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The New Tomboy – Psychology Today

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Posted November 26, 2016
In my last post I indicated that the links between gender expression and sexual orientation are more variable among girls than constant, reflecting the willingness of girls and young adult women to adopt and mix traditional notions of masculine and feminine characteristics and behavior in conjunction with prevailing cultural norms and values—or their own internal compass.
Considerably more leeway is usually given to girls than to boys for expressing cross-sex behaviors and interests, which reflects in part the elevated prestige masculinity is given in our culture—more in the past than is perhaps true today, but still, nevertheless, present.
Indeed, a recent study revealed that girls labeled “being a tomboy” as a positive characteristic (Coyle et al., 2016). In another sample a of school-age girls, ages 5 to 13 years, about one quarter labeled themselves as tomboys, one quarter as ‘‘in-betweens,’’ and less than half as “traditional” girls (Ahlqvist et al., 2013). Middle childhood, as opposed to early childhood or adolescence, was when tomboy levels were at their highest. Girls who so identified neither rejected nor preferred female activities but rather desired male and female gendered activities equally; by contrast, both traditional and in-between girls preferred feminine activities.
When tomboys thought about what being a tomboy meant to them, they seldom mentioned sexual aspects but rather a preference for the interests and activities our culture assigns to boys and to define their tomboyism as giving them increased flexibility, “not as outcasts of their gender, but as girls with options” (Ahlqvist et al., 2013, p. 576). They and the non-tomboys viewed tomboyism as a normative and socially acceptable pathway for girls regardless of their sexuality. What may be critical here is that unlike boys’ gender-nonconformity (still labeled “sissy” after all these years), girls’ gender nonconformity is not generally equated with a nonheterosexual orientation (Schope & Eliason, 2004).
Thus, given the above research, being a tomboy for a girl is less transgressive than being a sissy for a boy, perhaps because it is less likely to be linked to overstepping traditional boundaries of sexuality (Coyle et al., 2016). Girls who play boy-type games are considerably less stigmatized than boys who play girl-type games. Indeed, “the tomboy look has been enjoying unprecedented appeal of late” argued Nancy MacDonell in a 2012 article (…). One can see this in Dior’s creative makeup design for 2016 (sports and “very tomboy”) (…) and in Liz Prince’s graphic memoir for young adults, Tomboy (ISBN 978-1-936976-55-3). Girls playing aggressive team sports, associating with boys, and wanting to be doctors, airline pilots, and soldiers are increasingly common and rewarded for their interest.
By contrast, few straight boys (but many gay boys, Savin-Williams, 2016) would dare to be known as high school senior James Charles is with giving advice on makeup (…). For their part, parents are seldom upset when their daughter manifests male-typical behavior and wants to be a chemist or soccer star. However, having a “girly” son elicits considerable parental consternation.
“Masculinity” grants power and prestige in a way that girl-typed behavior rarely does among boys. After all, we’ve known for a long time that the overwhelming majority of tomboys will grow up to be straight women—but we have some distance to go before we are as accepting of lesbians, gay women, and exclusively same-sex attracted women.

Ahlqvist, S., Halim, M. L., Greulich, F. K., Lurye, L. E., & Ruble, D. (2013). The potential benefits and risks of identifying as a tomboy: A social identity perspective. Self and Identity, 12, 563–581,
Coyle, E. F., Fulcher, M., & Trubutschek, D. (2016). Sissies, mama’s boys, and tomboys: Is children’s gender nonconformity more acceptable when nonconforming traits are positive? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 1827–1838. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0695-5
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2016). Becoming who I am: Young men on being gay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schope, R. D., & Eliason, M. J. (2004). Sissies and tomboys. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 16, 73-97. doi: 10.1300/J041v16n02_05

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, Ph.D., is Director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell University.
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Worry is driven by mood, not logic. Anxiety holds your deepest yearnings. And you can subdue it for good. Three experts turn everything you know about anxiety inside out.


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