Once, being a tomboy was a way to gain male validation. When adolescence brought on emotion and curves that were harder to hide, an expanded view of what womanhood could look like also flourished.
We woke up one day, and our parents firmly instructed us to ransack our home of two rooms and a little kitchen, pack and unpack properties, and do the laundry. We woke up another day, took rushed baths, dressed up, and drove to the bus station. We couldn’t afford flights. On the last episode of our waking up, we were in Abia, the dusty environment welcoming us as the pungent stench of diesel filled our nostrils.
Until six years ago, when my mother, in concession with my father, concluded on our resettlement to Southeastern Nigeria, I was the girlboy, the boygirl, the girlboss of every street and school that I stepped foot in, in Northern Nigeria. Before our spontaneous embarkment, there were no discussions with us, their children. Our mother didn’t hint at the slightest about moving, and neither did our father—even though a conversation with us would be unusual. With that move, my life would change. I just didn’t yet know how.
How to Be a Tomboy
There’s no handbook for attaining tomboyism, and for me, it started off as a coping mechanism from the influx of femininity traits that unveiled themselves every night that I sat and had dinner with my family of too many women. It was as if someone had to do it—be different, stand out, exude more butch energy—and every time I met my sisters’ gazes, I felt their femininity shine lucidly through their eyes.
Three extremes probed my decision to reach tomboy peak. One, I was fed up living in a world clustered with women being women. I wanted out to explore the freedom of living by my own standards—riding bikes at will, playing soccer on the streets—standards that conflicted with norms. The comfort my sisters felt with living up to standards that limited them further propelled my irritation.
Two, I was irked by the disregard for women, and I could not see a way to fix this other than to disentangle from the docility of it. To lean more into the courts of the players who treated my sisters and mother with impertinence, as I had long heard that these players run the world. I wanted to be respected the way men were respected.
Three, the chores that accompany womanhood are spelled out to burden women, and I had no idea if the women were comfortable with that and didn’t speak of it, or if they relished in happy memories bending over heat for hours. I just knew I couldn’t be a part of that dynamic.
I cannot count the many days when I sat with the boys and discussed girl secrets that I learned—bitching at them, clowning with the boys. Days when I joined the boys to prank girls. Days when I forced myself to see Kung-Fu movies just so I could give narrations and roleplay my fave badass characters. I wanted to chill with the big boys.
I realize now that the meaningless fights, like when I hit a boy who laughed at my narration of Naruto, were meant to be passcodes to upgrade the value I wanted the boys to hold of me. I used to think it was a progressive step in building my esteem. I learned to walk like an immature cockerel, as my mother puts it, adding a bounce to my steps. My sister would jokingly ask, “did you break your waist again?” anytime I walked past her.
There were murmurs of bouncer or boy-girl every time I walked through the school halls, and out of the gate, and in my street, and in my compound. It made me feel better that people thought of me nearly the same way they thought of boys.
A Tomboy Adolescence
I was a grieving soul who couldn’t submit to male supremacy and believed that acting masculine would rule me out of the equation. This got me into situations that put me under strain, but I learned to endure because tomboys don’t cry. My behaviors attracted criticism and hate from more women and girls—somehow, it made me feel good. The only females that I accorded respect were my sisters and mother and the other girls who did sports.
As puberty hit and the natural phenomenon of my body took course, revealing my peculiarities and pulling me in on the ride that I dreaded, I began to develop feelings that I didn’t think I would. I got more sensitive to the hate, and the boys were beginning to look more sexually appealing as my body parts were fast developing. My emotions were all over the place. I felt like I was losing it. I wore more baggy clothes to hide my body from the boys and the girls. I thought I wasn’t exactly as curvy as the girls were getting, and I didn’t want the boys to see the bumps that were sprouting.
A couple of harsh words, and I was bawling my eyes for hours. I thought it was insane. I couldn’t fight as much, as I had to protect my tender body parts more. I indulged in more athletics to build muscles, but the sports fit only showed off my body more, and the boys I sat with whistled at me. I grew extremely cautious of my body, and I got more oversized clothing because I developed Body Dysmorphic Disorder, obsessively spending time on the supposed flaws in my appearance.
