Friday, January 17, 2014

Tomboy Identity

I'm not your stereotypical girl. Pretty sure we've established that...

Mum and Dad tried. (Mum handmade my favoritest dress ever when I was 6. I kept wearing it long after hems could be let down.) My older sister tried. They really did. Reminders about ladylike behavior were frequent and almost as frequently uttered with exasperated tones.

But I had 5 older brothers and the stuff they did was simply more fun and interesting. I had my girly moments, particularly when dressed in a leotard and tutu, but I was never a girly girl. There may not be a single picture, outside of ballet and gymnastics portraits, where you'd find me in a hair bow. Mum was lucky if she could hold me still long enough to rake out the snarls in my pixie cut. The fact my daughters are the same is another one of those things that suggests it's as much a case of being wired that way as it is environment. If Charlie'd has his way, his girls would have been all ribbons and lace until marriage.

I was the kid who loved being mistaken for a boy, had no issues getting dirty and played with my brothers' GI Joe dolls (M*A*S*H) long before I ever played with Barbie. I even got offended when they played with me and I was only ever allowed to be the nurse. Dammit, I wanted to shoot people too.

*Incidentally, the first Barbie I did play with was a Growing Up Skipper belonging to my neighbor. We were 5. It grew boobs. We spun that arm so much, I'm surprised the doll survived at all.*

By the time I was 11 or so, I wouldn't wear a dress for church unless it had shorts underneath. You can't show off on the monkey bars or do flips in the grass to a chorus of "I see London, I see France".

I wore shoes purchased from a cobbler on the Quantico Marine Base. My Brothers, Buster Browns, me, the Mother Goose shoes.

Yes, shoes again. But just this once.

According to this box, a few more kids and Mum & Dad
would have to move us into a shoe.
Loved the box. Resented the shoes. I wanted BOY shoes. I never stopped to think about them being school and church shoes or that my old pair could now be my stomping around, climbing the crab apple tree, use the toes as brakes on the Big Wheel shoes. All I cared about was they were for girls. Not fair.

It was around the age of 5 I was allowed to participate in my brother's scout meetings. Dad was the Scout Master so I could worm my way in by virtue of cute (or possible whining and begging, not really sure) and, at the very least, sing John Jacob Jingle Heimmer Schmidt with the GUYS. Later, when I was old enough for Girl Scouting, I was disappointed to find they didn't do half the cool stuff the boys did. (Probably why I was occasionally sent home from meetings by Scout Leader Mum) Boys tied more than square knots. They fished, built fires, went camping and played with knives. I made Sit Upons (bleacher seats made with newspaper and nightmare inducing, patterned oil cloth) and planted marigolds.

I expected Scouting to teach me to wield this.

Instead, Scouting taught me to sit on this.
My brothers were also into wrestling, so it's a good thing my circle of friends had as many boys as girls. Most of my girl friends weren't too keen on the idea of flailing around in a battle of strength and speed.

Just for the record... at 5, I could pin any boy my age. That tiny fact still brings great pride. In sixth grade, I could still pin boys my age and debated trying to force the school to let me try out for the team.

When we moved to Alabama in '76 or '77, my best friend was our next door neighbor, Philip. We spent our days building "forts" in the hedges between our yards, having sword fights with the centers of the yucca plants which grew in my yard (years later Mum understood that's why she never saw the plants bloom) and hunting frogs and toads.

I remember taking every chance I could to walk the long way to school. The long way involved walking along a busy country highway. I preferred it because I was both defying my parent's rule to stick to sidewalks and because the route I was supposed to walk included passing a yard with a German Shepherd that terrified me. If I couldn't walk with another kid for safety, (I didn't have to be faster than the dog, just faster than my walking partner) I took the highway by the 7 Eleven and the grocery store.

One torrential day, while walking through the grocery store parking lot, I accidentally stepped in what locals called a "chuck hole". I know I wasn't a big kid, but this particular hole was filled waist high with muddy rain water.

I played, jumped and tried to swim in that puddle (without taking off my raincoat) well past the point where Mum would have worried why I wasn't home. When it finally occurred to me she might be worried, I was covered head to toe in mud and asphalt grit.

Knowing this couldn't end well, I dragged my feet the rest of the walk home. Fervently hoping Mum was in another room, I tried sneaking in the front door.

Here's where you have to stop for a minute and consider kid logic.

I knew I'd been gone too long. Knew Mum was waiting for me. Knew I'd walked the forbidden path home. Knew I was likely in trouble already. Knew I was too fully soaked to blame on the rain, heavy though it was. Yet somehow I still thought I could sneak in the FRONT door of the house, cross a hardwood floor and sneak into my room without leaving evidence, as long as I was quiet when I opened the door.

Before I was through the door, I saw Mum in her chair, making what we now call plarn for a doormat (too late). She looked up and I was caught.

To her credit, she took one look, burst into laughter and jumped up to help me out of my wet clothes. Looking like a drowned rat caught her by surprise and we ended up having a good laugh over it while she helped me dry off and change. This was one of those days when I was rewarded with a story about a time my older sister had gone past the limit of acceptable kid stuff and broken a window doing headstands in the house.

The point of all that was I didn't know any other 8 year old girls who would have gone swimming in nasty street water. The other girls I knew were afraid to run barefoot in the run-off by the curb for fear of worms. I was convinced until I was old enough to read anatomy texts that these dreaded worms somehow burrowed into your skin. I was also curious to see it happen.

