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I was in second grade, bat lifted over my shoulder at the plate as I anxiously waited for my dad — one of my Little League coaches — to throw me the next ball. 

I flicked my ponytail over my shoulder and zeroed in on my task. The ball flew toward me at a high speed, and my fear of failure increased as it zoomed closer towards my strike zone. I was painfully aware of my teammates watching my every move as they stood in the field. 

Strike. Another strike. Another. 

My dad stopped the drill, telling me that I kept swinging too early. He told me this every time I missed the ball. 

“I’m trying!” I replied, as I always do. Even as an eight-year-old, I was a perfectionist and responded to critique with defensiveness and sass. Helpful advice from a coach or a parent always felt like a personal attack. Failing in front of my teammates was outright unacceptable; I wanted to be what I believed to be the ideal athlete, someone whose prowess was never questioned by her fellow players.

I succumbed to my intense emotions, frustrated at myself, the exercise, the whole game of baseball. It was impossible to conceal my feelings from my dad and my teammates, try as I might to hide my expression under my hat.

I started to cry.

A few small tears escaped from my eyes, and there was a clear tremble in my voice when I asked to take a water break. I tried to play it off and prayed that the others would ignore my sudden change in behavior. Shame, frustration and embarrassment flooded my senses. 

“There’s no crying in baseball!” I thought to myself.

I hated crying. I hated that I wasn’t able to mask my emotions as I had trained myself to do whenever in conflict with my brothers or parents, hiding my feelings with annoyance or cold neutrality. But most of all, I hated appearing vulnerable — weak — as the only female on an all-male team who looked on as I waged an internal war.

***

Growing up, I personified the dictionary.com definition of tomboy: “an energetic, sometimes boisterous girl whose behavior and pursuits, especially in games and sports, are considered more typical of boys than of girls.” With two older brothers, it was only natural that I was exposed to more “masculine” behaviors and activities. I adopted a tougher demeanor to take on the physical rambunctiousness of my siblings. I was proud of my infinite knowledge of stereotypically “boyish” movies like “The Benchwarmers” and “James Bond. I refused to wear skirts outside of special occasions, I disliked dolls and I wasn’t afraid of defending myself in a conflict. My earliest ideas of feminism meant exhibiting the emotional stoicism and physical resilience that society expected from young boys — only then did I think a girl could be considered strong. 

I thought the idea of a tomboy was perfect; a black-and-white description of a girl who is free from the confines of traditional feminine expectations. Though I loved the color pink, was obsessed with Disney princesses and dreamed of being a fairy, I disregarded these realities in pursuit of a higher purpose: a single identity. I felt I would only be taken seriously as a young girl if I stuck adamantly to the tough character of a tomboy. I had to pick only one true label, to fit in a categorical box — even if I had to squeeze myself within it.

My family set me on the path of athletics early on, allowing me to explore virtually every sport available in America. With my background of playing with my brothers and unconditional support from my parents, male-dominated sports were never out of the question. When my parents asked me if I’d like to try my hand at baseball, the answer was a simple “yes.” 

As one of three girls in our league, my ponytail was like a billboard proclaiming who I was. Choruses of “that’s a girl” always resounded from the other team whenever I reached the field. I was never sure if they were impressed or derisive. 

I found quickly that I didn’t care if they deduced my gender. As much as I had to assimilate to male standards for the sake of the team dynamic, I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be admired for my skills just like any other player, but I also wanted it known that I was in the minority, breaking stereotypes by excelling. I wanted to be seen as defiant and strong, but with it came a petrifying fear that I would be tied to all of the “wrongness” associated with being a woman. Crying, weakness and emotion were worth sacrificing. They became unacceptable in my eyes, things that only a delicate, clichè, run-of-the-mill girl would display.

The complex assumptions of femininity and masculinity spun around in my head before I even really knew what they meant.

***

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

As I process my inner turmoil in the batter’s box, throat constricted, these are the five words ringing through my head. It’s a famous line from one of my favorite movies,
A League of Their Own,” starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. The movie documents the formation of the first all-female professional baseball league during World War II. The true story follows two sisters with opposing personalities: Kit, a tough, aggressive player and her sister, Dottie, a beautiful wife and mother who puts family above her own passions.

Hanks’s character, Jimmy Dugan, is the comic relief of the film. Hired to coach a women’s team, his aggressive and “masculine” personality is accentuated in comparison to his female players. As he gives straightforward coaching directives to a timid female player, the woman starts to cry, prompting him to shout the infamous five words at the emotional athlete. The scene, though light-hearted, is a comedic criticism of open displays of emotion. The women on the baseball team are openly breaking stereotypes by playing baseball professionally, yet the sexist trope of the hysterical female and the tough man is evident, perpetuating ages-old clichés of gender expectations.

I put everything I had into preventing any sign of crying from escaping my expression. I was not going to be an overdramatic girl. I wanted so badly to camouflage myself as “one of the boys,” armored with not only resilience but stoicism, all so my emotional and physical strength were never questioned. I was a tomboy, through and through, just like Kit. Though I admired Dottie for her beauty and effortless femininity, Kit’s passion and hard exterior were necessary for sports like baseball. I thought feminine elegance would never equate to strength.

The action of crying and showing emotion has long been linked with the concept of gender roles. For women, it’s acceptable but often bothersome. For men, it’s actively discouraged — though expectations are changing, men are still reluctant to cry in many situations due to established notions of toxic masculinity. According to a New York Times article, toxic masculinity is a societal phenomenon that encourages men to foster a “tough-guy” personality through the use of violence or aggression and stifling any feelings that undermine an individual’s “manliness,” such as sadness or anxiety. 

My young mind had determined that men didn’t cry because crying meant you were weak. If it was acceptable that women cry, what did that say about the resilience of the female gender? All of these subconscious connections between weakness, emotion and girliness led me to the conclusion that femininity was bad. I could like traditionally feminine things, but it wouldn’t make me as strong or exceptional as I wanted to be. I clung to my tomboy identity, to mirror the behavior of the boys around me. Unshakeable, tough and strong-willed.

***

The “tomboy” is a staple in pop culture. It’s an effective and relatable character. Many young girls want to be more masculine or are drawn to the idea of a cool girl who isn’t afraid to defy what society has historically expected from women. This “cool girl” archetype — found in movies, TV shows and books — promotes the idea that women should be interested in stereotypically male activities and have a free-spirited, wild personality. There’s nothing wrong with genuinely enjoying these activities or naturally possessing these behaviors — it’s when women feel they have to perpetuate these “cool girl” or “tomboy” stereotypes that the behavior becomes harmful, especially when they feel this is how they will be accepted by society. The trope puts down the put-together, feminine girl, contributing to misogynistic standards as it elevates the idea of a more valuable “masculine” personality.

In her exploration of the history of the tomboy in The Atlantic, author Elizabeth King argues that the term “tomboy” is harmful to introduce to children. Though the concept expands the mold of what a young girl can be, making it acceptable to be adventurous and rough-and-tumble, it is still just that: a mold. Even giving the “tomboy” lifestyle a name confines girls to yet another standard of acceptable behavior and expression, and could result in confusion over one’s identity. Why should labels be applied to young people at all, when they are still growing into who they want to be? Why not explore different aspects of the masculine-feminine spectrum, which is itself an imaginary social construct? King argues all of these points, finally asserting that “perhaps the best future for the tomboy is as a gender-neutral version of its 16th-century source: a name for children of all sexes and gender identities who romp with spirit and deliberateness.”  

I only played baseball for a few years. As I grew up, I was exposed to a myriad of lifestyles, fashions and people. I learned how to do makeup and love wearing dresses on special occasions. And the idea of femininity isn’t as daunting as it used to be.  

Despite this newfound freedom of expression, I still find it difficult to pinpoint what feminism looks like to me, or if I even need to define it at all. This ambiguous perspective can be a source of anxiety for many women, whether they feel that they’re failing feminist ideals if they want to appear more traditionally feminine, or if they’re like me and find it a bit scary to even explore their “girly” side in the first place. As seen in the recent increased experimentation with lifestyle and fashion, conventional ideas of self-expression, no matter one’s gender identity, continue to shift.

Growing up as a “tomboy” and participating in male-dominated sports provoked me to think about the relationship between classic ideas of “femininity” and “masculinity.” The baseball field was a microcosm that spotlighted gender roles, one of society’s most complex issues. The words themselves are restricting, and it’s unfortunate that they are ingrained so deeply into our daily lives. 

I still struggle with being emotionally vulnerable and aim to be seen as the “strong,” “tough” or “badass” one in relationships. But these adjectives do not belong to a single gender and they most definitely do not apply only to those with a “masculine” character. Strength does not come from trying to act a certain way or from repressing certain emotions — it comes from confronting your own fears and doubts, allowing you to discover your honest, authentic identity.

Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at sstolar@umich.edu.