Love Life Stories

I was a tomboy growing up – for all the wrong reasons

Before I get into this, I want to make something a clear: being a tomboy is totally fine. My story, though, wasn’t too great.

When I became a teenager, I became a tomboy, but to be honest, it wasn’t entirely by choice. Because I was Muslim, it was insisted upon that I dress a bit more conservatively, and when you do that, you automatically can’t wear a majority of girls’ clothes. But this honestly isn’t about religion making my life difficult or saying that there is anything wrong with the teachings of Islam – it’s simply about the inadvertent effect religion and culture had on my ideas of femininity and womanhood.

Everything with a cute front had a low, open or lace back. Everything with a color that suited me had a low neckline or no sleeves or was too tight. I didn’t wear shorts anymore. I didn’t wear skirts anymore. If I wore dresses, I wore leggings and sweaters, and those things pretty much always ruined the look in my opinion.

[bctt tweet=”When I became a teenager, I became a tomboy, but it wasn’t really by choice.” username=”wearethetempest”]

There was something “wrong” with everything I liked that was “girly.” I ended up going to a bunch of Sweet 16 birthday parties in my traditional Pakistani clothes, because I couldn’t find a dress, and feeling like the ugliest person there.

The only things that were made to look good (or what I thought was good) while still being conservative enough in terms of Islam were clothes that essentially made me look like a boy; my unisex t-shirt from Hot Topic with the Batman symbol on it became my favorite and most commonly worn shirt. I wore it with jeans and converse pretty much all the time.

Other than that, I just wore a lot of large, baggy sweatshirts with jeans and a t-shirt. Always one size up. I was considered too young for make up or threading or waxing (which is a significant detail considering I had one long, connected eyebrow). To put it lightly, I didn’t look too great (that’s an understatement), and I didn’t feel too great, either.

[bctt tweet=”The clothes that were conservative enough for my parents essentially made me look like a boy.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Something else happened during this time that I think is important to share. I started to internalize the criticism I received over my “girl” clothes to the point where I felt like just being a girl was inherently bad or something to be ashamed of.

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I distinctly remember writing in my diary night after night that I wished I had been born a boy; it felt like, if everything I wore was somehow wrong, maybe it wasn’t the clothes, maybe it was my female body.

Sometimes, during my prayers when I was speaking to God, I would apologize for being a girl. That is how much shame I felt.

I didn’t feel uncomfortable in more revealing or more feminine clothing, I felt ugly. And worst of all, I had this idea that trying to look good and feel good was somehow bad. I would go to the mall and cry.

[bctt tweet=”Sometimes, during my prayers to God, I apologized for being a girl.” username=”wearethetempest”]

My parents and friends probably thought I was frustrated that I couldn’t find “Muslim” things to wear that also looked cute. But that wasn’t it. It was about feminine clothes, not skin-showing clothes.

I wouldn’t even try on different, more feminine things, even if they were deemed “appropriate” by Islamic standards. If I did, I felt ugly and took them off, cried a little bit, and insisted that we leave the mall immediately.

Often times, I went home and cried more behind closed doors. Especially in the summer, when all of my friends wore pretty dresses and I still looked…well, the way I looked.

[bctt tweet=”I had this idea that trying to look good and feel good was somehow bad.” username=”wearethetempest”]

My self esteem was extremely low at that time. I didn’t know how to empower myself in regards to my appearance – I thought that doing so was immoral. Feeling ugly made me sad. Feeling pretty made me feel guilty, like I was a bad Muslim. There was no way to win.

When I got just a little bit older, my femininity started to feel like a switch that other people could turn on and off at will, and it was confusing, to say the least.

I was pushed to look as “non-female” as possible for so much of my adolescent life, but when I finally became comfortable in my asexual-looking wardrobe, it was insisted that I embrace my femininity. Not for myself, but for others.

[bctt tweet=”I was pushed to look as non-female as possible for so much of my adolescent life.” username=”wearethetempest”]

For example, if my family was invited to someone’s home for dinner and the crowd was primarily Desi or Pakistani or Muslim, it was insisted that I wear shalwar khameez and put on make up. I was suddenly encouraged to straighten my hair for these kinds of gatherings.

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These types of cultural incidents served to really blur a lot of lines for me. I wasn’t sure anymore why I had to dress the way I had been dressing.

I distinctly remember feeling very uncomfortable with a full face of make up and choosing not to wear it to my cousin’s engagement party, at which someone criticized me for being “rude” because I was not “dressed up” enough for the occasion.

