What follows is anecdotal. I’m making the dreaded disclaimer now: I know damn well that not everyone else experienced these things the same way that I did. I’m writing about my experiences and my observations. Nothing more, nothing less.
When I was in the first grade, I was probably the only girl in my class who’d never gone rabbit hunting with her father. Most of the same girls still loved princesses and ponies, but their parents were already cultivating that classic country edge. Southern girls are encouraged to play in the dirt. Every good southern parent wants their daughter to be a tough country girl, the kind that handles firearms and doesn’t take shit from people. At least that’s what they say.
For someone like me, that should have been a good thing. You see, from my earliest memories, I was a textbook tomboy. I liked to play with miniature cars and toy dinosaurs. I could tell you the scientific classification of any mesozoic reptile you could think of, and I loved to prance around in the yard with a stick, pretending to be a knight.
Unlike many girls across the world, nobody ever told me I couldn’t. Even today, I feel a little bit of a disconnect with ‘girl power’ media, not because I don’t think it’s good and necessary, but because I was never the kind of kid who needed it. I had good, supportive parents who didn’t give a damn what kind of toys I played with or which shows I watched, as long as no guns were involved. Beyond that, my family taught me that I could do whatever I wanted from a young age. I didn’t need cartoons to tell me that a girl could grow up to be whatever she wanted.
The issue was, I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to be a boy. I don’t know why, and I didn’t know then, either. I didn’t think boys were inherently better, or that it was weird for me to like ‘boy’ things. It just seemed more right. A natural envy rooted itself in me. Yet, I gave it no mind.
Someone was going to make me feel bad about it eventually. We all know that. In rural Alabama, I stood no chance of telling anyone about my envy without being branded, at the very least, a freak. And guess what? The first person to do that wasn’t a parent or a teacher, or even a stranger. It was another child, and a girl at that.
We were in third grade. I’d brought some toy dinosaurs with me to school, stowed away in my backpack, and I got them out to play with at recess. A girl I’d barely ever spoken to walked up to me. Being a shy child, I didn’t know what to say, but she started the conversation for me.
“Girls can’t play with dinosaurs,” she said. I won’t name her or tell you anything else about her, because I’m not trying to cause trouble for her now, but this is one of those striking moments that never leaves. I still hear her voice when I reach back to it.
“Why?” I asked.
“Dinosaurs are for boys,” she said.
Children are cruel. Her words not only confused me, but put the first doubts in my head. Girls weren’t supposed to like dinosaurs? Was something wrong with me?
“I’d rather be a boy anyway,”
She laughed. She went and told the others, and they laughed too. For the first time in my life, I’d been admonished for not being feminine enough. It wouldn’t be the last time, but the first time is a special kind of wound.
That girl, by the way? She was a country girl. A southern tomboy. She grew up to be a ATV-riding, confederate flag wearing country girl. The kind who handles firearms and doesn’t take shit from people. She bullied me all through high school. She was part of a group that tried to rip my clothes off in front of some classmates in physical education one day. They got my pants and underwear down, and they crowed on about how I “couldn’t be a man after all”, because I didn’t have a penis.
Like many of the others, she grew out of being a tomboy. That’s the point of the story, I suppose. We were all tomboys in grade school, but over the years, southern girls are expected to partially outgrow it. That’s the issue. Southerners love for their girls to be tomboys, but only to a point. At some point, those wholesome southern parents need to see their little darlings act more like ladies.
If they want to keep hunting and fishing, that’s okay. It’s fine for them to watch football and drive big trucks. They can hang on to all the country pastimes they like, as long as they start wearing lip gloss and showing interest in boys. The girls in my little town had to grow that hint of girlishness. Otherwise, it might mean they’re gay. Look at me. I said I wanted to be a boy in the third grade, so six years later, my classmates decided to check on my penis.
That day was the capstone on my weird journey with gender roles and quiet confusion in my little southern town. Years before, I dropped out of girl scouts because we stopped going hiking and started painting nails, making bracelets, and listening to Hanson cassettes. In middle school, I failed to develop an interest in boys, and I didn’t care about how I looked. I wore my hair long and unkempt, always pulled into a messy ponytail. No designer clothes, no nail polish, no makeup. And of course, penis or not, I still carried that private thought about being a boy.
I didn’t start doing girlish things until college. I became confident in my appearance, I started dressing better, and started wearing makeup. I stopped thinking of my habits and interests as being masculine or feminine, and started thinking of them as being mine, and nothing more.None of that has changed who I am. I still love dinosaurs, I still like loose clothes, and I still wish I’d been born a man. I can feel that way while still loving dinosaurs, painting my nails, growing my hair long, and occasionally playing in the dirt.
All of that feels like an asset now, but in high school, it was the subject of bitter gossip. What if I was a lesbian? Wouldn’t that be horrible?
I didn’t see the big deal, true or not. I even considered that it might be. God damn, though. The community didn’t agree.
In my experience, that is the double standard lurking behind the southern tomboy. I watched so many other girls fall into this pattern: rough and tumble as a child, dainty and feminine as a teenager, but still carrying that little country grit. Now listen, lip gloss and shotguns are fine. People change as they grow, and I’m not one to criticize a woman for playing in dirt or for wanting to be a princess, or both at the same time. That’s not what I’m getting at.
What bothers me isn’t the change, it’s the way the change is perceived, and even expected. Some moved on from the dirt, but kids like me were mocked for staying the same. And always, every single time, regardless of who did the mocking, it was for the same reason:
“What if she’s a lesbian?”
Because in that quiet little town, nothing could be worse.
I’ll never forget that little girl telling me that I can’t like dinosaurs. As of writing this, that was about 23 years ago. When I visit my hometown, it looks and feels pretty much the same.