The Tomboy Myth: Rallying for Women and Girls in Sport
Have you ever been called a tomboy? I have. Too often to recall! But that was when I was still a very active girl. I was more often in the road than in the house. I was more likely to explore the river for tadpoles and climb trees in the neighbour’s garden, than sit at my older sisters’ feet watching them cook.
So tomboyish was I, that in a daring effort to test my physical abilities and my father’s numerous warnings, I attempted to leap over a large moss-covered drain from my yard to the road. Needless to say, that adventure didn’t pan out. I slipped, fell, and ended up with a buss head, and, in my view, an unwarranted cut-tail from daddy.
At primary and secondary school, as well as university, your girl played every sport on offer – from track to football, badminton to hockey, and cricket to tennis. I even spent every day in the gym, lifting heavy iron and dreaming of becoming a bodybuilder.
Fortunately, my feminist mother and intellectual father never dissuaded me from pursuing athletic greatness, but, not having a point of reference, they never pushed me to make a career of it either. What little achievements I did manage were produced by the sweat of my brow. It was all me.
It’s clear to me now that when it comes to physical activity and sport, women and girls are forced to step outside well-defined roles, defy exaggerated stereotypes, and surmount numerous barriers to participation.
But let’s examine the word ‘tomboy’ for a minute. Is it meant to be a term of endearment, badge of honour or subtle diss? The term is generally used by adults to ascribe a masculine personality to a girl. It’s even been used to indicate one’s sexual preference! I’ve been called a lesbian more often than I care to remember. And I doubt tomboys are part of the horde of dolled-up vixens in Beyoncé’s warped vision of girls running the world.
Is a girl who prefers to be outside running races, kicking ball in the street, or engaging in horseplay any less of a girl if she’s a tomboy? I’d say no, but many persons hold firm to the culturally defined gender roles for girls and boys. Girls, at least in our Western culture, are generally expected to be pretty, as opposed to strong, and to make themselves attractive to men, rather than compete physically with them. I suppose fewer bobos on your legs, and a healthy respect from the boys doh count for much.
So, is being physically active or participating in sport the exclusive domain of men and boys? A former Director of Sport once told me that the human body was designed to move. Our bones, joints, muscles and organs are built for physical activity. If you believe that, it’s not a stretch to believe that women and girls have just as much, if not more, to gain – physically, emotionally and psychologically – from being active. As an extension of that concept, competitive sport becomes a higher level of accomplishment for women and girls, as they defy stereotypes and perform feats with their bodies that most of us could never dream of doing.
The first thing that enters your mind when you see a well-muscled, professional female athlete, like the World 100 metre champion Veronica Campbell-Brown, is: “Why she hadda look like a man so?” Well, if you could run 100 metres in 11 seconds, you’d probably have quite a bit of muscle mass to allow you to literally power your body to the finish line.
Strong is beautiful! Well, so says the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which developed a brilliant campaign with the same title. The 30-second videos feature the game’s top stars, in dramatic, movie-style slow motion, hitting a tennis ball. The women are not dressed in your typical tennis garb, but flowing mini dresses. They’re also well coiffed and made-up, with glistening, just-started-to-sweat skin. There is a hint of sexuality in the images, but it’s not overpowering. Rather, the video does not emphasize only the physical strength, grace and athleticism these women possess. Even more striking is the voiceover, which, in their own words, is a signal to the inner strength they must have to overcome the obstacles to success.
But these are millionaire athletes, you say. They are athletes in an individual – as opposed to team – sport, which, incidentally, was the first to offer the same prize money in major tournaments to men and women. The United States led the charge to right the imbalance in tennis, but lobbyists and advocates in the women’s sport movement also ensured that American women in collegiate and national sport played on a level playing field. The strategy included legislation and policy, but also targeted meaningful, athlete development, and using the media to advance the cause.
No lip service here, but committed and dedicated lobbying and advocacy, which continues today.
Is there any local initiative to encourage women and girls to participate in sport? The short answer is no. Piecemeal efforts – a sport festival here and there – do exist, but there’s no major thrust, drive or will to explore and expose the abundant talent (that everyone says we have) among the female population.
Sadly, the media doesn’t contribute either. Have you ever seen a live, sporting event involving women or girls on local television? How often do you see a female athlete (in a non-sexual or revealing pose) on the back page of the newspaper? Most sporting events involving women or girls aren’t even covered, unless of course the women’s game is part of a double header, for which reporters may come early to ‘ketch some kicks’ before the real game starts.
Women athletes themselves need to recognise that they deserve respect and admiration. No-one will pay attention to your needs if you mumble and grumble in the background. Coaches, administrators and funders need to make a concerted effort to promote, highlight and reinforce positive messages about women in sport. Otherwise, we are spinning the proverbial top in mud. Every woman or girl (yea, the one you call a tomboy), who picks up a racquet, kicks, throws, or spikes a ball, and runs or jumps as fast and high as they can, is pushing themselves to the limit of their potential every day. They deserve to be held aloft as role models, as exemplars, as warriors (not princesses), and as strong, capable human beings (not just tomboys).
P.S.: The only sport I never attempted was netball. My reason for shunning the girls-only sport? It was too girly. Ha!