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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Building a Tomboy Life

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“So God created man in His own image;

in the image of God He created him;

male and female He created them.

...Then God saw everything that He had made,

and indeed it was very good.”

(Gen. 1:27, 31, NKJV)

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary a tomboy is “a girl who behaves in a manner usually considered boyish.”[1] Despite how God made me (female), as a child, I so dearly wanted my dad’s approval and eventually so thoroughly despised my mom’s passivity—which I attributed to her femininity—I began to identify as and make myself into a tomboy.

I didn’t like hanging out with girls or doing what I perceived to be girly things. (Which was another reason I didn’t develop friendships with other girls in my childhood.) Playing with baby dolls, dressing-up pretty, and putting on make-up weren’t for me. With time, I grew to hate wearing the dresses we were required to wear to school and to church. I would wear shorts underneath my dresses so I could be free to play and do whatever I wanted in a dress. I would feel naked and de-humanized if I ever had to go anywhere without shorts under my dress.

At home, where I ruled because of being the oldest and because of having a very passionate, assertive (bossy) nature, I could be in charge of my life. And I was, or so I thought.

Before we moved from the city of Boulder out into the country, my parents bought a tract of land (eventually 7 acres) from a member of our church, who already lived out there, to build a house on. With the help of friends who were contractors, they proceeded to build the new house we would eventually live in. (Very sadly, the house my parents built back then, and much later sold to new owners, burned to the ground in the 2021 hurricane fires there.)

Sometimes I or my siblings got to “help” in the building process. But mostly, we just played on the construction site. At first all we had to play with was dirt, rocks, and mud and tools hanging around. I don’t know how many times my parents went searching for a tool (crowbar, hammer...) or materials (rebar, a small piece of plywood or a 2x4...), only to find I was using them as part of a “town” or “village” that I was engineering with the help of my siblings. Even though I started to catch on that the tools and larger materials where generally off-limits and the scraps were free, with time, the rule became that I needed to ask before using anything.

As the building progressed, I would forget this rule, and find scraps of wood or other materials that I thought were left over and start building my own house. Not a few times I had to dismantle a whole “mansion” that had rooms for each of my siblings (using larger pieces of plywood and longer 2x4 boards as supports—like my dad did), because I had used wood my dad needed. The frustration I felt at having to tear down something I had spent literally hours creating was enough to help me remember this rule. At times it was hard to remember because I could not build the elaborate structures I wanted to. And sometimes it was hard because I could only build knowing that my materials were on loan until my dad needed them. I grew to really love building these “houses,” and I was continually modifying or adding a wing on to them. I loved building them even more than playing in them.

It was while building all these “houses” of mine that I learned to moderate some of my bossiness. I learned I had to get the cooperation of my siblings to have enough material to make what I wanted to build. If they insisted any of the materials that I wanted were theirs, my parents would be on their side. If I tried to take those materials away, I’d lose them altogether. I could only possibly use those materials if I invited and included my siblings in the right way in my building project.

I don’t know how many “houses” I built, but it was quite a few. And this obsession to build continued long after the house my parents built was completed. Sometime with my siblings’ help and sometimes not, I built houses on stilts when my dad was irrigating the back yard. I built a house over the ditch, that sometimes ran with water and sometimes didn’t, at the back of our yard. I built partial above and below ground houses by digging the dirt out from under a construction. I built houses out of snow in the winter.

With my siblings, and the neighbor boys, I tramped down the tall grass or alfalfa (like clover) and made a “home” space with connecting paths to other “homes”—so we could each have a home. In this way we tramped out a whole village. I learned I could get into deep trouble doing this in our neighbor’s fields, since they were trying to grow a crop of alfalfa to sell. It also became unsustainable in our own fields when my parents got a calf that pastured and grew to be a large bull there.

I think the most concerning to my parents was the underground house I carved out of the earth with the help of my siblings and the neighbor boys. It was at the top of the field above where our house was situated a fair distance from the house. My parents were worried—and not without reason—that the walls might cave in with one or all of us in it and that we wouldn’t be able to get out or get help quickly enough. They put enough healthy fear in me, that I was very careful myself and with my siblings going in and out of it. We weren’t to dig it too wide or deeper than our shoulders standing up—though I didn’t ask whose shoulders. None of us were supposed to go there alone—though I admit I did retreat there to run away from home fairly often. At least once or twice after getting in trouble for one thing or another. And occasionally to escape my parent’s and younger siblings’ demands. We were supposed to bring a whistle with us. I also learned how to whistle loudly using my hands, so I could alert someone if we needed help. Eventually, I started trying to engineer a trapdoor for an alternate escape route—with the intent to start building upwards. My dad put a halt to the idea of building above that underground space. Now I can imagine all kinds of reasons why this would have been a bad idea.

I'd always wanted a tree house. My next project idea was for a two- or three-story tree house in a tree near the underground hide-away. I think my parents wanted to divert my attention to something closer to home.

