By Julia Mastroianni
I was one of the few girls in elementary school who wanted to actually play soccer or tag at recess.
We had a girls’ team for every sport at my elementary school except for soccer. So I petitioned the boys’ team’s coach to let me play when I was 12. It worked until the whole league folded due to low numbers.
I also hated shopping, make-up and refused to wear jeans until I was 13. These things didn’t feel particularly radical or weird to me, but coupled with my affinity for sports, earned me the title of ‘tomboy.’ From the way people said it, I gathered I was supposed to take it as a compliment. So I did.
At that age, I didn’t think too much about what my lack of interest in traditionally feminine things meant, or what tomboy meant either. I had a mother and a father who were both athletic and they passed that along to my two sisters and me. They supported all of our interests, feminine or otherwise, and never gave us any indication that not caring about clothes or liking soccer meant my sisters and I were irregular.
To be a young girl interested in sports is still seen as an anomaly, so much so that there’s a term we use for them: tomboy. Though the term has changed in meaning over the years, it’s most widely known today as a word to describe “nontraditional” girls—namely, girls who are more active, physical, loud and even sporty.
In a 2011 study in the Child Development Research journal titled “The Role of Athletics in the Self-Esteem of Tomboys,” researchers suggested self-identifying as a tomboy or being gender-atypical during childhood was associated with lower self-esteem—but only for tomboys who didn’t play sports.
Playing sports is linked to positive psychological adjustment and higher self-esteem, whereas girls who identify as tomboys may deal with lower self-esteem due to feeling gender atypical. So while tomboys generally suffer from self-esteem issues, tomboys who play sports don’t because of the positive effects of athletics.
Higher levels of athleticism act as a “buffer” from those self-esteem issues for tomboys, defined as girls who deviate from gender norms. They suggested this is due to the proven link between “positive psychological adjustment” and athletics in all genders.
Despite this, young female athletes tend to stop playing sports around their adolescent stages, according to the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS). CAAWS surveyed female sports leaders and identified insufficient funding, a lack of female-led instruction and lack of media interest and coverage as the top three hurdles faced by girls who are interested in sports.
While adolescent girls are dealing with all of these hurdles—such as lack of media coverage and athletic opportunities—boys don’t have to grapple with understanding how their interest in sports relates to their understanding of their own gender. Athleticism for boys is instead tied directly to traditional ideas of masculinity. “That drop-off is not true for boys and young men, because it’s so valued as a part of the culture, and probably as part of their own positive experience of themselves as masculine,” said Susan Cahn, a history professor at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences and author of Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport.
On the field, my team and I only had to worry about playing our best and winning the game. We knew we were good and we knew we were capable. Yet, women are still taught to doubt themselves and question their own skill level and ability.
Nikoletta Wood grew up in an athletic family with a father who was a gym teacher and a mother who played volleyball all throughout university. Getting involved in sports was not only supported, but expected for her. However, outside of Wood’s family, that wasn’t the case.
Wood was the only girl at her school who wanted to play sports at recess, but the boys at school wouldn’t let Wood play basketball or soccer with them. “I was constantly getting the person who was on yard duty to come and force them to allow me to play,” she says.
But sports were Wood’s solace in a place where she was often bullied by other kids. So she continued to work at getting better—despite the fact that boys weren’t welcoming, they grudgingly let her play. Wood eventually developed her skills throughout the years on all-boys teams. “I had to command respect by being a good player,” she says. “You don’t really see acceptance from men in sports. I’m counted out before I step in the room every single time.”
When Wood joined co-ed basketball intramurals in her first year at Ryerson, she had hoped that things would change at the university-level. But when she walked into the gym on the first day, there were so many men that she initially thought she was in the wrong place. After confirming with the woman at the score table, Wood found out she was indeed in the right place.
“I started wearing dresses and skirts to feel good about myself”
Wood then walked over to meet her team and introduce herself, only to be asked if she was the scorekeeper by a male teammate. “It’s heartbreaking because at the time I was thinking, ‘He’s not wrong. I’m not an asset to this team.’”
“That first game…I didn’t see the ball at all, and I was wide open the whole night.” Wood says the guys she played with automatically assumed she didn’t know how to play. Even when she was better than some of her male teammates, the guys would pass around her, or try to keep her off the court.
The challenges of gender disparity follow us onto the field or court, and place limitations on our playing time—and further, our opportunity to perform.
Wood says she always felt excluded from other girls because of her interest in sports. “The girls look at you differently because you were someone who wanted to play sports and they didn’t,” she says. This sense of alienation is one that can often haunt girls who have less interest in being feminine into their adolescence—when tomboyism becomes more stigmatized.
C. Lynn Carr is a sociology professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University and has written multiple papers on tomboyism, conformity and adolescence. “When girls get to a certain age, it’s no longer seen as a good thing,” she says.
Carr says some of the women she surveyed for her study on tomboyism cited stigma as one of the reasons they faded out of tomboyism as they got older. “When they became interested in boys, their tomboyish behaviours were seen as incompatible with their heterosexual interests.”
Brooke Pearson, a first-year architecture student at Ryerson and member of the women’s varsity soccer team, says it wasn’t until this year that she realized people around her were wondering about her sexuality because of her continued interest in sports. “I definitely feel that people more often assume that [I’m gay] just because I enjoy sports and because of the way I dress in athletic wear and baggy pants,” she says.
She wishes that people would be straightforward with her and just ask. “I don’t know if that has created any divisions between me and other people because no one has actually confronted me.”
That assumption is linked to the stigma surrounding tomboyism; it’s still deemed so unnatural for women to be interested in sports that it’s assumed that any woman who is a professional athlete must be gay. Deviation from gender norms is still negatively perceived to the point where many will associate it with a difference in sexuality.
When Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) player Brittney Griner came out as gay in 2013, The New York Times ran a story with the headline “Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs.”
Carr says tomboyism is defined by two key qualities: rejecting femininity and leaning into masculinity. But to continue both behaviours into adolescence is taboo. At that age, women who are masculine stop being cute and quirky and start being a social transgression of gender expression.
Some individuals who grow up as tomboys, though, eventually find a pressure to conform and express themselves similarly to what is considered the norm—with more feminine appearances and interests. Third-year creative industries student Grace Li started to feel pressure to conform around Grade 7, when she says everyone was more insecure and self-conscious. She took art classes instead of gym, and though she enjoyed art, she felt she wasn’t expressing herself fully. “I started wearing dresses and skirts to feel good about myself.”
Li was also into sports from a young age, but she says her mother believed sports were only for boys. “I would tell her I wanted to play soccer or field hockey, but she wouldn’t enroll me in those programs. She would say things like, ‘Oh, your thighs will get too big,’ or, ‘be more like a girl,’ because I was such a tomboy,” Li says.
The same pressure to assimilate into gender norms exists for women athletes who identify within the LGBTQ2SA+ spectrum. In Carr’s 1998 study on tomboyism, many of the lesbian and bisexual participants expressed a need to conform to femininity in their adolescent years. “[They] depicted their conformity as ‘heterosexual panic’ (i.e. denial of their later recognized sexuality) and viewed failed conformity as early indications of budding homosexuality,” Carr writes.
I spent much of my high school years doing my best to distance myself from the tomboy image of my childhood, mainly through clothes. It didn’t register back then that this was an internal act of denial of my sexuality, an attempt to camouflage my identity into a more normalized version of femininity. In a less accepting school, the fact that I still played competitive soccer might have made that more difficult.
Female athletes also battle the perception that all female athletes are gay, and that it’s easier for women athletes to come out than men. Aside from that, female queer-identifying athletes also face homophobia—even if it’s coded in slightly different ways. When Griner came out, she told ESPN that her coaches at Baylor knew she was gay, and didn’t want anyone to discuss it. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor,” Griner said.
When we see a young girl who behaves in traditionally masculine ways, she is given a label that directly associates her with boyishness so that we know her behaviour is anti-feminine for a reason.
“Masculinity is more valued, so that crossing over into masculinity seems like a positive thing,” Cahn said. “Whereas boys are stepping into a lower status by acting in feminine ways.” We receive messages from all around us at young ages that tell us boys are superior to girls. Not only that boys are better at what they do, but that the things boys are supposed to be better at (physical, stoic, logical) are better than the things girls are supposed to be better at (caring, emotional, artistic).
“I can’t leave because I have to represent women. I’ve been through worse, this isn’t that bad”
Pearson says she grew up thinking of “tomboy” as positive. “I took it as a compliment because I’m a very competitive person, so being able to compete with boys when everyone says boys are more physical and more athletic than girls was a compliment,” she says.
Pearson’s parents were athletic growing up, so she says it was natural for her to get into sports too. When she was a kid, Pearson says there weren’t as many girls into sports as she was. So she ended up spending most of her time at recess with the boys who would play soccer or football. “It did feel a little bit like you’re the odd man out,” she says.
But other than that, Pearson says her family supported her athleticism and she had all-girls teams in and outside of school to play on. She says everyone was always really accepting on the girls’ teams, and that it was nice to be in a group of girls who all had the same goals.
If a girl can get past the drop-off and the societal pressure to give in to traditionally feminine behaviour, she faces a new set of challenges.
Wood says the guys on the teams she played against either wouldn’t bother marking her at all, or would get angry that she was on the court and play too aggressively. She was once out for a month and a half due to a leg injury from one of the guys hitting her midair during the game. “If I outplay [him], I run the risk of [him] injuring me because now [he’s] playing to prove himself to his boys,” she says.
Wood says if men created a positive athletic environment, by actively including her in the game and supporting her on the court, she’d play better. When guys looked annoyed at Wood showing up to the game, she’d think about everything she did to be perfect, or else her teammates would stop passing to her and she wouldn’t be able to get better. It took up space in her head, when she should have been focused on her performance.
Wood also felt the pressure to represent women, something men don’t have to think about when they’re playing sports. “I can’t leave because I have to represent women. I’ve been through worse, this isn’t that bad,” she said.
It ends up being a nasty cycle, in which traditional ideas of gender tell us we’re not supposed to like sports—and then when we end up liking them anyway, those same gender norms work to drive us away from what we love.
Loving sports should be simple, and uncomplicated by stereotypes and assumptions. And yet for women, there are so many barriers that it’s amazing to me that any female athletes make it to the top. Battling with internalized ideas of what it means to be a woman (and how that conflicts with an interest in sports) can affect an athlete’s focus and make sports a source of tension instead of enjoyment.
The least we could do is question what we mean when we call girls tomboys. Is it really a compliment when we tell girls their interests and passions are due to their proximity to boyishness, and not just a product of their own unique identity? Why is there an age limit on that proximity, a point where the behaviour we applaud girls for suddenly becomes unnatural?
Li and I spoke about Crazy, the recent Nike ad narrated by Serena Williams addressing the tendency for women athletes to be called crazy, hysterical or irrational for showing emotion in sports—and I’m beginning to think that’s true.
There’s nothing rational about wanting to be an athlete. From being judged for showing emotion in sports or for being a tomboy, women just can’t seem to win. There is no winning in a system that expects women to act a certain way and then shames them whether they choose to conform or not. The only winning we have left, is on the court and on the field. Thank god for sports.