I used to be the typical tomboy. Well, not really. Not really a “tomboy,” because its definition also includes being loud and boisterous and outgoing and sporty, haha.
I will admit it, to all of you older women out there who told me that I would grow up and become more feminine. I have, mind you, I have—especially in terms of clothing and maybe being more interested in dudes. And yet, at the same time, I haven’t.
I have never liked this socially constructed thing called “gender” since I was young. I was curious as to what being a boy was like, and even wanted to try being one for a day—but I never actually wanted to be one. However, I didn’t like being a girl, either. So I didn’t want to be a “girl,” nor did I want to be a “boy.” Weird? Yeah. I’m weird. Everyone knows that.
I still remember what Meeyun told me when I was…I think in Grade 8 or so, that I need to embrace being a woman, which is a part of who I am, to show true strength. I didn’t understand it completely at the time, but I began to see what she meant as I grew up. And so I did. I am a woman—I was born this way, I am this sex.
But I am not this gender.
I used to hate having gendered terms and notions applied to me, and I still hate it. I used to be disgusted with being called “princess,” or being associated with the colour pink, or being seen or told as weak. I hated the phrase, “…but you’re a girl.”
I didn’t even like being called “sensitive.” I sure as hell was a lot more sensitive back then than I am now. Maybe it was all those years of rejecting emotion.
As a young child, I was by no means a spoiled little princess (though I was a picky brat). But I was cute, and I was shy, and adults liked me despite my 새침떼기 attitude (I could also be a bit of a 깍쟁이 at times…). Thus, my cheeks were pinched often and I was babied and princessed out of my mind. The more you babied me, the less I liked you. And I made sure to subtly—or not-so-subtly—show it. This whole being babied and princessed thing set me off on my tomboy rampage in my preteens. I blame the adults.
I only wore dresses for the sake of my mother, but even she had to give up on me due to my vehement protests beyond Grade 6. I wear one-pieces now for the occasional Sunday or for special occasions, but none with lace and frills like the dresses my mother made for me had (unless they are tastefully incorporated…but I don’t think I can pull off lace very well). And I do not wear skirts. Skirts are just…they’re not for me.
My closet has improved a bit, as has my taste in clothing (though my mother wouldn’t agree; she says I like that punk rock flavour too much). I care a bit more about my appearance, but not that much more. I’m still more about comfort than style, but hey, I’m getting better at enduring itchy and uncomfortable outfits.
Other than my outer wear and interest in ‘non-girly’ activities, I had no way to set a statement that I was no “girl,” and that you couldn’t—shouldn’t—treat me like one (this was my mindset at that age). I wasn’t outgoing. And I wasn’t all that gifted in sports, but I was physically strong. So that’s what I played up. Physical strength. Due to the fact that girls are not typically associated with physical strength, and that I forced guys to acknowledge that I was physically strong, I revelled in my strength. And I aimed to get stronger. I loved winning arm wrestling matches against both boys and girls. I loved being a fighter, I loved being aggressive, and I loved being told, “You don’t look like it, but you’re pretty strong.”
I still love winning arm wrestling matches. Now that I’m older, I can’t exactly go up against guys my age—the bodily differences just don’t match up, and there’s not much I can do about that (unless I want to gain 50 pounds of muscle). But I pride myself on having the advantage over younger guys that haven’t fully matured and are not at full strength (lolol poor kids). I can still beat high school boys (Gr.9, 10, maybe 11 if he’s flimsy) in arm wrestling and burst a bit of their “I’m all that” bubble.
I’m also the go-to pack mule at home when my father is absent. Even when he isn’t absent, I’m the most often called upon to help carry heavy things due to his bad back. Large pack of rice? Sure. Computers? Sure. Be the second hand in carrying a heavy air-conditioning system up and down the stairs? Sure. My parents, no matter how many times they’ve seen me carry things, underestimate my strength. “Oh, Rachel, don’t overexert yourself, you can’t carry that…!” And then I lift it up, easy, and my mother frowns because she thinks my arms will bulk up in an unsightly fashion.
What’s my lazy bro doing? Lolol he’s in his room in the basement. It’s just something that is known in our house—because the little sis is strong enough to carry things, don’t bother bothering the older bro unless he’s needed, and he usually isn’t. What’s my nephew doing? Well, I’m still stronger than him yet.
(One of my wishes is to hone my physical strength and get fit through martial arts training. I’ve wished it since I was in Grade 1. I’m not sure if that wish will ever come to fruition, but if I find an opportunity and find in myself the determination to go through with it, maybe I’ll start sometime in the near future and make that wish a reality.)
I also made sure to detach myself from showing other signs of weakness, such as emotional or mental or (for a time) spiritual weakness. No crying in public, as much as I can help it. No big lapses in intelligence. No breaking down, no questioning myself, no getting upset, no losing control, no this, no that, just no. I often compared myself to a fortress, to a wall, to steel. It was how I liked to see myself. I wanted to be nothing less than rock solid.
One thing that I felt downplayed my quest for strength was my face. I knew that as a short, relatively small, large-eyed girl, I posed no potential danger to anyone based on appearance. So I began to consciously change that in public. I actually practiced in the mirror how I could make myself look “fiercer,” how I could give more intense glares, and how I could look more “charismatic” (lolol what do I know about being charismatic).
Cute? You think I look cute? You think I look nice? You think I look innocent and vulnerable and exploitable? Well, then. I replaced my smile with a poker face. A frown. A scowl. Intense stares. It’s a habit now—my default expression is, according to John moksanim, an I’m-plotting-to-avenge-my-mother’s-death face. I don’t mean to look so mean. Usually I’m squinting because the sun’s out or because I’m tired or because the wind’s blowing in my face or because I’m thinking of something, not because I’m angry.
That was how I used to be, growing up as a tomboy. It was my own one-of-a-kind rebellion, changing my whole demeanour because I didn’t like the way people thought of or labelled me. I didn’t like the way people assumed I was one thing or another when I felt I wasn’t either of those things. I often confused inner strength with outer strength, and tended to focus on the latter. Some of it’s been ingrained in me as habit, and habits are hard to break.
Meeyun is a good example of inner strength. Sara is also another example. They’re both strong women.
I learned along the way that I shouldn’t have anything against being a “girl” or being “girly.” I learned that there was no point in trying to break away from having boobs and a vagina. I’m a female. No questioning that. No point in being against women when I am a woman. What I am against is the societal mold of “girl” or “woman.” What I am against are the stereotypes that come with being a “girl” or “woman.” What I am against are the assumptions of weakness, the assumptions of inferiority, the assumptions of dependency that have nothing to do with being a woman. I am not a “woman.” I am a woman. More than that, I am me. I am Rachel.
I guess I like being a girl. A woman. I like being me. But I don’t like being what people assume I am. Never did. Never will. I like being strong, whether it’s physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. But I will hide my weaknesses less, since they are just as much a part of me as are my strengths. I am not the fortress I once thought I was. And no more adamant rejections of anything and all that is girly. There’s no such thing, anyway.