When I was growing up, nose jobs were seen as a rite of passage. And when I was sixteen, my mother took me shopping for a new nose, like many mothers in the New York suburbs. My mother insisted that a smaller nose not only make me look prettier, it would cure my unhappiness. I was a tomboy. I hated being a girl. She hoped that a new nose—a new look—would steer me away from football and toward fashion.
Reluctantly, I got my nose fixed, but I am still a self-declared tomboy. I’ve ridden my BMW motorcycle from New York to Alaska and back again; I snowboard whenever I get the chance; and this summer, while running before dawn on a back road in Westhampton, New York, I stopped to climb a tree.
I can empathize with parents who watch their children struggle with acute discomfort in their bodies, who feel that the gender roles society sets up doesn’t always match their personalities—who they identify to be. Simply put, I needed time to figure out how to define myself as a woman on my own terms.
I grew up before Title IX, when girls never had as much fun as boys. I couldn’t play on the Little League baseball team even though I knew how to play. My father used to spend hours in the local park, pitching to my sister, Cynthia, and me, coaching us on how to keep our eye on the ball and swing hard. It infuriated me to sit in the bleachers, watching boys strike out.
What girls could do didn’t interest me. Ballet bored me; Barbie bewildered me. What fun was it to play with a doll indoors when I could be outdoors with the boys in our neighborhood riding bicycles?
Becoming a woman had no appeal. My role models of active women were few. I liked Golda Meir, but she lived in Israel; I tried to emulate Madame Curie, but I was scared of the basement where I kept my chemistry set; and look what happened to Amelia Earhart. When my father invited Cynthia and me to ride with him on the Long Island Rail Road, I felt like we’d been accepted into an exclusive club. Sitting with men returning from work who talked politics and business in smoky railway cars—their world was important.
Although my mother was involved with politics, her life seemed limited. Plus, she wasted so much time trying to look the part! She spent hours at her make-up table, her lipsticks lined up like bullet casings, her rouges and eye shadows, her fake eyelashes lying like centipedes next to tubes of glue. I kept my hair short, wore overalls, frayed denim shorts, sneakers. My mother gave up trying to change me even after one of our neighbors quipped to her, “Gladys, If you wanted a boy, you should have tried for a son.”
My mother had an opinion about everyone and everything. She might have wanted me to look more conventionally pretty but she still supported my tomboyishness with her own unique style. “So, nu, you’re a little meshuggeh,” she used to tell me. “A little crazy. Who isn’t?” For that, I am forever grateful. In fact, I’ve made sure to raise my kids the same way, encouraging them not to care what anyone else thinks and to be true to themselves.
My moments of triumph never hinged on girly-girl stuff. On one of the first days at summer camp when I was eleven, there was a co-ed game of Capture the Flag. I managed to grab the flag and then ran as fast as I could under that immense Maine sky, my legs racing across the grassy field. Our team won. I felt like a hero until later that evening when all the girls in my bunk primped for the first camp social. I refused to go. I didn’t want to dance; I didn’t want to play Spin the Bottle. I wasn’t yet ready to be kissed, to no longer be seen as one of the boys. For me, becoming a woman meant being forced to leave behind everything I loved.
It took me until college to finally get the hang of being a woman on my own terms. I joined the tennis team; I started to date guys who liked my off-beat, rugged shade of feminine. Gradually, I learned that it was perfectly all right to prefer shorts to skirts, and high-top sneakers to high heels.
And boy oh boy, I am glad that I remained a woman. I got to experience giving birth to four children, and being a step-mother to two more. I have had the chance to raise three boys and three girls, encouraging them to be sensitive and still strong, confident but not (pardon the word) cocky. I’ve tried to show them that their gender shouldn’t be an obstacle, but rather, an opportunity.
The other morning, I got up early to run with my husband, Jonny, before the sun came up. I am lucky to have found a guy who likes the fact that his wife can run and bike and motorcycle alongside him. After we returned home, I grabbed my boogey board and met up with my older daughter’s boyfriend who was going to surf. As we waited to catch some waves, I looked around. There were only guys out there but I didn’t care. There were also only people under the age of 40, and I’m 58. How funny. How wonderful. I’m still defying the boundaries of gender, still a tomboy who refuses to grow up.