Don’t Call Me a Tomboy. Call Me an Athlete.

Me and my friends on a ski trip

The Collins American-English Dictionary defines ‘tomboy’ as a girl who behaves or plays like an active boy.

So what does it mean to play ’like a boy?’ Boys enjoy playing with everything from video games to Barbie dolls. Just like girls, boys cannot and should not be stereotyped with specific personality traits. For now, let’s assume playing ‘like a boy’ refers to playing sports (although I will explain why this is a ridiculous assumption).

According to Bonnie Zimmerman, author of Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, the word ‘tomboy’ has been connected with connotations of rudeness and impropriety since 1592.

What is so rude about a girl who plays sports?  


Growing up, my peers often referred to me as a tomboy. I heard it so much that, by the time I reached high school, I even used it to describe myself. I eagerly competed in any sport, including gymnastics, swimming, diving, softball, basketball, track, volleyball and/or soccer (just to name a few). And, not to toot my own horn, I did not just play sports, I was good at sports.

In primary school, my physical education teacher always paired me with an athletic boy for our one-on-one basketball drills. In middle school, I played on my school’s girls teams and, in 8th grade, we went undefeated in every sport. In high school, I ran cross country and broke multiple school records.

What I’m trying to say is that girls who enjoy playing sports are not tomboys.

We are athletes.

By playing sports, girls (and boys) develop mental toughness and important social and physical skills along with a heightened sense of accomplishment, confidence, determination, and empowerment. Athletic girls must not be shunned while athletic boys are celebrated.

In 2010, UNICEF partnered with the Bamyan Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs and the local Youth Information and Contact Centre in Afghanistan to promote girls’ empowerment through sport.

Participation in sport is a critical part of any child’s physical and social development, especially for girls. Sport can help improve their self-esteem and self-awareness. Sport teaches integrity and self-management by setting objective standards that girls can work to achieve.” ~ Dr. Atiqullah Amiri, UNICEF

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State unveiled its Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. One component of the Initiative involves a partnership with espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program. The program matches emerging female leaders from 15 different countries with female top executives in the American sports industry for one month, allowing the young leaders to gain valuable skills necessary to build female sports leagues in their home countries. The Initiative also engages professional athletes, coaches and athletic administrators with underserved youth as well as invites young women and girl athletes to the United States to participate in clinics, team building exercises, and more. Watch former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton announce the Initiative here.

Sports serve an important role in the dialogue surrounding women and girls’ empowerment – and the world is finally taking note.

Check out these fantastic organizations already working to empower women and girls through sport:

Don’t miss this great film depicting how boxing empowers women in Afghanistan.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr’s Creative Commons.

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Category: Sports
Tagged with: Athletes    Basketball    empower    feminism    Football    Gender Equality    girleffect    running    Skateboarding    Soccer    Softball    Sports    Tomboy    Volleyball

Elisabeth Epstein

Hi everyone! I recently earned my Master’s degree in International Development from The New School in New York City in May 2012. With a concentration in International Development and Global Health, I have worked behind the scenes as a Research Intern for the PBS documentary Half the Sky in addition to serving as the Research and Advocacy Intern for The Hunger Project. Globally, I have taught English to kindergartners in China, have researched clean water and HIV/AIDS in Kenya, and have gained first-hand experience understanding how migrants and refugees deal with public health issues in both Mexico and Thailand. I am especially interested in food security, nutrition and hunger and the role of women and girls in each of these issues. In my free time, I enjoy playing with my ever-so-fluffy Siberian Husky, eating delicious food, training for marathons and traveling. Follow me on Twitter @E_Epstein!

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  • I just read this post to my daughter (and translated some parts she couldn’t understand: we are Italians living in Italy) to make sure she goes on like this: she is more self-confident, and feeling less “one on the earth” to be so “mighty”. She often says she is not a “Tomboy” – we say “maschiaccio”- and by now she swear she’s going to answer to those wo say it: “I’m not a Tomboy, I’m an ATHLETE!” Sorry for my english I don’t use it since soooo long! Claudia.

    • Elisabeth Epstein

      Wow thank you! You don’t know how much it means to me that your daughter will no longer think of herself as a “tomboy/maschiaccio.” She IS an athlete and she can do anything boys can if she puts her mind to it.

      • I will send you some picture of my athlete if she agrees! Thank you, Claudia.

      • …here you can read one of my Athlete’s performaces: she was called with two of her female teammates to play in the male team in a regional tournament. On about 70 athletes, there were only 4 girls. The thing I loved most, was the reaction of our team’s boys: at first they were offended, then suspicious, then hopeful and at the end of the day they were happy and proud to be a “mixed” team. And the girls…you can see what I mean just by looking in my daughter’s eyes.

    • Elisabeth Epstein

      Thank you for the photos! Your daughter is incredible. Girlpower!

  • Yes! I’m not an athlete myself, but this has always been one of my pet peeves.

  • LOVE this. Thank you.

  • Love love LOVE this post!! So great. You are amazing, Elisabeth!

  • Julie Dutton

    Loved this. Your article made me think about how, when I was in HS, there was no girls track team. The coach of the BOYS team challenged me by saying girls couldn’t  cut it — so  a couple of my female friends and I joined the team! It really was a bit of a slog but I’ve always been glad we didn’t let him get away with such a ridiculous assertion. 
    (sidebar: I used to work indirectly w/your father when he was in Spfld.)

    • Elisabeth Epstein

      Well done Julie! I’m glad you persevered and showed the coach who was boss! I’ll tell my dad you say hello 🙂

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