I'm sure most of y'all have seen the current back and forth between the NYT opinion piece
and the Medium rebuttal
and there's enough collective butthurt between the comments on the two to keep proctologists in business for centuries, but I'm gonna throw in anyway, because this is a Big Thing for your esteemed author.
I grew up dressed in boy hand-me-downs because the 5 boy cousins that were older than me were vaguely my shape, whereas the one girl cousin who's got a year on me was a spindly little thing (waif-like, spindly, tall and delicate being words that have never in their life so much as waved hello in passing to Aunt Hippie's physique.) I also wore out a couple of sets of Wonder Woman underoos, because, let's face it, who wouldn't if given the chance? And I was prone to taking the yellow ruffled curtains in the back bedroom and draping them around myself with the help of some spare yarn and belts and whatnot to form what I was certain was the most elegant princess dress ever. I had a pair of red patent mary janes that I squeezed my feet into for two sizes past what was reasonable and cried when I had to pass them down to my sister.
I might have been tempted into long hair if I'd had a chance to get used to it, but a babysitter decided that the only cure for my wild tangle of curls was a Dorothy Hamill cut (and clearly I've betrayed my age with that; for those unfamiliar the choice of reference dates me at "too old to have any fucks left to spare.") Enter a decade of people assuming that I was a boy, to my perpetual annoyance- but then again, I never did get annoyed enough to grow my hair out.
The first time "tomboy" was applied to me, some time in the late 70s, it was such a blessed thing to know that there were lots of me, enough that we even had a name, and maybe- if I bumped into any- some kind of secret club that we could all ride our bikes and climb a tree to get to. Because it was the late 70s, and according to my parents and the burgeoning sentiment in the world, girls could be literally anything they wanted. Of course
I was a girl, because girl didn't have to mean that people would tut-tut athleticism or bravery or outspokenness or a knack for taking things apart any more.
Sally Ride. Wonder Woman. Mary Lou Retton. Sandra Day O'Connor. Geraldine Ferraro. Laura Ingalls and Caddie Woodlawn. Helen Keller. Florence Nightingale. I ate up their stories and let them nourish my soul, confident that by my quarter century mark and a new millennium, women would be astronaut-lawyer-doctor-president-moms, all of us.
[Aunt Hippie could write an entire screed on the frantic backpedaling that's been apparent since her college years, but, in the interests of not setting anything on fire with her gaze, will refrain. For now.]
Of course, some of the sheen came off with age, as it does. My 7th grade math teacher, after I had handily completed the pre-algebra exam with the best grades in my year, grudgingly admitted that I was good at math "for a girl" and that I could be a nurse! or maybe even a math teacher! I brushed him off because he also pined for the days when he could send boys home for having hair that touched their collar- clearly this was not someone who knew what was what.
Then the boys, on whom I was crushing desperately, telling me that it was so great that they could talk
to me, and wasn't it so great that I could speak girl too, so I could help them out with my hot friends? When bisexuality hit like a ton of bricks when I was 16, realizing that all my girl-crushes were nothing so much as visual representations of the kind of delicate yet interesting alternapixie that I wished so desperately to be, and lamenting for the first time that I was bad at being a girl. The kid sister who effortlessly strode into popularity and conventional beauty, got kissed before me, and had to fend boys off with a stick.
Gradually, though I had never noticed nor cared, the volume of people who felt compelled to tell me how I was Doin It Rong, no matter what "it" was, got loud enough that it started to penetrate my blissful obliviousness. In response, I adopted the "fuck this shitty one horse town, I will leave and I will be smart and fit in and never see any of you again" of the sort that writes poetry and smokes clove cigarettes and wears her transgressions like a point of pride.
[Aside: We are, my teen tomboy and I, watching Daria on DVD. My high school life in cartoon form, let me show you it.]
The one that stuck most was the first time I was betrayed by my own- a college chemistry prof who was outraged that I would dare take advanced chem as a liberal arts major, because something something owed it to my gender to prove that women could do math and science, and my dilettante ass was undermining Real Women everywhere. And the less said about my experience of Mandatory Sisterhood that was somehow supposed to magically override the class barrier between me and my future Leaners-In sistren, the better.
I had children. I rolled my eyes at the Earth Mama Goddess types who reclaimed their inner power via their uterus. This time the gap between me and the women I was surrounded with was in age; most of the women in my parenting class were a few years younger than my mother, and talked about how to navigate career pauses and hiring nannies.
Then my ex (one of oh so many reasons why he has that title) told me that I was frigid and no longer attractive, oh and also he would prefer to be humiliated and beaten and tied up and have things shoved up his ass, several items of which I had expressed negative interest in- so he wanted to open our relationship. I agreed, mostly out of guilt that he was unhappy.
I grew bitter from a brief foray into trying to be conventionally attractive- I lost the baby weight, I grew my hair, I wore heels and fashionable clothing, and yet somehow, they Knew. Men everywhere passed me over in favor of women who did this every day without a second thought. So I abandoned it in favor of the look that I like to call the Pre-Emptive Fuck Off. And suddenly I was the darling of the alternative set, and it felt like I had found my place.