Instead, my dad bought lumber, poles, and half-cut trees (for the exterior). And when he could, he helped us build what our neighbors jokingly called, “Shelli’s castle.” The fort had a child-sized, two- to three-story tower on each corner and walk-ways between each tower. It had a drawbridge, that we mostly used as a ramp. One of its best features was a tire swing that hung from the middle of the fort on a horizontal pole supported by two tall side poles. Because my dad was so busy, it took a couple of summers or more to build. Before it was fully completed, my interest in building and in this fort had waned.

In my later childhood years my interest in riding bikes began to increase. When the bull wasn’t in the field, and when there wasn’t either snow to shovel paths through, or tall grass to tramp down, with the help of my siblings, I would mark bike trails all over the field with sticks and rocks to outline them.

I rode round and round on those paths, sometimes adding to them or adjusting or connecting them. My siblings and the neighbor boys sometimes joined me. I liked the feel of flying that came from the few minor jumps and of dropping into the dips, but those jumps and dips weren’t my favorite part. What I liked best was creating patterns as I rode the trails and the adrenaline rush of speeding through the designs I had made as fast as I could, while adding a different route to my routine each time. I only had one good wipe-out that I can remember, and it was from going off-trail—onto our gravel driveway, which was like riding on marbles. I got some good bruises and road-rash from that crash.

After living in the country for a year or two, when I was about eight years old, another member of our church and his wife, with their three boys, bought the tract of land next to ours and built a home there. Their two oldest boys were a year older and a year younger than I was. Their youngest son was my brother’s age.

Once the oldest boy figured out that I was not interested in being second to his first and still-favorite girlfriend, we were able to be playmates of sorts—on rare occasions. His younger brother came over and played much more often than he did.

This middle boy once joined us in hiking out to a lone hill in the middle of a spacious field behind our properties. We had found pieces of a broken-up plastic kiddy pool in our yard after one of the big windstorms that often swept the plains east of Boulder. We had been using them as slides for sliding down that dirt hill. It was a blast flying down the hill in whatever position, and it wasn’t too significant of a climb back to the top. Finally, we invited this boy to come with us. He used to drool when he was concentrating, and his nose would run a lot. By the time we returned home, his already very freckled face was covered with mud and dried-on dirt as well. His mom got very angry at us girls for this. Or so we thought.

His mom didn’t seem to like her two older boys playing with us anyway, which seemed strange to me, since they moved to live next door to us on purpose. After this episode the middle boy was grounded from playing with us for a few weeks at least. Actually, his mom did also mention something about that hill being the remains of an old mining site, and that we shouldn’t have been out there in the first place, and that it was private property. She also called our parents, and we weren’t allowed to go out to that hill anymore. We thought it was an overly severe reaction for our getting her boy so dirty!

In time the neighbors built a small basketball court for their boys. I would go over and practice dribbling and shooting hoops—usually while they were eating dinner or gone somewhere else. They didn’t seem to mind my being out there, as long as the boys weren’t with me as well. Eventually, even as short as I was, I was able to dribble and shoot better than most boys and girls around my age.

I don’t think the boys liked it very much, the very few times we did play together—against each other—that I could beat them at their own game. Basketball wasn’t so fun to play alone. It never translated into anything serious sports-wise for me.

My leaning away from what I perceived as feminine or “sissy” things, towards what the guys were doing, included a great envy of the activities of the cub scouts and boy scouts, which were sponsored for the boys through our church. They got to go boating and canoeing, shoot arrows and guns, go on campouts and hikes, and do all kinds of other great outdoor activities. While the girls were expected to learn how to sew and embroider, bake and cook, babysit, and clean house, and other seemingly, ultra-boring things. This envy didn’t stop until I started doing these kinds of things myself, with my dad or boyfriends, later on in my teen years.

And it wasn’t until even later, when and after I met Jesus, that I began to be content with and find joy in learning to be the person God created and provided for me to be—including being female. I can’t say I regret growing up as I did, envisioning myself a tomboy, except for the heart of disrespect, even of deep disdain, that I fostered for females who seemed to like and pursue what I considered to be girlish or “wimpy.” I regret the contempt I nurtured toward my mom and toward women in general—for truly imaginary reasons. It injured my ability to have self-respect and to enjoy healthy, balanced relationships. I especially missed out on having a sweet relationship with my mom—whose out-of-the-box thinking had, without my being aware of it, influenced so much of my creativity. It showed a lack of trust in the good and faithful God who made me.

Now, I see this attitude as pure foolishness. I understand that in Christ, my identity isn’t in my sexuality at all. It is in Him and in belonging to Him. It is in becoming like Him with the Help of His Spirit. It is in serving Him, by serving and loving others, like He served and loved us while He was on the earth.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be answerable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be answerable to the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be answerable to the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” ~ Jesus (Matt. 5:21-22, NASB)



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