Tomgirl vs. Girly-Boy

The inside of my closet is as mixed up as the inside of my head.

Illustration by Kendra Dandy.

Illustration by Kendra Dandy.

One of my early childhood memories is the sound of thin plastic sheets separating between my mother’s fingers as she peeled off a bindi and tried to stick it on my forehead. I would run away, screaming. By the time I was eight or nine, she had given up on trying to dress me in feminine clothes. I’d wrinkle my nose at the fussy lace and velvet dresses she’d picked out for me and reach instead for what were traditionally thought of as “boys’ clothes”: T-shirts and athletic gear often handed down from my older brother’s closet.

In sixth grade, I was hanging out with two friends and one of them asked me, “Shriya, do you know what it means to ‘surf the crimson wave’?”

I had no idea.

“How about your ‘time of the month’—do you know what that is?”


They went on an on, giggling at my ignorance, compounding my embarrassment.

Finally, one of them broke it to me: “They’re code words for getting your period! DUH! How could you not know any of these?”

I was 12 years old, and my only exposure to the idea of menstruation was the film we watched in health class (known folklorically at school as “THE MOVIE”), but I didn’t know any of the slang terms, because no one had ever talked to me about it.

Sitting there on the couch with my friends, I suddenly realized that I had no idea how to be “a girl.” More than that, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be one.

Girliness, with all its trappings, has just never appealed to me. All my friends were starting to get boyfriends who they’d “go out” with for a week (though I’m pretty sure they just wanted to have a boy’s name and a heart in their AIM Buddy Profile). I didn’t see the appeal. I would rather eat bowls upon bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch alone on the trampoline in my backyard, which I did on the daily.

I experimented with being a “girly-girl” once, when I was a freshman in high school. Under the influence of my female friends, who constantly urged me to start dressing “more feminine,” I bought an actual DRESS. I mean, it was basically a T-shirt that I wore with leggings, but for me this was the equivalent of a tulle ball gown.

I put on my new outfit and went downstairs. The first person I saw was my brother, who did a double-take.

“Whoa!” he said. “What are you wearing?”

I felt my face get hot. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.

“Well, you’re wearing a dress…”


“So, it looks good!”

I promptly went back upstairs and changed.

Why did this compliment, offered in all apparent sincerity, make me want to disappear off the face of the earth? I’m not sure, but anyone’s calling attention to my female-ness made me feel deeply uncomfortable—nay, ashamed. I think part of this has to do with how I saw women around me being treated when I was little. Everything I had picked up about being a woman—they made less money, they got less respect, they just seemed so vulnerable—seemed really awful.

As I got older, I didn’t see any of this changing. I remember being on a family vacation to sunny California when I was 13 or 14 and announcing to my family that I was going for a walk on the beach. But my dad wouldn’t let me—he said someone could attack me, and I wouldn’t be able to defend myself. I hated that what he said was true, and that I didn’t have any control over it. I didn’t choose to be a girl, and there were all these disadvantages that came along with it. So, being called out for “feminine” traits like “looking good” in a dress didn’t make me happy. It reminded me of the unfairness of the world. It made me feel weak and lesser.

At the time, I toyed with the idea of being a boy, and I cut off my hair—all 11 inches of it—and donated it to Locks of Love. I continued to wear my brother’s clothes and began to dig around in my father’s closet as well. But now, with my short hair, those “boys’ clothes” read differently: not tomboy, but just boy. People began calling me “sir” (no matter how much eyeliner I caked on); even my mother would confuse me, from the back, for my brother.

To my dismay and utter bafflement, this didn’t make me happy, either. Wasn’t this what I wanted? To be a boy? But people’s new assumptions about my gender bothered me just as much as being complimented for traditionally “feminine” traits had. I was confused so on many levels; I didn’t know how to feel. Being a girl felt weird, being a boy felt weird, so what was I?

As I wallowed in confusion, my hair started to grow out. As soon as it hit “girly” levels, I shaved it off completely, but just on one side. My new look got a lot of disapproving glances at school, but to my surprise, some of the boys on the basketball team appreciated it, and one afternoon I found myself in a jock’s garage, sitting on a stool as he shaved steps into my head. My mother was not pleased when I returned home looking like T.I., but I thought it was kind of badass. More than that, it was the first time I felt that my outside appearance reflected my inner feelings about gender and presentation: I was neither “feminine” nor “masculine”—I was a separate thing that didn’t have to adhere to the rules of either gender. This is where I’m comfortable, and where I have remained.

