills such as cooking and cleaning. Toys that center on science, technology, engineering and math were found to be three times as likely to be targeted at boys rather than girls. This discrepancy is part of what discourages girls from pursuing career paths in STEM.

Later in life girls that do have an interest in STEM careers or other masculine-associated activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking or auto mechanic work are given a name, “tomboy.”

The word “tomboy” also contributes to the gendering of activities that many different types of women enjoy. In the 1550’s, “tomboy” was used to describe rude and un-lady like girls. Now when the word is used, men seem to respect the term. “What is it that makes me a tomboy? Have I broken enough bones, do I have enough scars, to be in the club? My friend Kathy could hit a ball farther and run faster than her older brother Peter – did that make her a tomboy or him a sissy? My identity as a tomboy was defined less by how I acted than by how I didn’t act,” (Kauka, Tomboys!).

Some men that I’ve asked about this topic told me that men respect tomboys more because at some point masculine features were necessary to sustain life: hunting, spearfishing and protecting the wife and kids from beasts of the wild, for example. A study conducted about men as hunters and women gatherers said that one of the main reasons men hunted as opposed to women was as a show for the women. Because men were primarily motivated by mating. Have we not moved past this in the post-modern age? We certainly should. It’s unnecessary to associate outdoor activities with men and indoor activities to women. Gatherer activities have been attached to women for far too long.

From the beginning, boys and girls take these stereotypes they’ve been taught and use them as weapons. To bully, to confine, to undermine, and to perpetrate an inaccurate way of thought.

Femininity has always been associated with weakness, but femininity is also a box for women to contain themselves with. Manly enough to matter, but feminine enough to be attractive. Women are expected to shave, although men don’t, and to take great care with their appearance, but be careful to not go overboard. Too much makeup is ugly and too little is lazy. It’s not women who typically decide the amount of femininity we are to have or to do away with.

Tomboy was never a term I chose for myself. It was a word people used to fit me into society’s strictly defined gender classifications. It allowed me to exist. People think a tomboy is cute – within limits…In the short run, tomboy serves the nontraditional girl’s desire for typically boy things. In the long run, however, the label perpetuates misogyny within the very girl it appears to liberate,” (Paquin, Tomboys!).

Here’s the deal, women are complex and that’s okay.

“Tomboy,” suggests that women have two ways of being. Manly or girly. That’s just unrealistic. Women are human and there are layers of what makes someone human. A simple understanding of the experiences that go into shaping a woman’s life will go a long way. Catherine Connors of Beyourself writes that the word “tomboy” suggests that there is a right and a wrong way of being a girl. Her daughter told her that she thought she was a tomboy, but Connors agrees that the term just enforces gender stereotyping. She says about her daughter, “She’s a girl, sure, but she is, to borrow from Whitman, large and contains multitudes.”

Of course, the first step for action is to always be aware of the problem. Gendering using terms like “tomboy” needs to go. I once heard the expression, “label jars, not children,” and that’s important. Next, let’s fight against marketing that pushes stereotyped toys. There should not be a pink aisle and a blue aisle that separates toys as such. When someone asserts that an activity has a certain gender, we can question and discuss and explain why it shouldn’t be masculine or feminine. It’s time that we are empowered to decide for ourselves what we woman like or dislike without being harassed or scorned for one over the other.


Women can be whatever they want.


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