My Mother and Father
Sometimes I think that the reason my mother never tried to dissuade me from tomboyism early was ’cause she had no sons, and maybe she thought one of her girls doing more of the male chores would bring some sort of balance into the home. Of course, she believed in gender roles. Other times I think that as she was always able to feel my vulnerability—the tenderness that I tried to dim every time—she wasn’t bothered by my manly traits. I knew this because she’d yap about my softness with her and my sisters for long, painful minutes.
My father was particularly intrigued with some of my abilities as he, too, encouraged gender roles. Fixing the remote control and wall switches, hanging light bulbs, and biting off wire ends are usually masculine, and every time I performed one of these tasks, I saw the awe in his eyes. He didn’t try to show it so much, but it was there, a glint, and I would catch it. My father was hard to please, so it was a milestone achievement. Even though we didn’t have the best relationship, I wanted him to know that I was not like the women.
Embracing Femininity, in Abia
In the first month of our stay in Abia, the environment gave off a strange and unfriendly ambiance. Maybe it was us, but the energy seemed antagonistic. Nobody cared for whatever gender identity label you chose, and it was difficult picking the clothes that I wore. The boys still catcalled, whether I had on a baggy tee or a fitted skirt. I was constantly reminded that I was a woman with feminine body parts, and it made me feel uneasy. There was a different type of patriarchy with the Igbos, and it didn’t respect what label you wore. Finding a suitable school was another dilemma. The fees were either too high, or my mother and I just didn’t like them. But we settled for a great one eventually.
Six weeks into the first academic session, I became one of the school’s youngest prefects. The role I held would be suitable for a male in the North. As I wore more dresses and fitted clothing in accordance with the school’s rules, it felt rejuvenating that I was held in high regard when I didn’t act tomboyish. I could be a woman and be valued. My head reeled with how much femininity I had relaxed into, and how people saw me. The feeling was disturbingly soothing. The patriarchal radicalities were still very much in play—even worse—but they were not a bother. I already saw things in a light that portrayed my digression from them.
Not once did my sisters make me feel like I was putting in the work to act male. How they would recommend great lipgloss brands to me was laughable and felt like a mockery of my personality. I was around six when I became a tomboy, and we did not bond over meaningful conversations then because I was mostly out with the boys. But as I grew, my big sister, Ebere, would cajole me to be myself, but I would shrug it off and just be a tomboy. It was honestly what I knew how to be. They both always thought I was a strong girl, not a boy-like girl.
In Southern Nigeria, my sisters and I talked more about woman power and the feminine drive. It was in the course of our conversations that Ebere revealed how she used to be a pick me and in the more popular context, in which she tried to hold views that patted the male ego. We laughed hard at her stories. “I told the girls to learn how to simplify cooking and not challenge the boys because they were going to be their future husbands,” she said. “There were more girls like me who believed women could never be equal to men,” she continued. I thought it was crazy.
She talked about Chimamanda Adichie with me, and I was gripped. There were women who were highly respected by the world without trying to be men or appeal to men, and more women who were championing for equal treatment of genders. Chimamanda was both, and I wanted to fall someplace alongside her.
The World From a Feminist Lens
As a woman who has now identified fully with my femininity and its strength, I reckon with internalized misogyny—with the various forms it takes and how it drives people to behave chaotically with themselves and society. Constantly belittling women, calling them lazy when they complain of cooking or imposing misogynistic views on them, disengaging from fun womanly activities so as to appear male-inclined, attributing women’s success to their ability to act or work masculine have been active measures used by women against women.
These pick-me traits litter the consciousness of almost every woman born into patriarchal systems and fight the prejudiced thoughts that swirl around my head as I think of successful women or the women who talked a tad bit more than average. Overcoming these sentiments are my key achievements in becoming the woman who reached into her womanliness to draw her strength and self-esteem.
Every day I forgive myself for conforming to standards that derided my femininity and for burning my self-esteem for miserly crumbs of masculine acceptance. By doing the things that head-on combat the conventions I used to live by, every day, I become a more feminine woman.