By Sarah Showfety, published on September 1, 2008 - last reviewed on November 4, 2014
Once a week, Maryellen White can be found at a local bar, watching Monday Night Football with her brothers. The 31-year-old accountant is also not averse to an evening at Hooters, drinking beer with her guy friends, watching sports, and playing a game of "real or fake"—that is, assessing the endowments of passing waitresses.
When White was growing up, her mother tried to force "girlish things" on her, like pink bedroom walls and flowery bedspreads, but she wanted no part of them. And in high school when she announced she was trying out for boys' football, her mother forbade it—and shipped her off to an all-girls school. "I liked the feeling I got from winning," White says. "That made me want to do more guy-type things." One day, she even beat up a male classmate who was picking on her brother. Though she became more "girly" in college, buying new outfits to attract guys, she still rarely wears makeup, jewelry, or skirts—and can't remember the last time she shopped for clothes.
White is a classic tomboy, a female who engages in activities long considered primarily the domain of males. As young girls, tomboys shun Barbie dolls in favor of games that emphasize physicality and competition. They resist conventional feminine standards—avoiding pink clothes, lipstick, and nail polish—and often excel in sports. While "tomboy" is largely a term applied to prepubescent girls who prefer Tonka trucks to tea parties, some women retain tomboy characteristics into adulthood, gamely coaching the company softball team and downing brews with the guys.
How are tomboys made? On the simplest level, some girls are naturally predisposed to more active, "rough and tumble" pursuits. For others, tomboyism may reflect a desire to identify with the world of men. Many tomboys perceive their fathers as being "smart, strong, capable, and involved in interesting and valuable things," while they see their mothers as having "boring lives" they do not want to emulate, according to Seton Hall sociologist C. Lynn Carr. "Tomboys' statements that 'boy things' are 'more fun' are often cover for their desires for access to the more highly valued masculine realm," explains Carr. "This is upheld by tomboys' disappointment with female role models and their belief that women are 'weaker' than men."
In a society that still often expects men to be tough and rugged and women to be gentle and pretty, embracing their inner tomboy allows females to stand out and be rewarded for activities, rather than appearance or demeanor.
Many tomboys have competitive personalities. They may be born with a natural drive to win, or taught by parents that second best doesn't count, says Andrew Smiler, a psychologist at SUNY Oswego. They strive for success in many different domains, including sports and academics, and are drawn to risk-taking behavior.
There's reason to believe tomboys are more assertive and stand up for themselves more than other girls. They want to differentiate themselves—to not be a "typical girl" or get otherwise pigeonholed into one category—and they tend to be outspoken. White admits that she's known as "Blunt Maryellen" among her friends. "If you ask my opinion," she explains, "you better be prepared for the truth."
Prenatal hormones may also play a role. Female babies exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone exhibit more "masculine-typical" behaviors, playing more with male-typical toys like trucks, race cars, and guns, and choosing boys as friends, according to a study led by Melissa Hines, a psychologist at City University, London. Because hormones influence basic processes of brain development, they exert permanent influences on behavior. On the flip side, mothers with low testosterone in pregnancy tend to have more feminine daughters, whose play often involves dolls, tea sets, and makeup.
Tomboys also enjoy social benefits. Athletic success can bring status and popularity, and female athletes, Smiler notes, tend to score among the highest GPAs, perhaps feeling the need to "offset" their sportiness by excelling in school, which is increasingly perceived as feminine. Masculinity—as measured by such traits as aggression, leadership, individualism, and self-reliance—also correlates with higher self-esteem in both boys and girls. Tomboys may reap payoffs in confidence, too, as well as feeling more in charge of their lives.
Most likely, tomboyism is the result of a complex interplay of genetics, prenatal hormonal influences, socialization, unconscious choice, and family structure. Hines also showed that tomboys are more likely to have brothers and parents who exhibit highly masculine behavior.
Being a tomboy may sometimes lead to being called a lesbian, a label that can carry a stigma among adolescents. Whether there is any real link to homosexuality depends on how you define tomboyism, says Carr. Tomboys who see their stance as a "rejection of femininity" are more likely to be lesbians. Those who conceive of it as "choosing masculinity"—in dress, activity, and identification with male figures and heroes—are no more likely to to be gay than straight. Though lesbians are more likely to recall childhood gender nonconformity, almost half of women report having been tomboys as children, says Carr.
Though many girls leave tomboyism behind in their teens, Maryellen White has carried many of her boyish traits into adulthood. She still plays on co-ed sports teams, hates matching bridesmaid dresses, and enjoys male friendships. White attributes her strong cross-gender bonds to mutual interests and "a deep appreciation for beer and wings." That is not to say she lacks close female pals who listen, lend advice, and empathize, White says. "But they can't talk to me about who got traded yesterday." —Sarah Showfety
Tomboys may feel social pressure to conform to gender norms.
How to thrive without caving in: