The In-Between Space

I understand why people balk at labels. But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication.

andrea bennett is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose...

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In grade four, our class was located in a portable about a hundred metres beyond the school’s back door. A small wooden porch flanked by two railings and a set of stairs lead up to the portable; it also provided a multi-level platform useful for playing WWF Wrestlemania. One other girl sometimes played with us, but mostly it was just me and a whole bunch of boys. The goal was to hurl ourselves at each other hard enough to pin—to push and jostle and launch off the porch onto an unsuspecting crowd of wrestlers. The boys weren’t my friends, but they let me play with them. (Sports is all about numbers.) I had long hair but it was unkempt, and we were in the era of ‘90s Jaromir Jagr—his glorious, curly mullet unfurling from his hockey helmet in much the same way my dark waves bunched at my shoulders.

That year, I turned nine and was finally allowed to play hockey. The first time I knocked over a fellow girl—not on my team—I stopped skating and helped her back to her feet as my father hollered from the stands. Afterwards, my father and my coaches told me to “use my size,” the way it was useful on the porch behind the portable.

That year, in school, we played a math game called Around the World, based on times tables, in which the goal was to circle the classroom, defeating your classmates one by one. That year, drunk on wrestling and hockey and math—a subject I understood to be best suited to real (read: male) nerds—I requested that my classmates call me “Andy.” They did not comply.

I grew up in a time and place—a small town called Dundas, Ontario, b. 1984—when gender roles were binary. I grew up in a place where my favourite tomboy classmate later ridiculed my unshaven legs. I grew up in a place where, walking to work or the library, people yelled gendered, homophobic slurs out of their cars at me. I grew up with a mother I thoroughly confused and disappointed, just by virtue of being myself. It’s hard to say what kind of a person I’d be if these conditions had been different. Given these conditions, though, I took refuge in “tomboy.”

*

The word “tomboy” first emerged in the mid-16th century to describe rude, forward boys. A couple decades later, it began to apply to women—more specifically, bold and immodest, impudent and unchaste women. Soon after that, the term found the home we’re familiar with, referring to girls who behaved like “spirited or boisterous” boys. (Men got to keep “tom cat”—super creepy if you’ve ever googled “cat sex” after hearing alleyway yowling in the middle of the night.) 

By the time I hit elementary school, tomboy’s denotation had remained similar, but its connotation had shifted: wanting to be like a spirited and boisterous boy wasn’t such a bad thing. Second-wave feminism had crested, powersuits had come and gone, and we all understood that embodying certain aspects of masculinity provided a shortcut—albeit tenuous—to power in adulthood, and freedom in childhood. As Jack Halberstam writes in his 1998 book Female Masculinity, tomboyism tended, at that time, to be “associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedom and mobility enjoyed by boys.” Of course, there were boundaries: eschewing girls’ clothing altogether, or, say, asking your classmates to opt for a more masculine version of your name.

“Tomboy,” as an adult term, is most often applied to straight women who are somewhat masculine or boyish, or maybe “androgynous”—most often applied by the mainstream to masculine people with model-like proportions, proportions that are clothing-flexible because they are narrow and boxy. The first sentence of Lizzie Garrett Mettler’s introduction to Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion, goes like so: “When I arrived on campus for my first day at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, I was thirteen and as plumb a tomboy as any.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Mettler describes breaking her collarbone playing field hockey, she writes that her new Brooks best friend, Kingsley Woolworth, “decorated [her] sling with Lilly Pulitzer fabric sourced from a pair of my mother’s cigarette pants.”

Mettler’s tomboyhood fashion icons, featured in the full-colour book, are universally thin, generally white, and cover the usual gamut from Coco Chanel to Patti Smith, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and Diane Keaton, with more contemporary additions like Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae.

My favourite photo is probably the one of Eartha Kitt, in mid-swing, playing baseball. Most of the other photos and icons—not to take anything away from these women, who are all great women—don’t include people like me. I don’t and can’t see myself in these rich icons: their small breasts, their bony shoulders, the ease with which a pair of trousers glides past their hips and thighs. Taken together, with Mettler’s narrative, “tomboy” is a way of being a woman that fits quite neatly into what we expect of “woman”: a conventional BMI, tousled hair, a camera-friendly approach. Bodies with hips cocked, odalisque’d across the hood of a ‘50s car. Style from brands and stories that are very parochially New York, or what you’d call continental, European. Style that reaches out to rich woman who want to marry rich men to let them know that everything will be okay: here is a way forward that will still appeal to the men and women in your social niche.

*

Last year, I was eating lunch at a cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Behind me, a mom and daughter spoke Polish and waited for their order. They were of a set: both blonde and blue-eyed, similar facial structure, similar feminine clothing styles, similar body types.

When I was very young and could be forced into puffy-sleeved dresses, could be convinced or strong-armed into curls and tights, my mother foresaw a future where we were of a set. My hair wasn’t blonde like hers, my eyes weren’t blue, my ears stuck out farther from my head than they were supposed to, but none of these things were immutable.

At eight or nine I began to grow. My body shot up and broadened. My legs lengthened, my belly got round, I became chubby, grew breasts. Next to my peers, who still looked like children, I felt monstrous. My mom urged the hairdresser to “soften” my face with feathered bangs. We fought about clothes. I wanted to dress like the boy from two doors down who wore low-riding shorts and untucked T-shirts; wearing my pants like that, my mom said, would draw attention to my belly. We bought aspirational-sized clothing. We put me on a diet. I starved and binged. I forgot to close my legs when I was made to wear a skirt.

Instead of being of a set with my mom, I resented her as much as my inability to give her what she wanted from me.

