By Emily Erickson
I don’t know exactly when in my childhood I was introduced to the concept of a “tomboy,” but I can remember an “after” in which I decided it was what I must be.
Arriving at that identity was a process of collecting remarks like, “Don’t do that,” and, “That’s not for girls,” like fireflies — keeping them in jars and turning them over until I could make sense of them. If so many of the things I wanted to be doing weren’t for girls — jumping off logs, getting grass stains on my shirtless belly, and packing my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a Stone Cold Steve Austin lunch box — then I must not want to be like other girls. Instead of simply sacrificing the things I wanted to do to comply with these conventions, I internalized being “girly” as being limited.
I started shedding the stereotypical girly things I enjoyed (like Barbies and my favorite pair of pink, plastic, light-up sandals), and replaced them with paintball guns and skateboards. I didn’t know how to hold space for the parts of myself that liked both.
This inner conflict reached its apex when I burst into tears upon opening a birthday gift from my grandma (a reaction that still catches me unawares with the sporadic aftershocks of my shame). She had carefully wrapped a fuzzy, floral bathrobe that I would have loved the year before, but had somehow turned into an assault on the identity I’d taken so much care to build. I had sacrificed my “girlhood” for the moniker of “tomboy.”
This translated in adolescence and young adulthood as a constant striving for uniqueness — defining my individuality as a contrast to other girls, and how that might make me more appealing to others (and, specifically, to men). I again rejected things our culture deemed feminine, and invested heavily in acquiring a taste for things that would make me different and more attractive.
I listened to records by Led Zeppelin and The Doors on repeat, never admitting to myself that I might also like Taylor Swift. I watched every Adam Sandler movie ever made and swore that I’d take the fact that I read Twilight to my grave.
These behaviors would again be validated by comments like, “You have good taste in music for a girl,” or, “You know, you’re actually pretty funny for a girl,” confirming that if I could just keep swerving around the parts of myself that like “girly” things, I could maintain my status as “interesting.”
But in the past decade, I’ve felt a shift, both in myself and in the larger culture around me. As the societal dial turns toward more fluid gender expression and non-binary gender rules, it’s opening the door to embrace all the things previously considered “less than” because of their association with women and girls.
This cultural “moment” is reflected in the shockwaves of Barbie — an unapologetically feminine movie (and its record-breaking $1 billion box office performance) — and the ubiquitousness of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, which is also set to reach $1 billion in revenue. By now we’ve all seen the meme about Margot Robbie and Taylor Swift holding the American economy on their backs, right?
This moment has also set the stage for a celebration of “girly” things across genders, like “girl dads,” belting Taylor’s lyrics in perfect sync with their daughters and boasting about their mastery of the French braid. It’s a reclamation of the color pink, floral patterns and crop tops in every section of clothing stores, and it’s an acceptance of complex and nuanced expression — allowing people to simply like what they like, even if (or perhaps, especially because) it’s conventionally “girly.”
This shift reminds me of the freedom experienced by my 3-year-old niece Clover, who, coincidentally, is the coolest person I know. She can regularly be spotted ripping laps at her local mountain bike pump track and sporting a pink tutu and camouflage knee pads without any concept of that being unique.
For me, this past decade has been a process of unlearning the idea that interests need to be gendered, and especially mutually exclusive. Now, I want to be just like other girls. I want to be like my friend Katie, an inspired entrepreneur; Jamie, a compassionate leader; Gwen, a fierce mother; my sister, an impressive athlete; Lacy, an insatiably curious learner; and Sara, the physical embodiment of work-life balance.
And I especially want to be like my niece Clover, on whose long list of incredible attributes is a shameless affinity for pink tutus.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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