How do you go about returning a compliment? All my life, I’ve been flattered to be treated like “one of the boys”, from my father, to my classmates, to boyfriends. But though I’ve spent many years revelling in my tomboy status, I’ve come to the realisation that being called “one of the boys” isn’t a form of praise, but a rather subtle form of sexism, one which I had owned and internalised all my life.
When you hear the word sexist, you probably don’t picture someone like me, a 24-year-old girl who aced her gender studies assignments in college and has been loudly calling herself a feminist since she was 14. So it was much to my dismay when I recently came to the realisation that I have all the traits of stereotypical toxic launda, except my truth was veiled within my 5’4” stature and penchant for skater skirts.I noticed patterns within my own behaviour, patterns that betrayed my ability to enjoy anything marketed towards my gender. Was I more critical of female politicians, singers, celebrity chefs, or reality stars than male? Probably. Did my voice assume a certain derisive tone when I said the words “chick-lit” and “mommy blogger”? Definitely. I realised that this brand of internalised sexism that I suffered from had its roots in my upbringing.
Growing up as an only daughter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father loved me dearly, but always wanted a son whom he could mentor. Nothing was overtly said, but it came across in subtle ways. When I turned 17 he told me that “a boy would have learnt driving by now”, and to his eternal dismay I didn’t know what “offside” meant (honestly, I’m still not absolutely sure). In an attempt to gain his validation I began to view my femininity as a handicap, something that was holding me back from all that I could be.
I began to pride myself on having stereotypically “masculine virtues” of intelligence, drive, and aspiration.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” I learned to imitate men, and decided that in order to be their equal, I had to be like them.
I began to pride myself on having stereotypically “masculine virtues” of intelligence, drive, and aspiration. While my father was my childhood hero, I didn’t value my mother’s artistic flair, kindness, and determination as much as I should have, because I never saw those qualities being held in the same regard by the world as my father’s strengths. I even persisted with Maths as a subject in school, despite hating it, because doing well in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) – fields where boys supposedly surpass girls – would certify my intelligence to the world.
In this process, my views on my own femininity slowly began to get tainted. I didn’t have time for “frivolous pursuits” like gushing over boys or painting my nails, which is what I imagined the extent of “girly girl” behaviour to be. The things I watched and read also had an effect on me.
Consider the number of children’s books, films and TV shows in which tomboys are protagonists, while feminine girls are problematic characters or villains. Tomboys, from Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, to nerdy Taylor Swift in the “You Belong with Me” music video, to Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet, were all women whose personality hinged on being different from other women. The Sharpays and Regina Georges were naturally pitted against them, and I thought I had to pick a team.
I tried to avoid femininity’s traditional trappings in order to be taken seriously by the world. My internalised toxic male behaviour meant that I had trouble being empathetic; I considered crying in front of people a sign of weakness because I was out of touch with my emotions. I was often accused of being heartless when I refused to display emotion in situations where it was deemed necessary. When my guy friends told me I “wasn’t like the other girls”, I took it as a compliment.
In the mishmash of narratives that I would I spin in my head, I believed that my femininity undercut feminism. I was the girl who got shit done and I considered that to be enough to offset my poor behaviour towards my own gender. I believed that girlish ideals were only pulling us all back from being truly equal to men. It became apparent to me that women are desired, not admired. I would discount the importance of what women and women-centric values add to society because I was taught only to appreciate the loud bravado of masculinity.
I grew up valuing my father’s drive and ambition but now I see more dimensions to him.
But I now realise “not like other girls” is not a compliment. I’ve recognised my own underlying misogyny and am in the process of embracing my femininity and valuing and respecting the same in women around me. Unlearning internalised sexism is a constant process and I still have a long way to go, but I try to constantly recheck my thoughts lest it creep in again.
I grew up valuing my father’s drive and ambition but now I see more dimensions to him. The reason I could learn and grow as much as I did was because he was a nurturing teacher who was fiercely protective of my dreams and abilities. He was attentive and would try to cheer me on with his wry humour. He tried his best to keep me grounded without clipping my wings. I now recognise the value of the feminine traits in my father.
I’m also starting to see that red lipstick, twirly skirts, and giving my friends a lot of hugs are not a threat to my identity as a modern, progressive feminist. There is simply no right or wrong way to be a woman.
This article was first published in Arre
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