But I Don’t Want to Wear a Dress by Lauren Eichelberger
Photo by Erica Carter
My daughter never really played with dolls. People insisted on buying them for her. Barbies and babies, a plastic little people’s dollhouse. Occasionally Maia would pick them up. She might dress the dolls or carry her baby around in the sling but it wasn’t a regular thing. She always preferred a walk, even more she preferred the dirt. There’s a picture of her from when she was very small. Maia is in a giant mud puddle, smeared with mud and smiling. I remember her crawling across the lawn inspecting everything in her path.
When she was small she used to love blocks and plastic animals. Maia spent hours creating structures to perch the little monkeys and horses on. If it was warm our days were spent outside. We walked to our beach and she would come home soaked with sand in her shoes. Maia loved the trail at a local park and would often venture off examining leaves and worms. At 4 she began to scale trees. By the time she was 7 she hung like a monkey off of high limbs while her father and I held our breath.
I dressed her funky from the start. Striped knee socks with cute little skirts. Pigtails and sparkly barrettes. She looked like a pixie, so tiny and sweet. Little girls grow, though, and they aren’t content with their mother’s ideals. As she entered second grade she began to reject the dresses. It wasn’t that they didn’t catch her eye in the store, it was that she couldn’t hang upside down on the monkey bars without her panties showing. So she wore jeans.
When summer arrived we went out for shorts. It didn’t take long for her to feel discouraged in the girl’s department. I remember her sighing, explaining that the shorts were too short. So we went to the boys’ section and she found what she was looking for; shorts that hung past the knee. We got high tops instead of cute, strappy sandals. Maia spent the summer climbing poles, swimming, and playing games of tag and kickball. School started and Maia was doing 10 chin-ups, her arms more muscular than mine.
Third grade was the year that she learned the word tomboy. It wasn’t long after the year began that we started having discussions about what it meant to be a girl. In the beginning it was simply a matter of clothes. Her friends asked her constantly why she didn’t wear dresses, why she wore tennis shoes everyday, not just when there was gym. Then she came home upset because the girls wanted her to jump rope and she wanted to play kickball with the boys.
It seemed as though there was always something. A reason why her friends thought she was more like a boy. Maia constantly said that she didn’t care but I knew that she hurt. I reminded her that it was important to be strong and the physical strength could not be equated with being a boy. I told her that jeans and high tops were much more comfortable than tights and shoes with heals. We talked about what an accomplishment it was to be able to scale a tree or kick a ball right out of the field. I related my own tales of being a girl whose only friends were boys. I told her that there are not traits that belong to only one gender, that boys and girls can be whatever they want to.
When Maia joined soccer she finally began to see that there really was no such thing as a tomboy. She was surrounded by athletic girls, ones that love to run and compete. During the school year they had super fit tests (state test to determine children’s physical fitness). Maia was the only girl that was able to do chin-ups and she was proud. Eventually many of the girls in her class joined the boys and Maia in kickball. When kids call each other fag or lesbian because of their traits Maia speaks of gender roles being a myth.
Being a “tomboy” made my daughter strong. It taught her early that people are not always kind but that you should not change to please them, to fit in. She knows at nine that you cannot define a girl or a boy by their actions. Now, when the girls in the neighborhood play “cheerleader” and say that she isn’t like a girl because she can’t do a cartwheel she says that’s fine with her. When I look at my girl I see a daughter who is strong and brave. She may not want to borrow my sparkly barrettes but she will lug in the firewood for me.