I started to become That Girl who brags about how she finds it easier to be friends with men. There were a few friendships that were fraught with Unresolved Sexual Tension - both one-sided and mutual- but honestly the notion that it was impossible to avoid never made much sense to me, since clearly as a Sparkly Unicorn Bisexual I had to be able to have *some* gender of friend without immediately hopping in the sack (although as everyone knows, we are
both indecisive and greedy.) And truth be told, it was my female friendships that were more likely to manifest from stealth crushes.
I got into restoring and maintaining cars and delighted in having a wedge between myself and women who were naturally good at being women, while at the same time secretly despairing that it was forever out of reach for me. I also delighted in the transgression of striding into male spaces as something other than a decorative object, and vented my righteous fury every time I was mistaken for one.
But I remember an incident, one that I thought little of at the time, that was the first beam of sunlight on the horizon: having spent most of the day involved in prep for an engine swap in my boyfriend's car, the Men arrived to help finish up. The engine, no matter what we did, was not sitting so that it would align with the transmission. I looked and shoved and looked some more and decided that for whatever reason, the angle of the mounts and the subframe made it impossible. Not So, they cried, I clearly did not know enough, and they stood around each side of the engine bay to prod it with their metaphorical Penises of Innate Knowledge and I shrugged my shoulders and went upstairs to make hot cocoa. 4 hours later, they realized that the wrong engine mounts had been ordered, to absolutely no apology, and I raised one eyebrow and shrugged again and regretted nothing about choosing to go inside and get warm after laying in slush for the better part of a winter's day.
A few years later I was attending electrical apprentice training with a bevy of 19 year old boys, after deciding that a building trade would hit the sweet spot of not having to conform to office norms, being able to move physically, and yet also paying enough to cover things like "eating" and "a car that runs" while allowing some mild to moderate use of brains, which had been growing skittery from disuse. Having 11 years and an actual job history over these kids, along with a legitimately foul mouth and drama allergy, the elephant in the room was maybe like knee-high by the end of the year. They called me mom (and recoiled in TMI horror when I counted backwards to let them know that only one of them was young enough for that to be physically possible) and counted on me to stare blankly at them when their dipshititude regarding women got too out of hand, but even though I was clearly physically female, I was operating under the "not a REAL girl" regulations.
Fast forward to my late 30s, and I have finally ended up where I belong, in an engineering job surrounded by sarcastic bastards. It's still a sausage fest, and even worse, it's a conservative sausage fest compounded by New Jersey's insane attachment to gender norms.
I spent a fair amount of time wondering if, in fact, I was in the wrong box somehow. Dating women as someone who looked butch but was really a cleverly disguised evil fence-sitter was a lesson in frustration. I saw half a dozen friends transition, including one for whom I'd have gladly traded bodies- the manic pixie dreamgirl crush of my first year at college. When even people who turn out to be transmen are better at femme than you, well.
One of the first times I abandoned my sarcastic tshirt and cargo shorts/pants uniform, I wore a shaped black knit jacket, a black cami, and black cropped tuxedo pants to work. Our sales engineer, the dude who sulked for a week at not being voted the hottest, looked me up and down and said "Look at you! You look... badass." Yes, thank you for that slightly redeeming recovery from being startled that I can girl on occasion. And then something in me just snapped.
A year later, when I was 6 months into a promotion, fighting imposter syndrome like mad, struggling to make my liberal, female, non-degreed self acceptable to my coworkers, I hit the wall of Fuck It. I was here. I was doing a goddamn good job. And I was going to stop apologizing for half my existence right that very second, so help me goddess.
I wore dresses. I wore sequinned leggings. (They remain the only piece of clothing that male engineers have *ever* noticed and remarked on in my entire experience, which is a pretty decent sample size.) I spoke up. And at no point did I meekly ask permission to exist as a female in their space, because fuck that, it's my space too. Gentle reader, Aunt Hippie is not exaggerating at all to say that there were faint echoes of a heavenly chorus, replete with sunbeams and cherubim and trumpets, as this lack of apology started to really, really sink in.
I did not have to pretend to be One Of The Guys. I did not have to "tone it down," or make myself deliberately unsexy, or deliberately sexy. I did not have to stick seventeen qualifiers in front of any statement of belief I made. And if my experience was different than theirs, you bet your ass I said so without dancing around the subject of why that might be. I walked right up to that damned elephant, threw a sparkly hot pink blanket on it, and rode it around the room in triumph.
Now, a lot of this is owing to a natural decline in one's supply of fucks, and a stricter rationing of same, as one approaches one's 40s. But honestly, it has taken me this long to learn how to actually embrace and enjoy being an adult woman who can believe that girls can be themselves, just like my little 5 year old inner princess-gymnast-astronaut-doctor-
President was once upon a time. And I'll be damned if anyone takes that away from me ever again.