These days, when the lights are just a little bit dim, I can very easily pass for a guy. My grandparents saw a recent image of me in a magazine. My face was covered with makeup and my hair was up, and they failed to recognized me at first. “Is that a girl or a boy?” they asked me. Who knows? Not me, and truthfully, I don’t care anymore.

A lot of people might feel insulted by people questioning what sex they are, but when that happens to me, I feel like I’ve WON. It’s incredibly freeing not to care if people think I’m a “pretty girl” or a “girly boy” or any variation of any gendered compliment. I am not my gender, after all, so why should I let it dictate anything about me? The possibilities of identification and dress are vast, and I don’t want to deprive myself of any of them.

When I look at in the mirror now, I see a goofy kid who wants to eat pizza, go skateboarding, and make art with friends. Sure, I am a girl. By that I mean that I check the box next to the F on all the forms, and I use female pronouns in conversation. But I don’t see the need to pick one gender and dress up as it for the rest of my life. I feel different every day, so why shouldn’t I dress differently every single day? Some mornings I wake up and put on my dad’s button-down, my brother’s pants, and a pair of sneakers; other days I choose a floral dress and sandals. And when I feel like expressing my dude side and my gal side, I wear a denim dress, a pair of Vans, and a bucket hat. Those in-between days, or both-and days, incidentally, are when I feel most like myself. ♦


  • Meara May 22nd, 2014 12:48 AM

    This is so wonderfully empowering! I keep trying to come up with a sartorial “aesthetic,” but GOODNESS THAT’S LIMITING. Thanks!

  • Magdalen May 22nd, 2014 3:36 AM

    Wow, I have felt like that for most of my life. Thanks for phrasing it so eloquently!

  • rahima May 22nd, 2014 5:37 AM

    This is such a relief. It’s so nice knowing that there are others out there who think the same. Thank you

  • Vlada May 22nd, 2014 6:45 AM

    Bravo! I think this is one of those times when someone makes me feel like I can choose what I want for myself. Thank you

  • kimchi May 22nd, 2014 6:53 AM

    I’ve always liked identifying as a girl, yet I feel I can relate this passage to my relationship with appearance too. Yesterday I wore a long loose skirt and two bulky jackets. It was really warm outside, but I wanted to hide my shape. Some days I don’t want to look “feminine” to the world. Yesterday I just wanted to look like a person, a person with an ambiguous body shape. Today I wore a body con dress that barely covered my butt. I feel like certain outfits give me different powers, the power to lay low, or stand out, to be ambiguous, or to make a statement.

    I think it would be cool to shave my head. I refrain from doing so right now because I worry that it would limit my ability to be as ambiguous as I would like to be. Right now I have an undercut. Sometimes I show it, sometimes I don’t. I like being able to manipulate how the world perceives me on a day to day basis.

  • elliecp May 22nd, 2014 1:34 PM

    omg this is literally me!! I had no idea how to be a girl, but now I kind of balance the two. I love this article!!

  • Paprika May 22nd, 2014 3:10 PM

    I think that there’s a lot of truth about gender in this article. Even though I identify as cis-female, I don’t feel completely feminine all the time. I just went through a super feminine phase where I only wore 90s bodycon clothing, I had on a skirt almost everyday then. Nowadays I feel like wearing baggy shirts and overalls.
    There seems to be a lot of social pressure to perform an extreme version of one’s maleness or femaleness, because we’re still very stuck on the idea of opposite sexes. But gender is a spectrum, and most people never stay in one area of it, rather we seem to and change fluctuate throughout our lives. And that’s kind of beautiful.

  • Skylar1313 May 22nd, 2014 3:17 PM

    Thank you so much for posting this because I’ve basically dealt with this my whole life. I remember my mom and my older siblings giving me so much crap about how I never wore dresses or put my hair up, and then later telling me that I should start wearing makeup and curling my hair. I don’t know how to be a ”typical girl” but honestly I don’t want to.

