In the rows of long gray tables in my elementary school cafeteria, the girls sat in groups. The tomboys sat with the boys in T-shirts and shorts. The girly-girls sat in groups of their own in flowery dresses and skirts, their hair tied back in colorful scrunchies, looking at the boys and then at each other, giggling. I sat alone in my corner, looking out at the playground and daydreaming about the Narnia book I just finished.
When my gaze wondered, I frowned at the tomboys, remembering the gracefulness and beauty of Disney princesses and the heroines of my favorite books. (Somehow the athletic grace and beautiful strength of Mulan, Eilonway, Aravis, and other favorite book characters didn’t occur to me). I also frowned at the girly-girls, thinking about all that my mom told me about inner beauty.
Clumsy and awkward in gym class, and paradoxically careless and shy in my appearance, I didn’t feel attracted to either group. I created two false binaries in my mind between sports and femininity, appearance-consciousness and inner beauty: I chose to think that I was too feminine to be a tomboy and too conscious of inner beauty to be a girly-girl.
And I sat alone for years. I drifted in and out of groups in the cafeteria and on the playground. Some years, I found girls to run and play with at recess, but other years I had no one. I watched the girls I saw laughing and talking in groups in the school hallways with envy, and read the weekend fun they displayed in Facebook posts. I played sports myself, field hockey and lacrosse, through high school. Books about deep friendships like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wrinkle in Time series, and the City of Ember series were my escape, and I thought suffering and hardship would be worth it if I could only have the friendships they portrayed. I yearned for intimacy, sharing, community, but had no idea how to pursue it in real life.
Now that I’ve survived middle and high school and college and entered the working world, I find that the women I work with have the athletic talents of tomboys and the mannerisms of the girly-girls: they love spin class and marathons, their makeup and hair are polished, their clothing is designed and arranged carefully. I’m learning that you need to present yourself well (hair, clothing, makeup) and have healthy, fun things to talk about (hobbies or sports) in order to engage in the life-sharing and communion of experience that is friendship. And I realize now that my elementary-school-self’s scorn for tomboys and girly-girls both was a mistake based on a half-truth.
I thought I was choosing femininity and inner beauty by scorning the sports clothes, the hair styling, the clothes, the makeup. I’m realizing now that the things I scorned were part of the “stuff of life,” the mediums through which girls experienced friendship and fun. In pursuing strength, speed, style, and beauty (good things, though they don’t determine a person’s value), girls formed the bonds I longed for. Complimenting another girl on her outfit affirmed her; practicing drills or running together supported her; borrowing each other’s shoes expressed solidarity and trust; recommending different brands and sharing tips were signs of caring.
The writing class I took last fall taught me that abstract principles like love and kindness are mediated (communicated) through the concrete, physical world. In scorning other girls’ preoccupation with high heels and lipstick, cleats and lacrosse sticks, I thought I was being deep, not shallow: choosing the higher values of character over the shallow priorities of vanity. But my scorn wasn’t humility or wisdom – it was pride and ignorance. Sports and fashion can be beautiful, healthy ways of self-expression and avenues of friendship; a girl can pursue both as well as femininity and inner beauty. In rejecting them completely, I rejected one of the main opportunities to engage in community that my school years offered.
In the stories I want to tell, I need to express abstract truth through physical realities: the “stuff” that makes up other people’s lives. For example:
- In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Cathy extends friendship to Hareton by giving him a book. Later, they plant a garden together.
- In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the girls get ready for balls, skate, and do a hundred other activities together. John Brooke keeps Meg’s glove because he is falling in love with her.
- In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s friendships with Diana and other girls fall into a pattern of school, church, and social events like concerts.
Below, I’ve listed some of the physical things and activities that I remember signified the tomboys and the girly-girls. To me, this “stuff” represented worlds I didn’t want to enter, but they could have been conduits for the connections I yearned for.
Tomboy “things”: soccer balls, field hockey sticks, cleats, mouth guards, goggles, gloves, shorts, water bottles, bats
Girly-girl “things”: perfume, hair straighteners, curlers, mascara, foundation, lip gloss, lipstick, concealer, eyeliner, eyeshadow, blush, eyelash curlers, clips, bobby pins, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, tops, sweaters, jeans, heels, boots, scarves
What “stuff” (from work, from hobbies, from leisure time) fills the lives of the people around you? How can connect with someone through the things they own? For example:
- New homeowners – paint cans, brushes, spackle, couches, chairs, rugs, mirrors, bookcases, books, kitchen supplies, curtains, shovels, rakes, grass seed, sprinkling equipment, garbage cans, leaves, sticks, new plants
- Chefs – pots, pans, dutch ovens, spatulas, spoons, rare ingredients, spices, condiments, favorite restaurants
- Musicians – musical instruments, picks, polishes, audio equipment, music sheets
- Boat building – wood, saw, sanders, stands, shed
- Pets – beds, brushes, leashes, collars, electronic fences
- Artwork – canvases, paint, paintbrushes, pastels, charcoal