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Tomboys and Girly Girls

The mother of eight year old Isabella wrote about buying toys without glitter, and searching for ‘girl’ clothes in colours other than pink, which got us thinking about the term ‘tomboy’.
What do you call a girl who isn’t a girly-girl? Some people would say, ‘a tomboy’, but does that imply that the girl isn’t a real girl, and do we need a label for this anyway?
Perhaps we should let toys be toys, as this campaign demands, and sell clothes without ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ labels. What do you think?


The usual scowl begins to creep across Isabella’s forehead as I nonchalantly pull a cardigan form the cupboard.   It was blue – her favourite colour. Weary of the daily clothes battle I give up and ask her what she’s objecting to this time….after a long silence she points to some ribbing along the middle of the cardigan and I realise that this time it isn’t the colour she objects to but the style! She’s eight years old and really all she wants to wear are her older brother’s cast-offs. Oh, and she’s always hated pink!

‘Nothing pink or fluffy please’ is my standard response whenever someone asks me what she’d like for her birthday. Most people know the score by now, so we don’t get presents deemed to be ‘girly’…but it’s a bit of a problem for this age group as most of the options including books are all pink, plastic and glittery and totally ghastly in the eyes of my tomboy daughter.   Give her play dough, paints, pens or crayons and she’s in heaven, anything ‘girly’ gets short shrift.

Building dens with her brother, junk modelling and building with lego are a few of her favourite things. When I caught her trying to pee standing up in the garden I had laugh…..

Purchasing school uniform in the past has proved tricky. When we went to Clarks shoe shop on our hunt for suitable school shoes for her, I steered clear of  the girl section fearing utter contempt if I even suggested such a thing – sure enough, my hunch proved correct as Isabella blanked all the ‘mary janes’ and instead made a beeline for the boys shoes. ‘Are you sure you want to get these boys shoes?’ I asked feebly, already knowing what the answer would be before the words were even out. I asked the shop assistant whether many girls came away with boys shoes, ‘Not many really’, she answered with a wry smile, but added that she thought the boys’ ones fitted better anyway. Fortunately the school doesn’t mind and she can show up in boys’ trousers and polo shirts. Summer uniform consists of boys grey 50s style shorts. No gingham frocks in my house!

I felt more exasperated the other day as I went looking for roller skates, for both her and her older brother. ‘Do you need boys or girls skates?’ every shop assistant asked. ‘Err I um, I suppose I want boys’, I stammered, wondering if I needed to explain she’s a girl but hates pink.  I was assuming, correctly as it turned out, that by girls and boys they were asking whether I wanted pink or blue. ‘I have these in pink’, the manager offered hopefully, after I had already explained the situation about 3 times. He just couldn’t get it that I had an eight-year-old girl who didn’t like pink. I glanced at the awful fluffy glittery pink and purple ones, and thought how horrified Isabella would be and how disappointed if she ever received such a gift. In the end, I opted for bright red and yellow ‘hero’ roller skates for her and blue and silver for her brother. Fingers crossed I made the right decision!

I just wish clothing manufacturers would realise that there are girls out there who would gladly wear feminine clothes if only they weren’t pink or glittery. Children shouldn’t be pigeonholed at such a young age. I believe it can affect the way they perceive themselves and the choices they make for the rest of their lives. It’s too narrow-minded. Toy manufacturers don’t help the situation either. If you go and look for something for young girls, there really isn’t much choice apart from pink or plastic so we automatically search in the ‘boy’ department, which isn’t always a very satisfactory solution for a five-year-old who hates pink!

Hamleys recently stopped their sexist labelling and colour coding according to perceived gender preferences but lego continues to promote pink or purple lego for girls. As I was growing up it was just plain ‘lego’ for all.

Isabella was cast as an ‘angel’ in the last Christmas play and was supposed to wear a pair of pink wings! I told her teacher she probably would balk at the suggestion, but the teacher waved it off and said, ‘Oh she’ll wear them when she sees all the others dressed up’ – funny how she suddenly developed a fever on the day thereby avoiding the situation altogether!

Personally I love it. I love how she doesn’t care when she’s the only girl pirate at the princesses and pirates school party, and that she thinks suitable party clothes consist of a faded old t-shirt and denim cut offs.   I feel relief that she has the will power to be herself. Being a ‘tomboy’ merely gives her the freedom and fluidity to move across the spectrum and be who she wants. Long may it last.