“Tomboy” provided me with my first out. Tomboy offered a way to pursue masculinity from what felt like a failed female body. I gave up mimicking girlhood, accepted a ruptured relationship with my mother, and slowly began to build a relationship with my body and my selfhood that wasn’t based in self-negation. The world I grew up in—the world we live in now—still places an inordinate amount of pressure on female bodies as consumable; opting out of femininity, even privately, freed me to see myself as a whole person, and it also freed me to interrogate the legitimacy of the boundaries I was breaching with my monstrosity. Tomboyhood offered me a kind of self-acceptance I never got to experience as a girl.

But conventional gender-code breaking—allowed, within boundaries, for girls—ends, too often, with adulthood. As Jack Halberstam writes, “If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage… for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression.” In popular culture (The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for example), tomboyism is often folded into narratives about resisting adulthood; there’s a tacit understanding that with time, a tomboy will grow out of her (his, their) affinity for masculine presentation, masculine-coded pastimes, masculine-coded work.

And so tomboy gets roped in, like everything else, to safety and convention—swanning into simple, elegant, usually white, womanhood. A conventionally attractive woman devouring a burger in a men’s magazine profile; an unadorned silk dress.

My masculinity never turned men’s mag icon. I have never been an uncomplicated body in a silky dress; instead, I began to identify with the world of female masculinity best understood and embraced by queer theory; I pursued masculine-coded work, becoming a bike mechanic; I grew up and, though I dated men, came to identify as queer.

For over a year, I have had a BuzzFeed video bookmarked on my computer: “What Is Female Masculinity?” I watch it about once a month. The video starts with identifications: “I don’t really identify with anything but if anything I guess it would be butch”; “MOC, which is, like, masculine of centre”; “Genderqueer butch mahoo”; two “gender-neutral”s; “LHB: Long-haired butch.” Everybody has similar but diverging things to say about masculinity, female masculinity, aesthetics, and the benefits and disadvantages of being masculine and female in a world that prizes many aspects of masculinity. Near the end, one of the participants says, “A lot of times, butch women are blessed with the burden of boobs. That’s a very funny cross to bear on top of everything else.”

I have large breasts—boobs—and like many people who experience gender dysphoria, I do everything in my power to keep this detail from the general public (I own a compression vest, surreptitiously wear sports bras under collared shirts, curve my wide shoulders forward in an attempt to hide myself). Often, I’m proud of myself and I accept my body. But sometimes, I feel alone, quite alone. I can’t sum up the power of watching someone express my secret shame as a warmly funny in-joke.   

I understand why people balk at labels—why further subdivide the world? But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication. If I can’t describe who I am in this world—I am who I am, whether or not I can describe it—then I can’t seek out others like me.

Early in 2015, a feminist mom, Meredith Hale, wrote “Don’t Call My Daughter a Tomboy” for the Huffington Post. Hale’s daughter comes home from school one day and announces that she feels like she is like a boy, and, in fact, a tomboy, because she likes sports. Hale writes, in part, that she had “been guilty of using the label ‘tomboy’”—but only before she “knew better.” Late last year, feminist Catherine Connors wrote a piece for Her Bad Mother (later reprinted by Bust) called “Don’t Call Her a Tomboy.” Connors’s daughter, who dirtbikes, self-identifies as a tomboy. “I wouldn’t call you a tomboy, sweetie. I think that you’re you,” Connors tells her kid. “And you like a lot of different things, and they’re not just ‘boy things’ or ‘girl things,’ they’re things that you like.” Similarly, Hale wants her daughter to grow up embracing her femininity at the same time as she feels free to pursue whatever sports and pastimes draw her attention.

Eventually, Connors comes to the conclusion that these ongoing conversations are not really about tomboys, after all—they are about feminism. That girls and boys can contain multitudes. That gender stereotypes must be challenged. That parents must contest the ways in which society—with its pink aisles and camo prints—boxes in boys and girls.

Has our conception of gender changed so much that the in-between space that was so useful for me as a child—that is useful for me as an adult—is no longer necessary? After mulling over these pieces—and, more broadly, the differences between mainstream feminism and queer feminism—for more than a year, I wish there was room to embrace both tomboy and the fight to move beyond gender stereotyping. I wonder: how would I have felt if I received these messages from my mother? What if, instead, we outlined for kids like these that girls and boys can do and like and be who they want—but if they’re not a girl, or not a boy, that’s okay, too?

I have done a lot of work to disentangle myself from misogyny—to embrace my own femininity, to move past the ways in which I had rejected femininity broadly because it had been foisted upon me. I can’t help but feel that mainstream feminism has not done the same amount of work to understand genderqueerness, to understand complex trans identities. Why, otherwise, would you call to kill a term that still holds some usefulness for me, and others like me? If the world has told us for much of our lives that we are not quite women, and, moreover, “girl” and “woman” never quite fit, is it our responsibility to forcibly expand girlhood and womanhood until it grudgingly accepts us? Can I not just be woman-adjacent in peace?

Identity exists at the crux point of internal and external pressures—who we feel we are, and how others see us. Far from being discrete, one feeds into the other. I have no way of knowing how I’d feel if I hadn’t spent my youth feeling shamed into, and failing at, femininity. I wouldn’t be a feminine woman, but maybe I’d feel more comfortable stretching “woman” till it fit. As it stands, I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man; I’m not a tomboy anymore, either, though kernels of tomboyhood remain useful for me. From time to time, lifting a cargo bike into a repair stand, I tell myself to use my size; from time to time, I opt for a dress I can walk or bike in, because shoehorning a curvy body into masculine clothes takes work. In adolescence, tomboyhood offered a positive way to describe myself instead of repeating I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. It emphasized doing rather than being; it offered the option of finding power, and community, in monstrosity.

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