When I was ten and soon to be going to big school, I was faced with a dilemma.
Back in 1983 at Ousedale Comprehensive, girls were not allowed to wear trousers. I hadn’t worn a skirt since the age of five when I got to choose what I wore every morning, and every morning I chose trousers, jeans, shorts, tracky bottoms, but NEVER a skirt or a dress. I was a self-defined tomboy. I had short, scruffy hair, ran circles around the lads when it came to tree-climbing and riding bikes down hills, could burp on command and never backed down when challenged. I rarely got into physical fights though, I used to fight-talk instead and leave them wondering what had hit them. People mistook me for a boy all the time and called me ‘lad’ and ‘sonny’. Sometimes I let them believe I was a boy, if the situation suited me, but often I corrected them, proudly stating “I’m a girl, actually” and grinning at them. I thought I had the best of both worlds – the brains of a girl and the brawn of a boy, albeit a small, scrawny sort of brawn as I was tiny and wirey. I knew what I wanted and was bolshy enough to get it. I hung out with the girls and the boys at school, although I was never interested in the whole football malarky, which is probably why the girls’ company suited me too. Everyone accepted me as I was. The tomboy girl in jeans.
And then, in the Easter break, my step-dad sat me down and told me I was going to have to start wearing skirts as it was my last term in primary school, and after summer I would be in big school where skirts were compulsory. So maybe I should get used to wearing them now rather than in September, as I would probably have enough big changes to deal with then, without the extra odd feeling of breeze on my legs to get used to. He used bribery. I wanted a pair of white leather slip-on shoes like the other girls in the school (I hadn’t rejected all girls’ things, just skirts), so he promised to buy me a pair IF I wore them to school with a skirt.
I remember that first skirt. It was knee-length, different shades of beige and brown, made of material that looked a bit like sacking. I think I had accepted Dad’s bargain but had chosen a skirt that was as rough’n’tough looking as possible. But I still felt very uncomfortable in it. My legs felt too vulnerable; every movement I made meant my skin felt the air brushing against it. I walked to school feeling totally naked. I thought everyone was staring at me, staring at my legs. No-one was of course, until I got to school, and then all hell broke loose. “WOOOOAAAAHHH!! BULLETT’S GOT LEGS!!” (Bullett being my step-dad’s surname and my nickname) “LOOK AT HER! LOOK AT THOSE PINS! NICE LEGS BULLETT!!” The boys ran riot. It wasn’t anything to do with fancying my legs – when I was ten they were stick thin and utterly shapeless – it was just the sheer pleasure of pointing out that I was indeed a girl, a ‘normal’ girl, and despite having spent years being a total tomboy, I was now having to conform to what girls look like. I hated it of course, I hated the attention my legs were getting, I hated everyone pointing out that I had “changed” but I stuck to my guns (no pun intended but it might be why the name Bullett fit so well) and walked right past them on my skinny stick legs, determined to ignore it all and continue being just as much a tomboy as I ever was. Which isn’t so easy when wearing a skirt, or at least, is wasn’t for me back then.
I did continue being a tomboy. And as soon as I got home every afternoon I changed back into my jeans. But I didn’t mind wearing skirts any more. And my dad was right; in September when I started at Ousedale Comprehensive, it was one weight off my mind and off my legs. And a year later, when my body had totally metamorphosized over the summer, from stick insect to Flake advert curvaciousness, I went up into 3rd grade wearing a mini miniskirt, having discovered the joys of attracting boys.
But I remained a tomboy, despite looking very much like a Guns’n’Roses groupie. I still scrambled up trees and messed about in the river and stood up to the big boys teasing my little brother and never backed down when challenged. I realised it isn’t anything to do with what you wear. And then I realised it isn’t anything to do with “boyishness” or “girlishness”. It’s about confidence and being assertive and not complying to stereotypes of what girls are like and what boys are like.
I think I mostly have my Mum to thank for that attitude. She taught me some fine lessons. She told dirty jokes and swore like a sailor and said she’d rather I had my first sexual experiences in my bedroom rather than in some muddy field somewhere. She trusted me, gave me a lot of freedom and taught me to follow my intuition. She was a fantastic flautist, pianist and music teacher. She had a great mind and went back to studying when she was in her fifties, doing a couple of A-levels, a degree and becoming a magistrate. When my parents held dinner parties she would have everyone laughing. She flirted like a pro. I was proud of having a mum like mine.
So this is partly to say thank you to my mum for raising me the way she did. For encouraging the tomboy-tomgirl in me. For being a tomboy-tomgirl herself.
This morning she was carried back off to hospital. She only came out a month or so ago. She is suffering from what they think is anxiety disorder. For years she was diagnosed as bipolar, but she doesn’t go “up” anymore. I have tried everything to get through to her, so has my Dad, so has everyone. But nothing is helping her and now I am frightened we will lose her. We already have lost her in a way, but every now and again I see glimmers of the old Mum and I do wish she would come back.
Mum Bullett, dig deep down and find that feisty bit of you that never gave up. You can do it. Otherwise I’m coming to get you and chucking you in a plane to France. I’m the one wearing the trousers nowadays. But I think you need to wear them too.