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Don’t label girls tomboys – or anything else for that matter, says Matt Gaw

PUBLISHED: 11:29 22 September 2015

Are girls who climb trees tomboys?

Are girls who climb trees tomboys?

Copyright: Dmitry Naumov

The party is almost over. Amidst the sea of Princess Elsas, tiaras and pink I can see my four-year-old bounding towards me dressed as a skeleton.

With her tousled hair glued to her ghoulish face paint by a combination of sweat, cake and ice cream, she seems deliriously, breathlessly happy.

One of the mums follows my gaze, and says affectionately that she’s been as ‘good as gold’, adding: “You ought to have seen her, she may be a tomboy, but she sang along to Frozen with all her heart. She’s a princess just waiting to get out.”

To be honest I hadn’t really considered my daughter’s femininity before.

Why would I? She’s four.

When she dresses up as a king with her older brother (“I’m King John, but you can call me your majesty”), puts shin pads on to play football, gets covered in mud or grazes her knees climbing up fences, trees and walls, I have always thought she was doing... well... what children do.

The idea she might need to be pigeonholed to somehow justify her innocent enjoyment of certain activities simply never entered my mind, and to be honest it bothered me.

Two or three weeks pass and I notice that the term tomboy comes up again and again. Not in reference to my daughter (my General Zod stare probably saw to that) but by parents talking about their children and their own childhood.

The conversations are interesting for two reasons. The first is the degree of affection used when the tomboy tag is dished out. Unlike apparent male equivalents, such as sissy, it doesn’t seem that there’s anything particularly pejorative about calling a girl a tomboy. But at the same time there is nearly always a caveat, a suggestion that being supposedly non feminine was something to be ridden rather than enjoyed. As one friend put it, “I used to be a right tomboy, but I just grew out of it.”

For Carrie Paechter, professor of education at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has carried out years of research into tomboys, the term is a convenient label for girls that are active.

“We were interested in who counts as a tomboy and how kids see tomboyism. One thing that we found is that it’s not a word that you find in playgrounds anyway, adults use it. But having introduced children to the word, they had very sophisticated ideas about it.

“They would say ‘I’m a bit tomboy. When I’m playing football I’m a tomboy, but when I’m going to parties and putting on sparkly tops and make-up, then I’m not’. That was pretty common, that you would be tomboy in some aspects and not in others.”

Paechter, who explains that for children being a tomboy means “doing the things that boys did” or avoiding things girls were “supposed to do or like”, also noted that “tomboy” was nearly always affectionately used.

Those identified by their peers during the study as doing tomboyish things were nearly always described by their teachers as “having get up and go”.

She adds: “I think tomboy is more of a neutral comment.”

But speaking over the phone, Paechter, who supports the Let Toys be Toys campaign for gender neutral toys, recognises the label does “suggest to girls that they are different and that’s not the way to be.”

She adds: “It is still gender labelling, but one that I really wouldn’t worry about”.

But I can’t help but be concerned. Although I do believe that people certainly mean no harm – I just can’t see how this old-fashioned word (it dates from 1579 when it was applied to a bold or immodest woman) can be seen as anything but unhelpful.

By saying a girl who enjoys football, running wild outside, sword fighting, or any of the rough and tumble that comes with growing up, is a tomboy we are surely making the claim that she is somehow not normal – that she has failed to meet her gender expectations.

And even if children are identified as tomboys for positive reasons; to highlight their tenacity, their go-getter attitudes; by suggesting that such qualities are exclusively male is far from a positive message to give to a child.

Of course, these arguments cut both ways. Because while the labelling of my daughter as a tomboy makes me bristle, I know I would be equally miffed to hear her reductively described as a “girly girl” or, God forbid, “princess”.

Paetcher’s work suggests that by the time children reach secondary school age, both tomboyism and the other extreme, the pink princess, will have passed. Perhaps, when all is said and done, it is me who is the real stereotype – the worrying, overprotective dad.

See more from Matt Gaw here

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