[bctt tweet=”My femininity started to feel like a switch that other people could turn on and off at will.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I felt like no matter what, no matter what I wore, I couldn’t win. I couldn’t impress boys. I couldn’t fit in with my girlfriends. I couldn’t please the adults in my life.

And worst of all, I couldn’t even please myself.

If the problem was being a woman with a woman’s body, there was nothing I could do. I had learned to be comfortable and resigned with my hopelessly bad appearance, but never how to be confident about it.

[bctt tweet=”How I felt about myself came second to how men felt about me.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Don’t get me wrong.  I was taught some wonderful things as a child: the importance of inner beauty, the value of personality, kindness, empathy, and hard work.

I understand why love for my body and appearance in general was set aside. I really do. I’m not writing any of this to “bash” my parents; my parents are absolutely amazing.

I do, however, think it’s important to share my experience. Too many people think it’s just a matter of rebellious teenage Desi girls wanting to show skin and not being allowed to.

[bctt tweet=”I felt like just being a girl was inherently bad or shameful.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I want to show that there’s more to it than that, that there are deep, complicated emotions involved, and that we need to start thinking a little more carefully about how we speak to and treat girls, how we approach their relationship with their own femininity.

I was never clearly told it was also okay to feel beautiful the way I was told clearly to be modest. I was never told it was okay to feel sexy or how many different things “sexy” could mean (sometimes it’s just a new way of wearing eyeliner), not all of which were necessarily bad.

Essentially, it seemed like how I felt about myself came second to how men felt about me, because the embracing of femininity happened at the same time I became the “right age” for potential husbands to start looking at me. This may not have been the intention, but we need to consider how our words and actions are received – sometimes, they are not having the positive effect we think they are having.

[bctt tweet=”Feeling ugly made me sad. Feeling pretty made me feel guilty. There was no way to win.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Not so long ago, I cut off all my hair. Yes, all of it. My parents, being as awesome as they are, didn’t take any issue with it. I went to the local salon and asked for a pixie cut, and a few weeks later, I asked for it to be buzzed even shorter.

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I told myself and everyone else it was because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Emma Watson. I said I wanted to be edgy and cool, and for the most part, people thought I was, especially being a Desi girl, because Desi girls don’t do that. Without even trying, I made a statement.

What a lot of people don’t know (confession time) is that I cut my hair off because I gave up. I gave up on trying to feel like a beautiful woman, and on trying to please people, especially men. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and hair had always been my most prominent, feminine trait (I used to have over 24 inches of pin-straight, silky black hair), so that’s what I got rid of.

It was a statement, but not the statement everyone else perceived it to be.

It was me just giving up.

[bctt tweet=”I wasn’t just a rebellious teenage Desi, Muslim girl who wanted to show skin.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The good news? I’m not a tomboy anymore. Well, I am sometimes, but only when I want to be. How did that change?

One day, a very good friend figured out my story (friends can read your mind like that), took me shopping and pushed me very hard, against my will, to try on some really nice outfits. Things I never had the confidence to wear before, not all of which was in any way more revealing, by the way.

Some of it was just more fashionable or more feminine. Things that made me look less like a boy and feel more like a woman (although I realize that the idea of femininity is different for everyone).

[bctt tweet=”What a lot of people don’t know is that I cut my hair off because I gave up.” username=”wearethetempest”]

When I finally saw myself in the mirror that day, I was honestly amazed. I cried that day, not from disappointment, but because I was happy. Yes, even with my short hair! I was so happy that, for once, for the first time, I could look at myself and even without my conventionally-feminine hair, see a woman, and actually like what I see.

I’m about to turn 24. I’m not married. Regardless, I wear makeup pretty much every day and I love it. I go shopping just for fun. I take selfies and send them to my friends and my mom. I match my lipstick to some part of my outfit, whether or not I’m about to see someone I know that day. I smile when I get compliments.

[bctt tweet=”For the first time, I could look at myself, see a woman, and actually like what I see.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Sometimes, I even imagine myself in a TV show or movie when I walk down the street on a sunny day in an outfit that I love on me.

 beautiful girl GIF

And you know what? I don’t feel bad about it. I feel great. 

By Aafia Syed

Aafia is pursuing a Master's in Early Childhood Special Education at Bank Street College of Education. She is vocal about her personal challenges with mental illness and believes in bringing an end to both cultural and religious taboos. Her goals for the future include seeing Hamilton on Broadway, overcoming her own crippling stage-fright, and contributing to the destruction of the patriarchy.