When we moved back to Virginia, my days outside were spent in the woods across from the house more than anywhere else. I collected frog eggs to watch them hatch in a bucket, waded in the little streams, made an underwater viewer from a milk carton and cellophane to watch the bugs and other things swimming around and, the year of the cicadas, caught over a hundred and tried to have a cicada circus. I also learned to gut and scale a fish, get the meat from a hickory nut, forage for wild edibles and became convinced I could live on acorns if I were ever accidentally left in the wild to fend for myself. (I wouldn't have minded if that happened. It was second only to the "I'll be struck blind one day and then they'll be sorry" fantasy)

It really wasn't until puberty (and after I'd read every Judy Blume book she'd written to that point) that acting like a girl became a concern. The year I was determined to wear eyeliner borrowed at school was also the year I tried to show off my immunity to poison ivy by smearing it all over my face and neck. We made the long trek back to Alabama for my sister's college graduation with me in the backseat of the station wagon squirming and looking like I'd been hit in the face with a bag of red hot BBs.

I'll forever be grateful my parents had the grace not to take a single close up photo of me that next week. Everyone else had embarrassing  pictures taken of their case of chicken pox but I was spared the poison ivy portrait.

Despite a late middle school mini-skirt phase, I've long preferred denim to any other fabric. In high school, jeans were paired with my brothers' cast off flannel shirts. I went grunge then later emo a full decade before either "style" was a term.

It wasn't until anti-psychotics caused a sudden weight gain that my size ever mattered. Numbers were an inconvenient measurement but didn't determine my sense of value.

All three of my girls went through a "screw girls clothes" phase too and they all put up with the teasing for it. It never stopped them though. They dressed how they wanted, colored and styled their hair how they wanted and spawned countless copy-cats throughout their middle and high school years. Krys was the reason the Chorus Handbook rules of hair were changed. (She habitually waited until the night before a concert to dye back to a natural looking color, thus ensuring maximum anxiety for the chorus teacher) Becka still holds the nickname "Smurf" for her petite size and middle school hair color. Even now, Rachel is still paving her own fashion roads at college.

Growing up, being a tomboy set me apart. It had its ups and downs and frustrated my loved ones who wanted a socially acceptable little girl. At times, it affected an already poor self-esteem for the worse. At others, it was an "It's MY life" kind of statement.

In a conservative church, a woman willing to climb ladders and change light bulbs is denying the men of the church an opportunity to step up and fulfill their role. The way I see it, if I sit around waiting, it's not going to get done so might as well get to it. It took me more than 20 years to grow grace enough to be okay with allowing a man to "take my hand" to descend 3 steps from a stage. It still annoys me.

My girls and I can all change a tire on our own. We can figure out basic car problems without help. We can do home repair on our own and, in some cases, better than our spouses. We can put together the furniture and in a lot of cases, carry that shit into the house on our own.

Even today, in a society that is slowly changing, we're considered butch. And when I say butch, I mean with all the negative implications with which it is still used.

I'm built like a tree stump. It's mostly muscle if you ignore the mommy pouch. I'm built in such a way that if I chose a certain haircut, people's assumptions about who I am would instantly change because "bull dyke" is a term and society has labeled it with an appearance and value of its own.

Because I am willing and able to do physical tasks some still like to associate as manly, my sexuality, my sense of femininity or womanhood, my place in my marriage are all called into question. Even my obedience to my God... because I won't back down from a task that needs done. Or because I find digging a huge hole and fixing a pipe more enjoyable than stitching samplers or scrubbing a floor.

I was the Mom with a child's wrist in each hand, a toddler on my hip, and a baby carrier hooked on my elbow who didn't wait for someone to come along to open a door for me if I could open it with my own damn foot. I was the mom with 2 kids in the shopping cart, 2 holding on to the outside and the oldest pushing another cart so we could buy our groceries for the week. And I'm the woman who learned to carry 12 bags in the house in one trip.

I'm a tough person. A physically strong person. I have calloused hands and a gravelly voice. I can split a log, gut a catfish, perform surgery on a rat (Yup, saved a pet rat with a gaping gut wound) and face down a pit viper.

I can also tat lace, which is a dying art. I can make the best brownies you've ever tasted, from memory. I can kiss away the sting of an owie and I can tell the man I love that I don't care what any doctor says, I'm not letting him die yet.

Over the summer, Elena was talking about her Mommy & Daddy's work. I asked her what my work was. Without a moment's hesitation, she said "Your job's cutting down trees!"

Part of me thought she'd say I made things or that taking care of her and others was my work... but she picked lumberjack. Anyone can cook a meal or apply a band aid or read a story but her Damma can cut down trees and clear land. It's taken since she said it for me to accept the compliment because she's not been tainted with perceptions about what girls do and what boys do. She looked at the most badass, impressive thing she's seen me do and decided that was my job.

She doesn't care I'll never fit into a single digit size again. Dora doesn't care that I can't apply make-up with any degree of skill. Caz won't care if I feel pretty in a dress. They don't care that I still have acne or embarrassing scars or don't fit into any kind of "girly" mold (Unless we're talking spiders but we won't).

They won't care because that's not what really matters. How I look or how traditionally ladylike I behave... what kinds of clothes I wear...


You know what defines me?


If it feels comfortable, I'll wear it. If it looks interesting, I'll try it. If it needs doing, I might procrastinate because I'm not a superhero but I will eventually get it done.

Take a look at the background collage. Take at look at these pictures.

Not one of these pictures can define who I am. Why should anyone else?
If what I do affects others in a positive way... or even if it only affects me in a positive way, then I'm doing what I should be doing.

Unless it's trying to fit into a box of expectations and narrow ideas.

Don't try it. I won't fit.

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