• Vigilance

TOMBOY


By Catherine Owen





Do we wake into our genders? I woke into shadows.


*


That first memory happened early for me, a preface of sorts as the pages darkened after this, only opening into the continuous narrative much later on. I was sitting in a car seat so I must have been about 18 months old. The seat was a classy 70s model: two parts, a plastic base like a wedge of hard pizza and a curved top that fitted over me, complete with a nubbled gray snap-on cover with a seatbelt across it. A toddler seat. My parents were advanced in even having one at all as this was an era where children still bounced about in cars. I had been asleep on the grainy slope when I woke suddenly as the car turned a corner, unsticking myself from drool, and my consciousness began. There were stripes, bands, lines of light and dark alternating across my world and I fit, somehow between them.


*


Virginia Woolf stated, in her 1928 Cambridge lecture, that the “great creative mind must be androgynous.” When I read this in my teens I thought instantly, of course, literature is about freedom from constraints and definitions and a writer needs to be able to detach from themselves to inhabit the “other.” Now that I know utter androgyny is as impossible as total objectivity, and even when I was a child, this stance did not mean freedom per se. It was response, reaction. I could not be this so I was that. A half of something I could never actually be.


*


The androgyny available to me as a child resided mainly in nature. Our house was a block or so from a forested acreage owned (I found out later) by the government who sold it for a pittance to the video game manufacturer Electronic Arts in the late 90s. Then, it was only “the woods,” a space of cedar and alder, trillium and salmonberries I could wander in, establishing magical stumps, ancient rocks and the majesty of a meagre creek not far from the forest’s core where a bark-stripped and fallen log was called “The Lady.” My first awareness was of shadows. My next of the suddenly buzzing singing scented world of all the small creatures surrounding me, the certain blooms. When I sat within this circle, I was invisible as a girl, or even human. How much solace this gave me to have attention paid me yet at the same time reside in queenly detachment on the edges of this immensity. There wasn’t a time from four or five on that I wasn’t writing, watching and writing and feeling the fullness of my infant-androgyny releasing me to seeing’s awe.


*


My family never owned a video camera or any other means of capturing this era except for my mother’s Nikon, rarely used once she had children, the main evidence of a former passion being a series of The History of Photography books on our wood and cement block shelves. This is to say that we were not rendered self-conscious as children, our every gesture or act held, presented, consumed by the lens. Most of the time we played solo or with each other and didn’t sense anyone wanting to place our games in an album. My sister and I played doctor and cannibals and ugly rapey ogre versus princess-who-needed-saving (guess which role I had to serve!) and never once did we have to stop to pose to hear the whirr of a machine recording our moves. The absence of a technology that represented me allowed my androgyny to last much longer.


*


Lisa Selin Davis, in her 2020 book, Tomboy, discusses the origins of the epithet, how it initially referred to a woman “whose sexual appetites rivaled men’s” but came, by 1650, to refer to a girl who acted “more like a rambunctious boy.” In an 1888 poem called Tomboy Kate, a young girl “seldom” cares to “look/at a picture or a book” as she must always be playing at sports and games. This behaviour, it appears, in no way defines my kind of tomboy girlhood, where solitary reading predominated (some tree climbing too) and where my aim was either to avoid being gendered at all or to father-please by evincing the noble characteristics boys were deemed to possess. What to make of this?


*


Yes. There was also an androgyny of pleasing, not freedom. This kind involved my father. Do most eldest daughters arrive with the slight taint of not being the eldest son? My father, despite being 11 years younger than my mother and in his 20s in the supposedly chill and enlightened 70s, carried a range of old-fashioned notions of what men were versus women that would have better befitted his banker dad. Men, he would tell me, are logical, rational, strong, never cry, get their jobs done uncomplainingly and can be counted on. Women (beginning with the shift from a nomadic hunting culture to an agrarian society, he believed) have long been aiming to control men with their weeping, their fantasies of possessions, their gossip and their fripperies. To be a woman in these terms didn’t sound like a desirable vision to me. It seemed like everything I didn’t want to be, and certainly everything my father was disinterested in. So I strove, though I remained emotional, imaginative and adoring of books and nature above all, to be the tough girl (just hard-edged, not sporty - Dad was not a team player), the one he could take on moving jobs (he was a truck driver), the one who (though I was actually remarkably prone to lung infections and odd nervous conditions) wouldn’t be weak, and also to be, at the same time, the smart girl, the child whose reading speed and intellectual level he could brag about, the girl who despite being a girl could carry on important philosophical conversations. I was the girl who was more logical, didn’t like to shop, climbed trees. The one he could count on not to be “girly” and thus, a letdown of a human. In such a manner, I aimed to secure his love.


