On being a tomboy

“You’re too skinny,” my friend said, as we sat in the hot tub at a Korean spa.

“No such thing,” I countered, followed by an emaciated laugh.

The breakup had robbed me of my appetite. I replaced each meal with a steady diet of crying to Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Googling Wiccan spells to get your lover back. My body was the leanest it’s been since junior high and I couldn’t enjoy it. Instead, I sat in a whirlpool with my friend and five naked strangers, hunched and frail and stewing, like a sad carrot in people soup.

Five months prior to this, I was sitting in my car, clutching the sweatshirt I bought him, pleading for an answer.

“Is there someone else?”

“No.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. It’s not that.”

“Did you cheat?”

“Of course not.”

I asked what I’d been dreading since well into our five-year relationship.

“Is it that I’m not feminine enough?”

He paused.

“Yes.”


I had always been a tomboy, preferring jeans to dresses, and sneakers to heels. As my body changed, I felt shame, not understanding who I was. I remember running to my fifth grade reading class when another student stopped me and said, “You should wear a bra.” Even a boy two grades below me was convinced I had been entering into my womanhood incorrectly.

At the end of junior high, my classmates and I exchanged yearbooks. I handed mine to a boy I had a crush on. He handed it back with You have alien eyes and dress like a boy on every empty page. I went home crying. As I stormed upstairs to retreat into my bedroom, my mother asked what was wrong.

“Nothing!” I fired back.

So she asked the question that had been weighing on her since I first got a training bra.

“Are you a lesbian?”

“No!”

I spent the rest of the afternoon laying facedown on my bed crying to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. What else could I do? My peers, my parents, and my gender had rejected me for who I was.

In my early twenties, I learned to cope with my clunky femininity by building relationships with men. With them, conversations didn’t involve clothes and makeup and why I don’t wear dresses.


My ex and I agreed to “catch-up” four months into the breakup. In preparation, I Googled How to embrace your femininity and Why do Taurus men leave if they are happy? I blew out my hair, painted my nails, and YouTubed makeup tutorials for smokey eyes. I bought a dress that clung to my now 120-pound frame. I had never seen my body this way: shapely, beautiful, feminine. I practiced smiling with my eyes in the mirror, the way Tyra had instructed her would-be Top Models. Thanks to the Internet, I was now Natalia Provatas: former awkward tomboy turned sensual, sexy, confident woman who wins her boyfriend back.

I walked up the driveway of his new apartment, my stomach bubbling like boiling water. I tried to relax, so the beauty I spent hours attaining came off as effortless. He came to the door and let out a sigh.

“It’s so good to see you.”

“I changed my hair,” I said, wishing he had brought it up first.

“I noticed. You look like a movie star.”

“I’m skinnier too,” I said, with a secret shame.

He put one hand on my hip. I combed my manicured hands through his hair, and he smiled, sweetly. Having sex tonight meant taking all my Google training and mustering up all the woman-ness I had in me to make him love me again. He looked into my eyes and said he wanted to savor this. Five letters meaning to relish, to taste, to give into, to delight in. Had this word come at any moment during our relationship, I too would have savored this. Instead, I existed somewhere between crying and orgasm, knowing that giving into either impulse would signify the end.


A month later, I’m at a Korean spa, naked in front of people for the first time since that night at his apartment. A woman wearing see-through lingerie escorted me from the hot tub into a massage room. There were 10 other naked women all lying on slabs of metal, lathered in oil, like an adult version of the NICU. The masseuse moved her thumbs over the knots on my back and neck, molding me together as if my body was made of small pieces of clay. I started to cry.

I cried for that night in the car. I cried for the sex we had. I cried for the little girl who felt more beautiful in a Ninja Turtles shirt than a Sunday dress. I cried for the seventh grader listening to Joni Mitchell. I cried for believing all this time I was not woman enough.

The masseuse wrapped me in a towel like a baby being swaddled. She leaned down and whispered gently in my ear, Okay?

Photo credit: mssarakelly

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