How Do Girls Become Tomboys?

Children tend to form group identities around being girls or boys. Tomboys still get a hall pass to travel between those worlds.

by Jacqueline Ronson
John Finley for Fatherly

Lucy, a student at a primary school in London, likes rugby; it’s an excellent excuse to get dirty—really dirty. “I just want to rub in mud,” she told researchers who came to her school to study what it means to be a tomboy.

Professor Carrie Paechter, now the director of the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families at Nottingham Trent University, began researching girls like Lucy only after realizing no one else had. Tasked with filling out an encyclopedia entry for “tomboy,” Paechter found almost no meaningful research or background material. “Nobody had actually found out what it was like being a tomboy,” she remembers. So Paechter decided to follow two classrooms of students, ages 9 to 11, at two London schools for a year. Her findings, published in Women’s Studies International Forum in 2007, were remarkable.

Lucy (not her real name) was a confirmed tomboy. It’s a label that others placed on her, but also one she used without hesitation to describe herself. She liked sports. She didn’t like skirts. Her mother, who grew up as a tomboy herself, encouraged Lucy’s active play and boyish independence, allowing her to ride her bicycle around the neighborhood without adult supervision.

Even so, Lucy was asked to wear a dress to her Grandma’s birthday party.

There’s a tension around tomboyism. Many parents value raising strong, independent daughters, but, at the same time, they want daughters who conform, in certain circumstances, to gendered expectations for how a young lady should look and behave. That tension is bound up in a long cultural history. The term “tomboy” dates as far back as the mid-16th century, and it applied first to particularly rude or boisterous young men. It flipped genders a few decades later and is now used to refer to girls who like boy stuff and do boy stuff. But, naturally, it’s not as simple as that.

“Tomboyism emerged from a eugenic impulse during the mid-19th century,” says Michelle Ann Abate, a professor of literature at The Ohio State University and author of the 2008 book Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. “By the 1840s, 1850s, upper-middle-class white women, because of the very constricting gender roles that they had to abide by, of wearing very tight-fitting corsets, not exercising, not being outdoors, their health was really declining on the whole, across the demographic, and they were not surviving into adulthood. They were very sickly adult women and wives. They were dying in childbirth. They were giving birth to very sickly infants.”

The re-gendering of tomboyism was in part, Abate explains, a deliberate campaign to promote physical activity and health in young women. Tomboys were healthy. Tomboys had healthy kids. It wasn’t so much a matter of female empowerment or achievement, but a matter of female survival and motherhood.

Tomboyism has no clean lines and no agreed upon definition. Academics tend to argue about what constitutes tomboyism and so do tomboys themselves, many of whom don’t view it as a concrete identity. When Carol Martin, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, interviewed girls ages 7-12 about their tomboyism, many of them described it as a sort of part-time pursuit. “We were surprised by how many of them said they were tomboys sometimes,” she told Fatherly.

The part-time nature of tomboyism — or of self-reported tomboyism anyway — may be the product of social pressures on tomboys that seem to challenge gender norms. The pushback on these sorts of tomboys has strengthened as tomboyism has bifurcated into what Abate calls feminine tomboyism and the masculine tomboyism. Per Abate, the feminine tomboy would be like the girls with her hair in a ponytail, playing softball and the masculine tomboy is the girl with the crew cut playing baseball with the boys.

Society expects tomboys to moderate their impulses and then grow out of them.

“Feminine tomboys are often seen as the apple of dad’s eye. ‘Look at my little girl out there, star of the softball team. She’s strong and powerful.’” said Abate. “But often parents who have a more masculine tomboy, who has a crew cut, who wants to be called by a male name, then there’s anxiety about that. Because then tomboyism becomes something that’s seen as something that’s proto-lesbianism, or proto-homosexuality, or — later — as proto-trans identity.”

That phenomenon of tomboy taming, as Abate calls it, didn’t show up until later in the history of the tomboy. “The first generation of tomboys were identifying new ways for girls to be girls. The second generation of tomboys thought, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a way for girls to kind of traffic in boyhood. This is a way for girls to kind of be boys.’ That was a big shift, and that also set off the alarms. This wasn’t just progressive, it could be transgressive. It became a threat.”

Anxieties around being “too much” of a tomboy help explain why Lucy’s mom occasionally wanted her to wear a dress and why Lucy worried about the fact that older girls at school liked to walk and talk at recess, rather than playing active games. Society expects tomboys to moderate their impulses and then grow out of them. But Lucy, at least at the time of the research, wasn’t eager to grow out of anything. She accepted the social repercussions of playing with younger, less cool girls in order to have active playmates as recess. She was happy doing her thing.

What explains Lucy’s divergent behavior and attitudes from her peers? Certainly, her parents encouraged her sportiness and independence. But emerging research suggests biological factors may have been at work as well.

A new study by Catherine Salmon and Jessica Hehman, psychologists at the University of Redlands, found a correlation between tomboyism and exposure to male hormones in the womb. The researchers looked at the ratio of the lengths of the index and ring fingers (known as the 2D:4D ratio) in college-age women, which has been established as a proxy for prenatal exposure to androgens, including testosterone. The women were also asked to rate how much of a tomboy they were as a kid on a seven-point scale.

The correlation between 2D:4D scores and tomboy ratings was significant, but small, explaining only about five percent of the variation, and only on the left hand. The research builds on other work that correlates prenatal exposure to testosterone with gendered behavior later, including longitudinal research by Melissa Hines that directly measured androgens in pregnant women and observed interests in gender-typical and non-typical play at age three-and-a-half.

Even in inclusive environments, children still tend to form group identities around being girls or boys. Tomboys still get a hall pass to travel between those worlds.

Nature and nurture appear to both play a role in the development of tomboys, and their relative importance is probably variable. “For some girls, it may be that nature has had a bigger role in shaping it, and in some girls it may be that nurture has a bigger role in shaping it,” Salmon told Fatherly. Beyond hormones and genetics, many environmental factors play a role in encouraging or discouraging tomboyism, she said. An important factor could be the role of fathers, Salmon speculates, based in part on her own experience growing up as a tomboy in Canada.

“I had a really close relationship with my dad,” Salmon says. “He encouraged my fondness for playing outside in the dirt and climbing trees and picking up any animal that seemed to go by.”

Whether inherent or taught, the tomboy identity does not seem to be going away, especially as societal notions of gender become more complicated. Even in inclusive environments, children still tend to form group identities around being girls or boys. Tomboys still get a hall pass to travel between those worlds. Stony Brook University psychologist Sheana Ahlqvist, who studied tomboy identity in girls ages 5 to 13, describes tomboys as “little egalitarian children,” noting that they benefit from their ability to traffic in boyhood and girlhood simultaneously.

Tomboyism looks very much like progress. And tomboyism makes progress look like fun.

“There’s more flexibility; they have access to both of these domains,” she adds.

For tomboys in general, the willingness to ignore gender norms may be as much about maintaining access to different social spheres as it is about rejecting girl stuff. Tomboys are less likely to be biased against boys as a group, and more accepting of gender transgressions among their peers. They are, in short, more interested in what people do than what people ought to do. At times, they pay the price for this open-mindedness, but they also reap the benefits.

The irony is that a tradition that emerged from the horrific identity politics of the colonial era is now best understood as a rejection of social identity overall. Tomboyism looks very much like progress. And tomboyism makes progress look like fun.