*


I rejected dresses or any signs that I was only what my father would have called a superficial female. My garb was dungarees, my hair chopped carelessly, my fingernails ruined with dirt. In photos, compared to my slight blond sister, I look butch (in one shot we are even posed as a Viking - me of course - and his wench). I felt most flattered when one of my father’s co-workers mistook me for a boy, for his son - “Is this your boy, Gerry? He’s a real good helper.” Did he even disagree with them, correct their perceptions? I don’t think he did. Though I do recall a rough pat on my shoulder after the comment. Of approval? Of apology that he couldn’t disappoint them with the fact that I was, after all, only a girl? Today they might have been questioning whether I was born into the wrong body. Then they simply branded me tomboy (a look for girls that wasn’t unusual in the 70s when “boys and girls often dressed alike, in boyish clothes….and short hair was common for both boys and girls” as Lisa Selin Davis points out) and felt assured that this stage would naturally pass when the time came for me to procreate. The impact of this dubbing on my lifelong sense of myself as a woman, later on, was never considered.


*


I wonder now whether if I was a pretty child and told so, or wore dresses and played with dolls and, in the eyes of my father, was seen as female rather than a smart neuter or strong androgyne or obvious tomboy, would my adolescence have turned out differently, been less riddled with low self-esteem sex as a means of assurance and discovery (though truly it was neither)? Undoubtedly. Though it seems I am saying that if girls are acknowledged for their biological, rather than psychological gender, then things will go more smoothly for them when their hormones shudder their flesh, making them sprout and yearn. Possibly this is true. That they will already know this will happen and that it’s ok and acceptable as a process, not anomalous, terrifying, a betrayal of self. And perhaps fathers who acknowledge their daughters as girls do not shrink into corners, uncomprehending, detached, even repelled, when their daughters become young women. Once I became an adolescent and started to worry about breasts and zits and boys, it was as if my father’s pet project of producing an intelligent helper-daughter-androgyne collapsed. These were normal hungers he refused to address and I was now a woman-thing he felt little but anger towards (though now I can read this as helplessness), sorrow in the face of and no words in him to explain why.


*


No one at home could tell me what I wanted once the tomboy-shell began to slip and I dyed my hair the wrong shade of red, started to grow it out into an 80s-appropriate shag, to sport shorts that rode high up my slip of a bum. And so I took to walking the main street between Spruce and Canada Way at various times of the day and sometimes in the evening. I wasn’t going anywhere I can recall. I just needed that tally: of wolf whistles, calls out of cars, a blur of invitations to various sex acts. I literally counted the reactions I received to what I hoped was my beauty, my desirability, and when I’d received a sufficient number I went home, relieved, one gnawing anxiety addressed (I imagined). I was 14.


*


In the books I read, I’d always gravitated towards those tough, independent, eccentric characters: Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Rose Rita Pottinger, Booky, Jo, Anne of Green Gables, Ramona and so forth. They had wild childhoods of adventure in their androgynous bodies; they never yielded to limitations. But none of them taught me either - what happens to such fierce girls in adolescence? How did they navigate boobs, a period, the pressures of having a woman’s body. Their stories just ended and I was left without compatriots (except maybe a few Judy Blume characters who had sex and questioned it), gathering up the whistles as if they were a feast and I the endless bulimic of attention.