Lorenza Bacino is a freelance journalist

I write about people and places, culture and society, philanthropy, human rights, international law, food, travel, children, education, yoga.



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  1. 1

    I think you are right about how many people just assume that girls like pink. I think i am not a girly girl but i am not exactly a tom boy. My uniform normally consists of shorts and a cardigen round my waist.

  2. 2

    We have a similar situation here. Daughter is younger and loves cars, playing all sorts of different games with her brother and, despite liking pink, she loves other colours and doesn’t go for glittery things.

    I couldn’t help but feel sad when someone has called her a tomboy in the past as I dislike labels for children. Pigeonholing them into categories can lead to them feeling bad about their choices; besides maybe having an effect on their self-steem.

    It’s great to hear your daughter doesn’t care about it/what others might say. I hope mine develops that character strength as well 🙂

  3. 3

    My daughter is nearly 4 and although she quite likes pretty tops she doesn’t really do pink, glitter, skirts or dresses. And she also went to a pirates and princesses party as a pirate! I wish stores would stop classifying toys, clothes and even stationery as for girls or for boys, and just label them as being for children.

  4. 4
    Steph Mast-Hughes

    Thanks for writing this, it really helps to know that others hate what sometimes feels like the tidal wave of really terrible clothes on offer for my 2 and a half year old girl! I went to Next today and was shocked once again at the sickeningly awful selection on offer to girls. All the graphics are hearts, flowers, butterflies, balloons etc etc and the wording accompanying the images is just submissive, pathetic crap. On the other side (literally) the boys get a huge variety of band t-shirts and funky helicopters – sorry but when was it decreed that girls don’t like music, pop, indie or

  5. 5

    My daughter (age 6) is not a tomboy and hates that people refer to her as that just because she’s not a girly girl. She likes some pink but mainly bold magenta rather than pastels (ick!) but hates anything frilly. She will opt for pirate over princess or actually I think she went as a pirate princess with dark purple frock, pirate hat & waistcoat, boots & sword to school event. She does like her gingham dresses but sneered at Clarks MJs as too flimsy for tree climbing (true) and asked the sales assistant why they didn’t come with rubber toecaps like the boys’ range which she liked better. Unfortunately she has very narrow feet and so they didn’t fit plus did look daft with a dress.

    Her main gripe is that she LOVES Star Wars and all Star Wars clothing is in the Boys dept. Some is okay but often very boyish esp PJs and she doesn’t want to look like a boy. We do buy from the Boys’ dept but choose carefully. We ended up creating her her own t-shirt featuring Ashoka – the female Jedi in the Clone Wars. In things like Star Wars & Doctor Who, they introduce strong female role models to entice girl fans but then don’t provide any merchandise. She has now got into Superheroes too – more frustration. Also Sonic & Mario – again in the Boys’ dept. Sainsburys have had some great t-shirts recently but all labelled for Boys but actual quite neutral in style. Why not label them ‘Character t-shirts’?

    I am pleased she continues to go forth in her own way & style. I just wish it wasn’t such a struggle/issue. As she heads towards 7, I have noticed the Girls’ clothes get even worse hence the new Sonic shortie PJs from the Boys’ dept rather than the One Direction set which appeared to come with hotpants. *sigh*.

  6. 7

    Oh thanks for all your comments. I really appreciate it and am glad to see others out there share my frustrations. Lego should be lego after all, or at least it was when I was a child! We need to join the PinkStinks campaign and get this skewed pigeonholing reversed

  7. 8

    My daughter is 7 and prefers to be called a tomboy to a girl!!! It first started when she was 3 and she has become more adamant with age!At first i used to find it difficult to accept but over the years i have seen how happy she is when going to the boys clothes section than the girls! My only problem i have now is when a special occasion occurs (wedding etc) we struggle to find anything to agree on as i find boys clothes hang off her and makes her look scruffy but she refuses to wear anything girl related! I cant seem to find any stores online, can anyone help?!

    • 9

      Hi Hayley, I find that my daughter is reaching more and more for the ‘boys’ section too. She recently chose a cool pair of silver jeans (from Monsoon in UK) and a plain top as her party outfit. Maybe that would be an option. I will put your question on Facebook, where more people will see it. Lynn

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