I woke up, went to my wardrobe, opened it and stared at my clothes, wondering what to wear for the day. I have dresses on the right side, shirts in the middle and sweaters on the left. I looked at the dresses, most of which I had not worn since I bought them, and said yet again, ‘maybe some time in the future’. Then I went through my shirts and as I touched each one, I knew just what trousers would go with them and what shoes would be perfect for each look.
This was another thing to worry about. I had many stilettoes but as I thought through what shirt and trouser combination to wear, I didn’t envision myself pairing them with those stilettoes. I thought of my flats, sneakers and boots. In my head, ‘stilettoes are great and all but was I willing to go through my day in pains?’ Knowing just what a full day I was going to have, the answer wrote itself out.
So, I dressed in my comfortable shirt and pants, got my boots and set out to work. But this was not before I looked in the mirror and was transported to the very first time I was asked, ‘why do you always dress like this? Why don’t you ever dress like a girl? Are you a tomboy?’
That word didn’t hurt the first time I heard it, chief because I really didn’t know its meaning. But trust that as soon as I could get my hand on a dictionary, I searched for it.
in British English
“a girl who acts or dresses in a boyish way, liking rough outdoor activities”
My first reaction was, ‘oh’. This was because I didn’t think I was ‘acting like a boy’. I was just wearing (and doing) what was comfortable to me, what was natural to me. Then the overthinking side of me went into overdrive.
From my earliest childhood memory, I recalled dressing the same way as I did when I was a teenager, when I had this word hurled at me for the first time. I loved big clothes. I loved the look. Women who inspired my fashion included Missy Elliot and Queen Latifah. Yes, there were some factors that influenced the look, like my parents buying us bigger clothes so we could wear them longer, but when I began to choose my clothes, I went for those same types. So, when that word was used to describe my style, I felt self-conscious for the first time in my life. But I had a devil-may-care attitude and couldn’t be phased by what people thought.
Around this time, I watched a basketball game and fell in love with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. I started actively watching sports: the Olympics, track and field meets, and football. I had been following Real Madrid and Raúl when I stumbled on a Manchester United game with Ruud van Nistlerooy scoring a screamer that was the definition of…beautiful. Then and there, I knew I had become a Manchester United fan. After watching a couple of other sports, I determined that basketball and football would be my major thing. So, I learned about the games, followed them weekly and talked about them with friends.
And oh, I played too. I wasn’t the best player — heck, I wasn’t even a good player — but I could run run, so I made the team. I played full back, defending my goal post well and once I got the ball, you were sure I could run with it and give the striker — who happened to be my sister and an exceptional player — who would then go on to score. In my time as player and later coach of our junior and senior teams, we had some of the best records in inter school football competitions in my school’s history.
All these didn’t help me. Girls were not supposed to care about sports and definitely not enough to know about the game, play it or even argue with boys about them. Even though these came naturally to me, boys and girls started calling me — and everyone like me in my school and neighborhood — a tomboy. My unbothered attitude was shaken when I had a crush on someone and I heard him tear me down for being ‘like a boy’. He didn’t know I was there when he and his friends went at it. My look was analyzed piece by poor piece and the laughter was raucous. Again, I felt very self-conscious.
But nothing made me as ashamed of my look as much as a teacher telling me to be more lady-like, cut out the interest in sports and the boyish behavior. She said, ‘girls who behave like this are usually lesbians. Are you a lesbian?’ At this point, I was homophobic from my religious and cultural upbringing and the disgust she used to enunciate ‘lesbian’ made me feel dirty and ashamed.
I began to look at my clothes from a completely different point of view. For the first time in my life, I changed my look. I started to wear makeup, and I bought my first snug jeans and shirts. And you will not believe that I bought my first high heels. I became more conscious of doing my hair, wearing seemingly better clothes and acting like a lady. The biggest change however was that I stopped playing any sports. I still followed games and remained interested in all kinds of sports — except wresting and boxing of course — but a huge part of my life was completely shelved into the recesses of my memory.
Ooooh! Despite all I did, I got laughed at a lot. Many of my attempts were a miss, with someone even saying I always looked ‘old school’. I put on a façade like it didn’t hurt but deep down, I was dealing with a whole lot of insecurity. So I tried harder until I was the talk of the guys and girls at a party in the university where I wore this miniskirt that just about covered my butt, with my legs running into my 6-inch heels and letting people know I could be ‘hot’ when I wanted to be. After that, it was a mix of hits and misses until I graduated from school, went to serve my country and started working.
Took me a while but I realized that this entire lifestyle change just wasn’t me. I was so uncomfortable with this new look, the constant need to act and be a certain way, to wear a mask — with makeup — and to be ‘lady like’. It was exhausting, especially when people asked what was wrong with me when I didn’t wear makeup or go all out for my look. Also, my ideology about life had begun to change as a whole. I had stopped being homophobic and realized that it wasn’t an insult to think me a lesbian because of how I dressed. If anything, it showed that people who thought this didn’t know (or understand) that lesbians came packaged differently. There was not one look that screamed, ‘lesbian’ and attempting to shame me with a type of sexuality was played out and quite frankly, wrong. Women’s dressing is one aspect of their lives, and not a definition of their sexuality.
Gender stereotypes and norms require that people fit into such constricted boxes that anything that seems like an aberration is met with swift attack in a bid to shut it down and curb its spread. But we are not monoliths and should not have the same kind of fashion sense. If nothing else, our cultures, tradition, values and experiences shape our fashion ideals. All fashion styles are valid, be they elegant red-carpet dresses, or flowing burkas, or simple tees and jeans. If women want to look like Beyoncé and Rihanna, that is all good and fine. If they wanted to look like Vice President Kamala Harris, Ava Duvernay, the Indimi daughters, or Aisha Mohammed, then it is fine! And if they want to be fresh faced in oversized clothes, it is fine too! No one should be bullied into thinking that they must look a certain way to be lady like. What is important is that we all wear what comes naturally to us.
Similarly, girls like sports. Girls play sports. These are not things that are boyish. In fact, I do not believe that there is anything that is boyish or strictly for men or boys. Women and girls belong in all spaces that they desire to be in.
So, I went back to wearing what I wanted to wear. Yes, they are mostly big clothes that are conservative but that is fine. I also follow basketball every day. I wanted to play again but I am so grossly out of shape that I cannot even bounce a ball properly now. I am done with football but I hope to run like I did when I was a teenager, and cycle and play basketball. I am going to do all these not because I am acting like a boy but because I am acting like…me. You may think that is me being a ‘tomboy’ but to me, it is being a girl.
PS: I may need to give away my high heels soon. But…what if I want to go on a hot date with someone I care about and just want to change my look? So…I advise that you have all kinds of clothes in your wardrobe. You never know when one look will be most appropriate for where you are going to.