Growing up it was impressed upon me that I was an atypical girl; that is to say that I was considered widely to be a tomboy. I did not follow the feminine herd and that set me apart. But it never fell as complimentary and instead led to a fifteen year identity struggle. I believed the labelers and the traditional ideas about femininity. And because I’d grown up with these labels, ideas and reinforcements I became alienated from and by my gender.
My Mum always says that when I was little I refused to wear dresses and skirts as they ‘got in the way’ of climbing trees. My interest in Barbie’s didn’t extend beyond butchering their hair and dinosaurs, dirt and Matchbox cars were more exciting to me anyway. The label came early and it stuck. Girls did things like sit around and gossip and as an active child I wasn’t interested. But I also didn’t feel like I was able to relate. I didn’t have older sisters to learn from and my mother let me grow in my own way (which I am extremely thankful for now!). I let my active spirit run wild with the boys, playing soccer and cricket depending on the time of year.
This uncomfortable experience continued into high school where there were no boys to shield me from isolation in an all girls school. For every year of my high school education I cycled through another group of friends. This wasn’t solely as a result of my struggle to come to terms with my feminine side, but it was a major and un-investigated factor. In years nine and ten we had socials where our respective nine and ten year levels socialized with the corresponding year levels of our sister and brother schools. Going to my first one daunted me and shopping for something to wear was nightmarish. I was scared to wear a skirt, let alone a dress, and I hid this under a distaste for them. I was a tomboy after all, and tomboys don’t wear skirts. I didn’t attend the second, using a (very real) knee injury as cover.
School is now more than two years behind me and I still battle with my label and my gender. But my immersion into university, and more importantly student politics, last year has taught me that there is much more to femininity and being a woman than traditional ideas teach.
The definition of femininity can and should be personal. I am so thankful that my Mum let me grow up playing in mud and not forcing me into dresses because I am ultimately much happier for it. I have been able to embrace feminism wholeheartedly and without difficulty and it has allowed me to finally begin to reconcile my sense of self with my gender. My shorts and skate shoes do not make me any less female than a woman in her sundress and sandals. I no longer feel out of place when I go to work without a face full of make up. But by the same token I no longer feel outrageously self conscious when I do put make up on. I wear winged eye liner on occasion like I was born to wear it and I no longer feel any shame or that I am not girl enough to do so.
But truth be told I am still a work in progress. Fifteen years of damage takes a lot of undoing and I still hide things like skin cleansers from my family, fearful of their jokes. I don’t like to advertise that I enjoy relaxing in a milk bath and covering myself in moisturizer afterwards. In many ways my femininity remains foreign to me, but it’s becoming more and more familiar and is helping to settle my erratic sense of self.
I’m tired of women shaming each other for not being girly or womanly enough. Female and femininity are personal, they belong to each individual. And we’re individuals because each of us are different. We can all save ourselves much trauma, hate and anguish by remembering these and allowing the next generation to grow up as I started – doing what I liked. Traditional ideals will always have a place, but that place is with those who are comfortable within its boundaries who do it for themselves and do not force it upon others.
My great hope for this world is that broadened feminine ideals will be normalized and that no one will struggle with them as I did and do. That no girl will ever be considered “atypical” again.