I have three distinct memories from when I was around eight years of age. I was very tall when I was in primary school, especially “for a girl”. I was one of the tallest in my year grade. I was even taller than my older and younger brothers. This was a point of pride for me. I liked being bigger and stronger than the boys. I remember how it felt when I would challenge my older brother to an arm wrestle and beat him three times in a row. In my dance classes I was always one of the girls who had to play the boy’ parts, because of my height. Sometimes this kind of thing annoyed me, sometimes it didn’t.
My first distinct memory is a story about me sticking up for a friend. She was the smallest girl in our grade. One day I saw her being picked on and pushed around by a boy in our grade, who had a bit of a reputation for being awful. I went up to him and said, “leave her alone”. It was very dramatic. He moved closer to me to size me up. He was half my height and at the time a very stringy, lanky boy. He didn’t seem to notice these obvious inadequacies. ‘You want a fight? Come on, hit me.’ He put his fists up in front of himself. I remember thinking ‘I’m probably going to fight this kid.’
Just before one of us threw the first punch, a teacher approached us, pulled us apart and sat us down on two separate benches. I saw her talking to the boy, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Then she came over to me. ‘Why were you going to fight him Grace?’ I looked at her unperturbed. ‘He was picking on my friend and pushing her’. She said something that has always stuck with me, even now. ‘We don’t fight Grace, it’s unladylike.’ I remember thinking something along the lines of: what the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Feelings stick in your memory more than words.
When I was seventeen I cut all my hair off, opting for a pixie cut. This was something I had been wanting to do for some time. My whole life my Mum had always had a pixie cut. There was a particular cut that she had, that I had always thought looked very cool. What took me by surprise were the reactions from peers and family members. The day before I got my haircut, I was telling a peer, and another girl overheard and interjected with genuine concern, ‘why would you do that to yourself?’ To be honest, I found it quite amusing, and still enjoy a good laugh from it today; that doesn’t mean it didn’t disturb me though. After I had cut it, one of my favourite teachers, a woman who had a pixie cut herself, said something to me. ‘I think it’s very brave for a girl your age to cut her hair off.’ I didn’t fully realise what she meant. I had cut my hair because I thought it would look cool; why does that make me brave?
Not long after I got my hair cut, I decided to get a third ear-piercing in my reverse tragus. One of my friends warned me, ‘be careful which side you get it on’. It concerned me that people still upheld homophobic attitudes alongside patriarchal ones. The two aren’t so separate, I guess.
When I experienced these things in my later teens, I began to think back to how I was when I was younger. I had heard the word ‘tomboy’ thrown around, however, I still had always identified with a lot of ‘feminine’ behaviours and looks. I wore ‘girly’ clothes and accessories, I experimented with lots of blue eyeshadow and mascara. It was only when I didn’t follow the script that I was ridiculed, or warned (often by other women) that I would be ridiculed.
As you could probably tell, I was an outspoken and confident kid from the beginning. I always got into heated and philosophical ‘discussions’ with my Dad and my uncle late at night after family dinners. I was often told that I was too outspoken. That I needed to ‘close’ my mouth, so that other people could have the chance to speak. I was told I was too bossy, always taking the lead in group activities, being the spokesperson for the group. That I needed to let others have the opportunity to take the lead. I was told that I’m too sensitive, too aggressive.
I’m still told a lot of these things today, and I’m starting to realise I’ll probably hear them my whole life. The difference, I’m less rattled by them now, because I know who I am now. That’s something that will only get stronger with time.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.