  • Tyknos93 May 22nd, 2014 7:52 PM

    WOW I identify with this article ridiculous amounts. I grew up watching the mid/late 90s era of baggy clothing and minimal makeup a la TLC and Aaliyah. Seeing older cousins dress that way really informed how I too wanted to look. Not to mention; makeup baffles me, shaving is a nightmare and straitening my hair at the moment would take at least one day…
    Also men’s clothing is so CHEAP and DURABLE. Seriously, look into it!

  • athenamaeve May 22nd, 2014 9:36 PM

    This article is amazing!

  • laneyjane May 22nd, 2014 10:55 PM

    Thank you for accurately conveying how I feel from time to time. But I have a pixie cut and as you stated, a pixie + boy clothes screams well, boy. And then you have people who assume you are a lesbian because of stupid stereotypes. Nothing against lesbians or boys, but I am neither. I just like short hair and have an appreciation for men’s clothing!

    On another note, I really enjoy the blurring of genders when it comes to fashion lately. (see Jared Leto wearing a skirt at the iHeart radio music awards and Lorde obviously…)

  • Maddy May 23rd, 2014 12:02 AM

    Yes! I tend to feel most comfortable wearing unisex or boyish clothes (even if I used to not like being read as gay; now I’m fine because, well, I am gay), but I do also love dressing up in dresses or skirts or my favorite blend of both aesthetics. I enjoy that I don’t have to pick a side to dress with and that I can equally love my bowtie and men’s vest and my lace tank top and short shorts. I wanted pictures in this article, though! Style inspiration!

    • Maddy May 23rd, 2014 12:17 AM

      oh, and I think I do a similar thing with blending intellectualism with superficiality. maybe to make it less threatening? but also because I, like everyone else, contain multitudes and revel in having two tabs side-by-side which are about math and fashion or philosophy and celebrity gossip. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious.

  • Magdalen May 23rd, 2014 4:37 AM

    Maddy, that sounds awesome, since with more interests, you can connect with more people.

  • ebba May 23rd, 2014 7:52 AM

    I feel the same! It is so strange how irritated some people get when they can’t put you in a box, or in a readymade stereotype. It is so freeing to read pieces like this. It makes it feel ok to slide in and out of different parts of yourself, without having to choose one for the rest of your life and run with it.

  • Persefone May 23rd, 2014 4:41 PM

    This is amazing and inspiring. People such as you and others here at Rookie really make me proud to be human :)

  • nancyboy May 23rd, 2014 5:50 PM

    Oh wow.

    I felt the same way you did in a lot of ways. Like I was really bad at being a girl, or wasn’t one. I even remember feeling guilty every time I used the girls’ bathroom when I was a little kid because I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be there.

    Since then I have transitioned to male and am very happy with that. I’m also very happy with my extremely androgynous appearance. I’m male kind of in the way you are female. I check the M box and use male pronouns. But I don’t feel like I have to look or dress any one way.

    Thank you.

  • Cactus Woman May 23rd, 2014 7:00 PM

    I identify with this so much. <3

  • xdogbaitx May 24th, 2014 4:12 PM

    I dress in mens clothes but going to public restrooms is awkward if people mistake you for a guy going into the female loo.

  • allydoubleyou May 24th, 2014 9:44 PM

    Thanks for writing this! I’ve been defining my gender presentation as “tomboy femme” for awhile, because I feel like it represents a lot of how I dress, but even that label, as diverse as it allows my presentation to be, boxes me in a bit. Sometimes I say I feel neither masculine nor feminine, but I don’t really know what that means. It’s nice to know that there are others out there who feel similarly. <3

  • Kiana Kimberly Flores May 26th, 2014 10:24 AM

    Wow. Finally! Finally, someone has written all about this in a personal level. Wow. This was what I’ve been feeling all along, ever since adolescence came. You know, I just didn’t know what to do with the dresses and I even resolved not to wear em at all (but it turned out that they’re wonderful)! Crazy. But now that y’all are helping gals all over the interweb to just be amazing and ditch the thing about gender specification… life becomes easy and livable. Wow. Thank you! :))

    P.S. I will print this article and pin it on my journal. xx