In Our Words

Tomboys and Sneaker Fiends

by Lori Lobenstine

First let me be clear: not all female sneaker fiends are tomboys, and not all tomboys are sneaker fiends. I know some girly girls who rock Air Force 1's very nicely, and some kick ass female ball players who look like they've had the same set since the 80s.

That said, I'm both a female sneaker fiend and a tomboy, and I don't think that's a coincidence. To me, being a tomboy had nothing to do with wanting to be a boy, I just wanted to play sports. If I was the only girl "dirt biking" through the mud, so be it. I didn't really think about being the only girl out playing kickball or basketball at recess, because I was just playing with all my friends. Playing Little League, I was proud to be striking boys out while their teammates were chanting something stupid about "pitcher's name is Sally". If people called me a tomboy, I felt special.

As a "tomboy" growing up playing sports with boys, I wore sneakers day in and day out. Early on I started to notice the possibilities and meanings. Wearing high tops was a way to show the boys that I was serious. Just as boys were surprised that a girl could actually play ball, they were surprised that I had nice kicks. When I was the first girl to get high top Nikes in my school, I heard about it from a lot of guys. Never mind that some of them had them as well; they just didn't expect me, a GIRL, to have them.

The funny thing is, this dynamic hasn't changed much in the last thirty years. As Yamil, a nineteen year old sneaker fiend put it, "Well, with guys, I think people expect them to have the latest sneakers more than they expect a girl to have them. Like, in high school, if girls had really dope new sneakers, everybody would be like DAMN." Allyson, a twelve year old fiend, talked about the respect she got among guys in a slightly different context: "All the boys that hang with me, they're like, 'Don't step on her sneakers! Whatever you do, do NOT step on her sneakers! She'll strangle you if you step on her sneakers!'"

What does seem to have changed over the last thirty years is the dynamic around the term "tomboy". Back in the day, tomboy seemed to just mean that you were a girl who played sports, climbed trees, roughhoused, and, of course, wore sneakers. "LB", a thirty seven year old sneaker fiend who grew up with that meaning, easily identified as a tomboy: "I've always been a tomboy, and into sports, and not girlie, I mean like at any point in my life." If tomboys were alleged to grow into lesbians, no one had told us about it. I didn't hear about it until college, when a boy in one of my classes said, "I thought lesbians were just tomboys who didn't grow out of it." (Thereby offending every straight and gay female athlete in the room!) When I told LB that story, she said, "It didn't have that connotations back then, so. But I certainly would be afraid of that now." Now, many girls I interviewed shied away from the term. Allyson said, "There's a lot of girls that are tomboys, and there's a lot girls who just like sneakers." When I asked her about herself, she replied, "I just like sneakers." However, after I told her I'd always been a tomboy, she quickly identified as such, and talked about it a few times later in the interview, saying, "Well, I consider myself a tomboy", and "It's because I'm more of a tomboy, that's why I like wearing sneakers."

It might take a whole nother article to address why some tomboys (gay or straight) are scared of being thought of as lesbians, but Katrina, a straight twenty-seven year old sneaker fiend and ball player, didn't shy away from it. She took the "tomboy equals lesbian" connection right back to her skill rocking sneakers.

"For one example, one guy, he saw me, and, you know what I mean? I looked fly… But the way I was dressed, with my sneakers and the tongues, he was like, 'You're gay?' So, I looked at him, 'Do I look gay?' That's what I asked. I was like, 'No. Why I gotta be gay cuz what I got on?….You mad cuz I look better'n you?' He got all insulted, but…. I learned when people say that it be mostly the guys. Or if even a female say it, I be like, "You're mad cuz I can dress better than your man.' I can dress like a boy and still look fly. That's what I tell them. I learn to get past them. I just shut them out, cuz they hate that."

So let's go back to the beginning to help clarify all this. At the start I said a female sneaker fiend is not always a tomboy, and a tomboy is not always a sneaker fiend. Maybe this simple equation can be expanded to: a lesbian is not always a tomboy (hello--lipstick lesbians), and a tomboy is not always a lesbian. Add the sneaker fiend part, and the possibilities are many, from straight tomboy sneaker fiends, to gay girlie sneaker fiends, to bisexual tomboys who wear ugly-frugly sneakers, and so on. So, no assumptions in the world of nice kicks, OKAY?? Being a sneaker fiend means you love your kicks, that's it. If you want to love them with some girly matching bag-you go. If you want to love them with your girlfriend rocking a matching pair-much love. For the rest of the world that doesn't understand, keep it simple: just remind them that if they step on you or your sneakers, "you'll strangle them"!

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