Family matters: Out with tomboyism

A tomboy mother with a daughter who embraces her inner girlyness, Louisa Wilkins ponders the gender issue and asks if parents are to blame

By Louisa Wilkins, Senior Features Writer, Aquarius
00:00 December 1, 2011

Last Saturday, my sleepy little compound was awash with pink when ten pint-sized princesses went for a stroll. We were having a Princess Party for my daughter’s friends – three hours of glitter, nail polish and all things girly – and our guests were in heaven.

Halfway through decorating magic wands, I spied an absent invitee cycling past, peeking in forlornly. I went to find her but she was gone. A few days later her mum said to me, “She really wanted to come but she was shy as she didn’t know the other girls. It’s probably for the best, she’s not really the ‘princess type’.”

I completely empathised. I’m not much of a ‘princess type’ myself – as a child I was more likely to be found hanging upside down from the monkey bars by one leg, skateboarding down a slope with a bucket over my head, or ambushing the neighbourhood kids with sticks, than making a glitter wand. Where were my parents, you ask? They were right beside me, encouraging me to do it. I was a tomboy. And like the mother in my compound, they were proud of it.

Looking back on it now, though, while I remember my treehouses with pride, I also remember the joy of a special dress brought from Canada and the aching yearning to swap my boys’ velcro trainers (chosen by dad because of their good grip) and short-back-and-sides crew cut (administered regularly by mum) for patent red pumps and a ponytail.

I wonder, how much of my tomboy-ness came from me and how much from them? And if tomboy-ness does come from the parents, then why does it? You don’t see parents encouraging their sons to be girly.

So I asked Dubai-based clinical psychologist Lara Lagutina ( for her thoughts on the tomboy phenomenon. She says, “There are several reasons. One is that we live in a patriarchal society. Parents may favour manly characteristics, such as strength, confidence, standing up for yourself – and encourage these traits in their daughters to protect them from being marginalised by society or being vulnerable.” This makes sense. Parents want what’s best for their children and I don’t hear anyone saying that being a weak, feeble woman will get you far in life.

“Also,” says Dr Lara, “if parents wanted a son, they may subconsciously encourage boy-like behaviour in their daughter. The child will learn that she gets attention when she runs fast and climbs trees so she’ll keep doing it, because she wants to feel loved. Some girls may feel that women are regarded as second rate in the family and aspire to be more boy-ish, through excelling at school or at sports.”

So, what about the other way around? If it were a woman’s world, would we be encouraging our sons to be more gentle? “Matriarchal societies favour connectedness and communities,” says Dr Lara. “So, they have a different set of values, which they encourage. In our society, parents may discourage their sons from being girly as they want to protect him from social humiliation or because of homophobia.” Interestingly, society doesn’t have this fear about boy-ish girls.

So it seems that tomboy-ness comes from the parents. Yes, a girl may have an adventurous spirit but she will probably still have a hankering for a big plastic tiara, no matter how distasteful you find it. As parents, how can we make sure we are not subconsciously telling our little girls that to be girly means being weak, that being boy-ish means you’re strong and that they should suppress their inner girlyness? Dr Lara says, “Parents should look at their own attitudes to gender. If you undervalue girls, then work on finding what you can admire in them. Notice which traits you confer a preference for through praise and role modelling. It’s important, because it can affect your daughter’s image of herself as a woman and therefore her relationships. How do you see yourself as a woman?”

This is the point. As women, how do we see ourselves? Do we see ourselves as playing second fiddle to men? If not, then we need to show our daughters that women have their own strength. We don’t need manly shoulder pads and powersuits to get a promotion. We don’t need short hair and boys’ shoes to climb a tree. It’s time to embrace the glitter, give power to the pink. Be gone dated images of tomboys, enter a new era for tomgirls.

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