Girls Don’t Like Being Called Tomboys Anymore. Here’s Why…
Is the word 'tomboy' an old-fashioned term or is it still a useful way to describe sporty women?
What comes to mind when you hear the word 'tomboy'? Little girls with scruffy hair, running around a garden in dungarees? Girls that played sport for fun or fully-grown women who like climbing mountains and don't wear make-up?
When I was young, tomboy was a label we relished in. It was a badge of honour in my eyes. It meant I was sporty, fast, brave, independent. I didn't care about getting my clothes dirty, climbing trees or playing football with the boys.
The term 'tomboy' has been bandied around a lot – from the pages of fashion magazines to Sweaty Betty's new fitness range. There are whole blogs dedicated to 'tomboy style'.
But in recent years, we're hearing the word 'tomboy' less and less. Is this because the term just no longer relevant to girls and women today?
An article in the New York Times suggests this might be the case.
“Tomboy doesn’t feel present tense to me at all," Jennifer Baumgardner, publisher of the Feminist Press, told the New York Times. “It feels retro, this affirmative way of talking about a girl who likes boy things, as if boy things were better."
Marisa Meltzer, the writer behind the piece, spoke to the top children's book publishers in the US.
Many of our childhood tomboy role models came from books. Everyone from Pippy Longstocking to Harriet the Spy.
"I was definitely branded a tomboy because I had short hair and liked sport, but none of those things made me less of a girl...
Interestingly, she discovered that there are significantly less tomboy characters in children's books published today.
“Maybe tomboy is one of those adaptive terms, something once used to describe any girl who just happened to want to wear dungarees and climb a tree," says book editor Wendy McClure.
“Now that those things have been more accepted as part of normal girl behaviour, we don’t need it anymore."
After speaking to dozens of women, all of whom were once called tomboys, the majority agreed that the word 'tomboy' is an outdated term.
“I think the word 'tomboy' is quite condescending," says writer Georgie Bradley. “It suggests that a girl has male tendencies but in a weak way, as in 'you're never going to be as good as an actual boy, dear girl, but good effort'."
Some found the term quite offensive. “I was always a 'tomboy' growing up and hated it," says surfer Carys Sian Boulton. “You're calling me a boy because I like fun things. It's a stupid term that needs to be buried along with other sexist caveman terminologies."
Dani Robertson-Phillips agrees. “Tomboy to me was always used negatively, like 'oh she's just a tomboy' or 'stop being such a tomboy'. I always associated it with not being pretty enough or 'girly' enough."
Others disagree. "I am never offended when called a tomboy, I think it is a useful descriptor of a woman who has a slightly more stereotypically male way of things. It is a descriptor against a stereotype, not an insult," says engineer Kate Lindqvist-Jones.
“I was definitely branded a tomboy because I had short hair, liked sport, and didn't like wearing dresses," says journalist Bronwen Morgan. “But none of those things made me less of a girl."
Appearance was something that came up time and again. Everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing – you don't have to wear baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts to be a tomboy, in the same way wearing pink makes you any less of a sporty, adventurous woman.
Plenty of the women I spoke to enjoy wearing make-up and stilettos when the occasion calls for it – but are equally as happy in a pair of ripped jeans, t-shirt and hiking boots.
It might seem an obvious point, but there are plenty of prejudices that linger in today's society about the way a woman dresses and what it says about her.
I think the word ‘tomboy’ is quite condescending, as in ‘you’re never going to be as good as an actual boy, dear girl, but good effort’
While many praise the freedom to wear masculine clothes, Bee Woodland thinks we should also embrace feminine style when it comes to be sporty and adventurous.
“I think it's awesome that people like Alana Blanchard, Coco Ho, Sierra Blair-Coyle & Sam Davies completely rock at their respective sports, but are still incredibly feminine. It sends a great message to women getting into sport that you don't have to turn into a scruffy urchin to be adventurous."
Regarding sports as gender-specific – particularly surfing, skateboarding or mountain biking – is thankfully a trend that is dying out.
As Bronwen says, “there's more acceptance these days that activities needn't be gender-specific, but the fact that toys are still categorised largely by gender suggests there's still a long way to go."
She makes an excellent point. Gendered toys are still prevalent in the modern world – whether it's pink Barbie dolls in the 'girls' section' or remote control cars in the 'boys' section.
American mega chain Target announced this summer that it would be ditching labels that determined whether a toy was for a boy or a girl.
But plenty of toy brands – even LEGO – still target their toys based on the tired premise that girls like pink, playing with dolls and going shopping while boys prefer sports, action figures and construction.
It's a market that's continuing to change, but it's still going to take time. As surfer Jennifer Parker says, “little girls and boys should be encouraged to do what they find fun without being given a label or made to feel bad about it."
One thing that really stuck out from all of my discussions was how much women hate being assigned pink or pastel-coloured kit from brands – whether it's an adult bike or a wetsuit.
“I remember at one point all the girls' wetsuits in town were pink or purple. The guys got the cool electric colours and neon stripes. It didn't seem fair to be labelled under a certain colour palette because I am a female," says surfer Jenny Jones.
The 'shrink it and pink it' approach to women's sports kit just doesn't hold anymore. Big brands, take note.
There is still some debate over whether 'tomboy' is just used for young girls rather than fully grown women. Others suggested that 'outdoors type' or 'adventurous' is the new phrase they get called, instead of 'tomboy'.
To me, the term 'tomboy' will always be synonymous with my childhood. Running around in a baggy jumper, pretending to be Harriet the Spy and organising a girls' football team in my school playground. If someone called me a tomboy now, would I be offended? Not at all, but it's not a term that necessarily needs reviving in my eyes.
Ultimately, girls and women shouldn't feel they need to categorise themselves as 'girly girls' or 'tomboys'. We are all women – whether we like wearing jeans and playing football or experimenting with make-up and painting our nails. We are just women.
What do you think? Have you ever referred to yourself as a tomboy? Is a term that's now bitten the dust?