My parents raised me well, but sometimes I wish my mother had taught me to be “girly.” I was urged to ride bikes and play with the Ninja Turtle action figures I preferred over the Barbies and similar pink trappings purchased by well-meaning distant relatives. In photos, I am always in baggy overalls or jeans and a shirt likely purchased in the boys’ department. There are precious few photos of me in dresses—almost always for a formal occasion or family Christmas card.
At five I was the flower girl in my aunt’s wedding. I was excited about wearing the poofy floral dress my mother had sewn for the big day—but proceeded to have meltdown in the hairdresser’s chair as she attempted to curl my hair. I continued bawling as another aging, beehived beauty painted my nails a pale shade of pink. (When I saw my aunt recently, she shared the story of my excessive crying with her teenage children. Truly a special moment.)
Though not born “girly,” I spent most of my adult life under the impression that it was a basic skill I could nurture, like learning to cook or changing my oil. Girls I grew up with possessed an inherent aptitude for nail painting, hair styling and outfit selection—their eyes rolled and noses turned up at my incompetence. I tried to train myself to think, behave and appear more feminine because I thought I had to. For all the joy I found in the comfort of straight-legged Dickies and men’s wifebeaters purchased by the pack, there was an accompanying sense of having failed my gender every time I was criticized by women “girlier” than I.
I couldn’t help it. Nobody wore heels or hosiery in my house. Both my mother and I kept our hair short. I don’t recall her applying mascara, eyeshadow and foundation in the morning. It just wasn’t her way, and so it didn’t become mine.
Never having a formative guide, girliness became a solo undertaking as I got older and began to suspect I was missing out on something. This was a mistake, because I entrusted myself into the hands of sales clerks more than happy to assist me in spending a great deal of money to purchase my femininity.
It started with a pair of strappy black heels ordered on eBay; one trot around my bedroom, and I knew there was no way they could be worn out in the light of day. This was not the beginning of my misguided spending.
I moved from shoes to clothes from all the fast fashion retailers: large sums spent on poly-blend dresses, tops and skirts whose stitching came undone if you washed them more than once. There was makeup: department store counters, MAC, drugstore displays, Sephora… I’d go back again and again, thinking that if I kept spending I’d eventually come home with a bag of something that left me feeling how different I could be if only I tried.
I cycled through every visual cue I had come to associate with femininity: manicured nails, expensive haircuts, sheer silk dresses, leather booties that cost half a month’s rent. It may have looked good, but it just didn’t seem to take. I felt like a fraud. Failed by materialism, there was only one avenue left: I grew out my hair.
I’d like to tell you the “new hair” didn’t make a difference—that men still insinuated I was a lesbian even after it had grown over my ears, from skimming my shoulders to inches below them… but they didn’t. Even in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and dirty canvas sneakers the most superficial critique I received was being called “Sporty Spice” a few times.
I found the key to girliness, or so it seemed.
The matters of makeup and acquiring a distinctly ladylike personal style resolved themselves: other than fourteen inches of expertly-dyed growth, I have little to show for my efforts beyond a lingering resentment for the time and money lost to my well-intentioned but futile floundering to be the kind of girl I’m not.
For a while I hoped I’d age out of tomboyhood; that the appeal of oversized cotton t-shirts and sneakers would lessen. But with each passing year I find myself more stuck in my ways, my preference for breathable fabrics. I can’t ‘wing out’ my eyeliner, and it’s only somewhere between one and three drinks that I can (almost) walk confidently in heels.
Yet for the first time, I feel like there’s nothing wrong with embracing this less effeminate brand of womanliness; having granted myself permission to just “be me.” That’s the only definition of womanhood that matters, ultimately—a fearless and uncompromising acceptance of self.