Why It's Okay to Be Called a Tomboy

A colleague of mine, Liz Wolfson, started a school for girls in Colorado that has movement as a core component of the mission. The Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) curriculum is based on research showing that the more your body’s engaged, the better your mind can function.

Imagine what our lives would be like if we integrated movement, wellness, healthy foods, and athletics into every aspect of our day? In a culture where gender norms have 10-year-old girls in dresses and 10-year-old boys in football pads, we need more places where girls are encouraged to be confident and physically expressive.

By the time a girl is 17, she’s seen more than 250,000 TV commercials promoting unrealistic body types. This translates to 53% of 13 year old girls who hate their bodies; jumping to 78% by age 17. Marketing, advertising, and gender norms continuously tell us we are flawed, and the cosmetic industry banks on the idea that girls and women have low self-esteem. As parents, friends, and family members, we have an obligation to make sure we’re having conversations and offering solutions to counter these media and advertising messages; especially for girls.

Soccer Mom, and Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy spoke about her daughter Izzy’s first encounter with the tomboy archetype. “When Izzy asked what a tomboy was and if it was a good thing, I said it was a great thing! It meant she was strong, active, happy, confident, and liked sports. And that mommy was a tomboy too. ‘Oh good,’ she replied. ‘I just thought it meant I liked guns and swords like Declan (her brother), and I don’t like those.’ Now, I often hear her tell other friends with pride that she’s a tomboy.”

Athletes and tomboys like young Izzy stand a better chance against Madison Avenue–and in life in general. The benefits to girls and women who play sports are many; better health, higher confidence, stronger self-image, and better grades. On average, female athletes are more likely to have a positive body image and are less likely to consider themselves overweight than females who don’t take part in sports (Hausenblas and Downs, 2001; Miller et al., 2001). And, new research has scientifically proven that increased blood volume in the brain, a product of exercise, creates an optimal environment to grow neural connections and produce an assortment of beneficial molecules (Brown and Fenske, The Winning Brain, 2010).

Foudy and her husband Ian are parents who talk to their daughter about appearance and makeup (which came up when Foudy was transformed to look good for the ‘lights of television’ as a broadcaster for the World Cup). Julie tells Izzy that ”if someone is so worried about how they look on the outside, they’re not taking good enough care of the inside. We want the inside to be beautiful and the outside will then shine.”

By playing sports, we learn that we can do almost anything as long as we’re willing to practice and be committed to learning new things. An athlete who has a tough day at practice or a lousy game knows that she’s still a good person and there’s always another day.

“Sport, especially team sports, teaches us how to work with one another and go through the triumphs and tribulations together. Being on a team, you learn to embrace differences. You’re exposed to others who have different backgrounds, and you have to figure out how to relate and work together for a common goal,” says Hilary Knight, Olympic silver medalist in ice hockey. Sport teaches us that it’s okay to make mistakes; the secret to getting better at whatever you want to do is never making the same mistake twice.

Getting more girls to embrace being a tomboy, play sports, and challenge gender assumptions and media hype to be a ‘girly girl’ (as Izzy calls it) takes guts. As Anita DeFrantz, the highest ranking woman on the International Olympic Committee, says “Give a young girl a ball and a doll,” as a way to encourage people to expose girls to sports early. I like to say, give a young boy a ball and a doll too! Then we can encourage the nurturing and caregiving qualities of boys and the strength and confidence of girls from an early age.