Words Have Power: Why I Don’t Identify as a Tomboy
By Dana Land--When I was younger, everyone called me a tomboy. I refused to wear pink dresses and I played with worms in the dirt. The other girls made fun of me, and the boys didn’t accept me either. I was stuck in the middle, desperately looking for a group to fit in with. Being called a “tomboy” by both groups just furthered the isolation I felt as a little kid because I wasn’t “enough” to fit in with either the boys or the girls.
Last year, a mother wrote about how she refused to call her child a “tomboy.” Her reasoning is that “it implies that a girl (or woman, for that matter) who does not conform to girl-coded cultural stereotypes is not only not really a girl, but somehow a kind of a boy. It tells girls (and boys, and women, and men) that there is a right way of being a girl, and a wrong way of being a girl, and if you’re the ‘wrong’ kind of girl, then actually you’re more of a boy.”
This connection is very important, because it highlights how hurtful words can be to our perceptions of others and ourselves. For example, take the word “fat.” If we do a simple Free Dictionary definition search, we will find that the scientific definition of fat is “A mixture of such compounds occurring widely in organic tissue, especially in the adipose tissue of animals and in the seeds, nuts, and fruits of plants.”
However, that definition isn’t the one that is used by our society. When someone uses that word against us (i.e. calls us fat), it’s possible that our feelings are hurt. We may feel body conscious. Society has assigned a negative connotation to the word fat. Is there anything objectively wrong with fat? No.
Every word in our language has the Webster dictionary definition as well as a societal definition. Those two definitions do not always match. The societal definition can be used to harm others and ourselves, and it can also be used to promote positivity. Reclamation of certain words by those who have had words used against them can be a powerful tool in reshaping language.
Does language shape our culture or does our culture shape our language? I would argue that our culture shapes our language. We take words, assign them meanings, and then use them to fit our purposes. ‘Tomboy’ or ‘fat’ can be used as a way for someone to hurt or distance another person—and that same person can reclaim that word, use it as a way of gaining power over our culture, and refuse to let themselves be defined.
Ultimately, the choice is yours on whether to reclaim terms like tomboy or if you’d prefer to avoid them altogether. But it’s important to keep in mind that language has power, and we should always be mindful of its potential to hurt or exclude others.