*


Although I knew I was a writer from about the age of four, if you asked me at six or nine what I wanted to be when I grew up I would reply instead “a mechanic” or “a wrestler.” This from a girl who had nothing to do with tools or vehicles, only watched her father labour beneath his truck each weekend in order to keep it on the road. And neither was I into sports of any kind, skinny and prone to injuries and illnesses (though I did develop a fixation with the WWF around 15). Where did I get these deluded notions from, concepts of a possible future that had so little to do with my actual interests and abilities? My mother wrote in her journal at around the same time that I was “rejecting anything feminine.” Though I don’t recall feminine signifiers ever being foisted on me. All I knew is that when I scorned nail polish on other girls or claimed I would become a butchy woman of the trades, I gained acceptance. And especially after my younger sister evinced all the signs of being wholly female. I was released utterly to be other, different. I would have substance. Could speak of “deep philosophical topics” with my father, as my mother wrote when I was seven, but this intellect stemmed from a stance of imagined physical strength, of no-nonsense androgyny. And then I turned 13 and wanted to grow my hair, wear clingy clothes, gush about boys. I was disappointing then. That was all.


*


Of course my father didn’t ponder his reactions, question them, analyze his feelings. He was philosophical about everything except his own complex patterns and emotions. To this day, he has never cried. Instead, he just detaches, works hard. By the time I was a teen, he had two real sons and could focus his attention on them. Reject my identity as necessary anymore. I don’t know. Until I became a teen mother at 16, my family essentially dissolved, as if they had only been the parents of the smart tomboy and were no longer parents of this hormone-fueled young woman. The obsessive compulsiveness I had manifested as a child in collections of Tic Tac boxes, orderings of books on shelves and a fear of dirty toilets now blossomed monstrously into a need to get drunk every weekend and have indiscriminate sex with boys at parties, from school, even strangers. I didn’t know what to do with this new body and all its aches. From the void of having no words for this change and no adult comprehension or support for this rupture, I flailed about in my devastated identity, crossing boys off my list, counting whistles as if this could assuage me, could heal the wound I didn’t even know I was opening.


*


In Tomboy, Davis underlines that “risky adolescent behaviors are shaped by damaging gender roles, leaving girls around the world prone to things like early pregnancy, violence and sexually transmitted diseases” (166). Gender roles in and of themselves, are they damaging? Or is it a lack of preparation for the assumption of a role at a certain age that can be the catalyst for deep confusion. A confusion that leads to the desire to prove oneself through an overt performance of sexuality. A sad dance that can result in violations to the mind and body because the ability to protect oneself against incursions has never been learned, whether it’s to avoid STDs, teen pregnancy or (more often than not) male physical or psychological forms of violence. Would I have been safer as a girly girl? Or if my female-ness was acknowledged from the get-go, though hopefully not as a limiting factor? I’ll never know. But I think so. I feel so, more accurately. Of course, in the end, it is knowledge that makes us safer, whether we are prone to exhibiting more masculine or feminine characteristics. Girls in the 70s and 80s, and especially perhaps those raised in a religious environment, were rarely given tools to navigate the patriarchy. So we all suffered in our silences.


*


There are other things I could write about my physical identity as a woman but I shrink from the shame of it. And I don’t want to admit I feel shame. Of wanting to look more female but not fat, not curvy. Of wanting my body unmarred by pregnancy, age. Of moving towards menopause still not entirely sure of whether I want to be looked at or not, if the loss of attention is tragic or a relief. If I want more sex or if I am happy to be less devoured and devouring. Being a tomboy seems simple. But for a woman in this culture, if not handled honestly, it can serve as a foundation for endless confusion and complexity. I continue, if pressed, to call myself a “gay man in the body of a woman,” this partially a joke, and in part, the most accurate way I have to describe things like my greater assertiveness in bed, my disdain for the excessively maternal, in visuals or attributes. But things are changing in this generation. I hope. The other day, my little niece, four years old, was explaining to my mother, her grandma, that for rest time at playschool, they had blue and pink mats. “I hope everyone can use both of those mats,” my mother exclaimed and my niece assured her that yes, they weren’t for overt gender division, just “for fun.” “That’s good!” she said firmly, “because all colours are for everyone!”



Me & Dad





About the Writer:


Catherine Owen is the author of 15 collections of poetry and prose. Her latest books are Riven (ECW, 2020) and Locations of Grief: an emotional geography, 24 memoirs on loss and place (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). Raised in Vancouver BC, she lives in Edmonton, AB, Canada. You can read Catherine's poetry reviews on her blog "Marrow Reviews" at https://crowgirl11.wordpress.com/


Catherine's literary magazine, thethe, is currently accepting poetry submissions:

https://thethe128597508.wordpress.com/


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Join poet Catherine Owen as she reads poems, talks about the poetry world and interviews poets.

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