‘She Looks Like A Maid’s Daughter’: A Woman Speaks Out On Growing Up As A ‘Tomboy’

There was a fascination with Brylcreem. So, I tried to spike my hair. I thought being called a ‘tomboy’ was something that made me stand out of the crowd.

When someone would say: “Nayanika toh mard hi hai,” (Nayanika is a man only.) I thought I was just not supposed to feel demoralised about it. I was supposed to take it as a compliment because people only meant well. Being a ‘tomboy’ meant I had more guy friends but not in the ‘wrong way’. I was the medium through which other girls would get to date boys because I could convey the information perfectly, to both girls and boys. So, I was automatically included in those guy talks, where I would hear ratings of the faces, legs, breasts, etc. I felt absolutely uncomfortable because I knew this was wrong. And whenever I did raise my voice, I was not being the ‘tomboy’ that the boys adored, but the girl they’ve always dreaded. Once they would declare me as cranky, I would quickly switch back to being their chum and just tuned out the horrifyingly sexist and perverted comments.

During parties at home, when I would return from playing all evening, my parents would proudly introduce me as the ‘tomboy’ of the house. I would give a sheepish smile while aunties and uncles judged my sweaty and muddy clothes. Mum was quick in catching those glances, so before she could say it; I would rush for a bath and wear clothes that she would choose. Because now it was time to behave. Time to not be a ‘tomboy’, because all of a sudden, that introductory title did not go beyond introductions anymore.

Recently, when I went home, my parents told me how it was high time for me to learn to walk properly because I needed to grow up. Because I walk like a man it’s embarrassing for them to look at me to walk like that during the dining in and dining out parties. My sister fortunately, or unfortunately, I can’t really say, grew out of this phase. However, I couldn’t. And I didn’t. But the subtle comparisons that were made between the two of us will always remain with me, however much I try to erase them from my mind. “Look at your sister, she’s so graceful!” I apologise, mum and dad, for not being able to nail the contemporary dance classes.

Once, during a clay modelling workshop that I went for in Calcutta, I was put in a group of boys. So, I immediately went and asked the organisers why they had done so and whether they had assumed I was a boy. They laughed and assured me that wasn’t the reason, and they only did so because of lack of room in the other groups. I was extremely relieved to hear this and cheerfully went to my group and quickly gelled with them. On the last day of the workshop, I wore a pink jacket. The boys asked me why I was wearing pink. To which I said: “Because I’m a girl?” To my surprise, the boys were completely taken aback. All this while they had assumed I was a boy. It made me realise why they interacted so much with me. This was a little hard to digest because when you’re nine, you generally cannot stand the opposite sex. But I guess for not assuming my gender based on my name, the boys fared well.

With so many perspectives changing, I am able to remember tiny incidents from school that meant nothing back then, but now I am able to digest how controversial this overly used term could be. Being the sports captain of my school was a matter of great pride. But that also meant regular clashes with the boys’ teams. Arguments concerning the better courts, basketballs and coaches.

While I knew how to keep these arguments separate from, well, our social lives, they didn’t. And so I would hear about them talking about how I was too much of a loudmouth and how I must try to become at least a little lady like. These rumours kept getting worse as I learnt to tackle their egos with ease – “Nayanika is ugly and she looks like a maid’s daughter.” While my friends told me that I definitely did not look like a maid’s daughter, I couldn’t believe how I was supposed to explain that that was really not an insult and just showed how problematic the standards of beauty are. The farewell was the most awaited day in my class 12 (But my preference of the sports day, well, just highlighted the ‘tomboy’ in me) and this is exactly what a friend told me – “Nayan, you look like a lady.” Thank you so much, kind friend. I can’t believe how flattered I was at that overwhelmingly derogatory compliment.

The word ‘tomboy’ was originally used to describe a code of conduct for young girls to exercise, have a wholesome diet and wear sensible clothing. Freudian psychology, amidst the backlash against LGBTQ movements, equated ‘tomboys’ to lesbians because it only puzzled them more and more about the sexualities of ‘tomboys’. Probably that’s why my piercings, short hair and martial arts lessons sparked my friends in college to obviously, assume that I was a lesbian. It was just amusing how one’s hobbies and interests were reason enough for people to assume their sexuality. After joining mixed martial arts lessons in Pune, my parents got worried with the bruises. What are you doing to yourself? Is this really required? Just call your father if anything happens.

Introductions are a little different at home now. Other than asking me to sing for the guests, I am also asked to do push-ups. Because I’m the strongest at home.

The use of this word makes people club ‘tomboys’ in a different category than girls. Even though they wouldn’t admit to it, but subconsciously, in their minds, ‘tomboys’ aren’t really girls. Although we assume that we have become champions when it comes to non-conformity, why do adults impose such rigid restrictions on gender roles from such a young age? There is a ripple effect to it and I feel the waves to this day.


Image source: Erika Ballesteros/ Flickr