I’ve always been a little femme and a little tomboy – a princess and a jedi, comfortable with mascara and power tools.
Both terms, femme and tomboy, have visual components: they’re tied to certain fashion choices, as well as mannerisms, even one’s presence. But to me, they’re also tied to how I relate to men and women, and how I identify with my gender.
I grew up tall and strong and early on developed an inclination to protect petite female peers who seemed weaker – either on the playground or later in fantasies involving possible harassers.
I remember offering my jacket during a chilly high school football game feeling gentlemanlike. When manual labor was called for, I always grabbed the heaviest objects and made myself “one of the guys.”
My alma mater is a small Christian liberal arts college with strong vestiges of traditional gender roles and little public questioning of one’s sexuality. It was in this context that I began to believe like I thought like a boy. If a conversation arose in a mixed gendered group, the men (plus me) tended to dominate the conversation, aggressively pursuing thoughts and playing devil’s advocate.
In particular in the classroom and sometimes other social situations, women tended to be reticent. I asked two female friends from college who I know were outspoken and thoughtful if they shared the same experience.
One friend didn’t have this experience, though she wondered if being an education major with more women in her classes made a difference.
The other, however, did. She explained, “I was much more outspoken in public high school than I was in college. I had some messed up views, and I thought that at a Christian university I should try to be more quiet and meek and all those ‘feminine’ things. For as much as I enjoyed [our college], it’s taken me a long time (and a great relationship with my husband) to shake those things.”
From college through my mid-twenties I stayed in the conservative Christian hive, and related to fewer and fewer women. There was a handful of men I felt comfortable question things with and speaking of my desires without judgement.
When I broke away from the evangelical social web (finding a better home in the liberal end of the Christian spectrum), I befriended queer women for the first time, and finally began to strongly relate to my own gender again. Relating to women in the GLBT community, the denial I had maintained about my feelings for women began crumbling.
When I began pursuing romantic relationships with women, in my mid-twenties, I realized how comfortable I had become utilizing and bending heteronormative dating conventions when dating men. When it came to women, I had no game. Who should lead, when should I flirt, and how? It felt like starting over.
Romantically, how I relate to men still seems less scary to me. I can’t remember ever being afraid a man wouldn’t find me feminine enough. I can go back and forth between feeling like a bro, playing touch football, and flirting with soft smiles, the way a lifelong bilingual switches languages.
Maybe this was a learned skill, and I’ve forgotten. I know over time I learned that it’s unrealistic and unnecessary to expect women to always be pristine and graceful and whatever else femininity is supposed to be calling for. Or maybe it’s just that romantic interest in men makes me feel more feminine, and I’ve never had issues feeling romantic around men.
I didn’t date a lot of women when I first came out, but when I did, it often felt like neither of us were comfortable initiating or taking the next step.
I quickly started to feel like I needed to be one or the other – the lead or the submissive. I fell into the trap of believing this might simplify the dating game.
I wanted a more dominant, confidant woman to pursue me, to simply relax and reciprocate her attention. I thought that being a femme to someone’s butch would make this easier.
I dressed girly whenever I was going out, and I focused on more butch-looking women on dating websites. (I didn’t get anywhere with this strategy, either.)
Eventually, I began to realize that I was giving in to these notions that someone’s masculinity made them more dominant and someone’s femininity more submissive.
When I stopped trying so hard to be what I thought women wanted, I fell back into that comfortable hybrid zone of being both femme and tomboy. I stopped trying to be purely feminine or purely masculine – both in my outward appearance and in my romantic pursuits.
I found that my attraction felt more natural, and while I’m interested to a broad spectrum of women, I relate to other women in the middle who, like me, can be ultra-girly or not.
While I prefer femmytomboy over tomboyfemme, the latter has more traction on the web. For those interested in further exploring this label, check out tomboyfemme.tumblr.com, run by blogger Malloreigh. It’s a fashion blog dominated by a Patti Smith masculine metro look. Autostraddle quoted Malloreigh who calls herself, “a tomboyfemme because I think it describes where I sit at the centre of a continuum – compared to most female-bodied queers, I’m femme as hell, but in a group of heterosexual women, I’m immediately called a tomboy. “
Blogger sublimefemme writes, “I’m fascinated by tomboy femmes because their gender play makes visible the fluidity and flexibility of femme, which is otherwise difficult to see.”
Identifying as a femmytomboy has allowed me again to begin accepting the interplay between two sides of myself, realizing that they can be harmonious parts of the same identity. And although I said two sides, when I look closer there are many facets buried within the masculine and feminine aspects of my personality. A label is just a starting point. The finish line is usually well beyond words.
Jera Brown is an emotional eater, piloxing instructor, queer, poly and a Christian. She’s the author of emotichew.com, a blog about body positivity, healthy self-worth, healthy eating, spirituality, and sexuality.