Authors: Jessi Klein
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For Mom & Da & Michael & Asher
veryone is charmed by a little tomboy. A scrappy little girl in overalls with a ponytail and scraped knees, who loves soccer and baseball and comic books and dirt. But what are we charmed by? It's not just that she's cute. It's that she so innocently thinks she's going to stay this way forever. But we all know she won't. And why is that?
Because as much as we like a tomboy, nobody likes a tom man.
You might be wondering, “What is a tom man? I've never heard this term before.” You are correct. That is because I invented it. It is the only thing I have ever invented.
A tom man is what happens when a tomboy just never grows out of it.
For as far back as I can remember, the voice in my head has sounded like the voice of a man. You might think the next thing I'm going to tell you has something to do with being gay, or thinking I'm a man trapped in a woman's body, but neither is the case. What I mean is that literally, walking around as a child, the little voice I'd hear narrating my own thoughts and experiences sounded like Daniel Stern in
The Wonder Years
. I think this is because the very idea of possessing an “inner voice” felt by definition like a male characteristic. In contrast, the tent poles of “femininity” as I observed themâhigh heels, eye makeup, Diet Coke, smiling, etc.âall seemed to be focused on the external. In any case, they felt completely foreign to me.
As a result, throughout my childhood, I felt like an outsider to being a straight girl, even though I WAS a straight girl.
My parents, perhaps noticing that my main recreational activity was counting the yellow cabs that went past our window, asked if I wanted to do ballet. I said absolutely not, as the idea of wearing a tutu repulsed me. I have a very early memory of viscerally hating, loathing, a girl in my preschool, simply because she wore earrings. The overt femininity of this act was somehow an irritant to me. Even though I was just four years old, I remember having the “What do you think, you're bettah than me?” feeling that a fifty-year-old plumber from Brooklyn feels when he has to take a detour because Prince William is in town.
To punish her I would ram my Big Wheel into her Big Wheel until she cried.
My only nod to typical girl interests was that I loved horses and devoured every book in the
series, and when I was finished with those books I would stare at the covers, taking in how beautiful horses were in general and the Black Stallion was in particular. Lots of people talk about the sexual undertones of girls' interest in horses, but I know that for me, when I stared at those pictures, I didn't have some secret desire to date the Black Stallion. I literally wanted to be a horse. A male horse.
But it's still acceptable to be a tomboy through elementary school. And even into the beginning of junior high, a girl who dresses or acts more like a boy can be filed under “coltish,” the adjective for the next age category. But I was pushing it. I didn't regularly brush my hair.
I didn't have any interest in makeup beyond the moment that I stole a pink frosted Wet n Wild lipstick in the fourth grade just because my friend Mara did.
In the sixth grade, I was allowed for the first time to eat lunch outside the confines of the school, and with this newfound culinary freedom I chose to eat a single street-cart hot dog every single day.
Once I reached high school, however, my transformation from Pippi Longstockingâesque tomboy to are-you-a-lesbian-or-what tom man began in earnest. I was supposed to be entering into the full bloom of puberty, nibbling, like a delicate baby panda, at the first tiny bamboo shoots of womanhood. But I resisted. Even though I was interested in men, and wanted a boyfriend desperately, I didn't relate to any of the activities women partake in to create the circumstances where a teenage boy might be coaxed into the role. I wore my dad's old button-down cowboy shirts with enormous shapeless jeans and combat boots. I have a memory of walking home from school one afternoon when a homeless man hanging out on the corner of my block felt compelled to inquire whether I was “a man or a woman.”
I looked like a mess during college, too, although I did manage at one point to get a decent little bob haircut (for free on a training night from Vidal Sassoon). While the girls around me were starting to exercise, hunching over a StairMaster in that way that people did in the '90s, sensing, as they should have, that now was the time to start laying a foundation upon which firm booties and high tits would remain forever tightly slung, I wasn't aware that any such activity was necessary. And it didn't ever occur to me to eat anything other than breaded chicken patties on Wonder Bread buns followed by a piece of cake. I've thought about it pretty hard, and I feel certain that I ate at least one of those chicken patties every single day for the full four years I was at school.
Somehow, in the midst of this, I did manage to wrangle up a boyfriend, but that didn't stop me from being a tom man. Even though he was, in fact, an actual man, he suffered from the same late-bloomer syndrome I did, wherein neither of us knew how to be a presentable adult. So essentially we ended up enabling each other, like drug addicts, except the only thing we were addicted to was looking terrible. When we moved in together after college, into a tired junior one-bedroom, we put our mattress on the floor, sleeping together like a couple of Labradors, blinking away the dust bunnies that cold breezes would blow into our faces. Even when I started working in an office, sartorially I still looked more than a smidge like a rodeo clown. I remember buying a pair of wide-legged parachute-material pants in gunmetal gray, and wearing those with bright-orange Adidas sneakers and a button-down short-sleeved blouse I got on sale from Banana Republic for $29.99. All my shirts, throughout my entire twenties, cost $29.99.
And perhaps because my boyfriend was also desperately inexperienced, and thus had very few demands, I didn't feel the need to participate in any of the seductive arts. I wore Hanes Her Way underwear every single day, no exceptions. Because they were the “bikini” kind I felt like pretty hot shit, but make no mistake, for me “her way” meant plain white cotton with a little bit of pubic hair sticking out the sides.
Once he and I broke up, I suddenly found myself single, with the predicament of having to get naked in front of new men. I felt lost, like a monkey born in captivity that, despite a researcher's attempt to release it back into the wild, cowers in the corner of its cage, desperate for its safe old life.
I was still essentially feral, and beyond shaving my legs above the knee, I made few noticeable external changes. But for the first time, I started dating guys who gave me unsolicited feedback on my appearance.
I remember I was once resting my legs on a boyfriend's lap as we lolled about on the couch. He looked down at my toenails and said, “So you never use nail polish, huh?” I stared down at my feet. My toenails were bare and, truth be told, the ends were a little ragged. They were the toenails of someone who had just scaled a cliff, except I hadn't scaled anything (ever). I felt a pang of primal shame, the female grooming equivalent of Eve suddenly losing her innocence upon realizing that she was naked, like a total idiot.
Then there was the night I arrived at a bar to meet my old friend Kate. Kate is a guy's gal, but she is not a tom man. She's more of a Katharine Hepburnâstyle broad, a ball-busting pants wearer who is still very feminine. I was arriving straight from work, which meant I was carrying my huge maroon backpack, overflowing with papers and books and loose change and probably a CD Walkman. After giving her a hug, I lowered my backpack onto the floor. Kate stared at it for a moment, as if it were a puppy that had just shit on a white rug, and then leaned in toward me and put her hand on my knee.
“Jess, you know I love you,” she said, “but your backpack is hurting my feelings.”
I was taken aback. This wasn't a boyfriend telling me that he thought my butt looked big in a skirt. This was a friend, an amiga, a woman with no investment in my appearance beyond platonic affection. And still, she felt it necessary to inform me that I had crossed a line.
At the time of the backpack incident, I was probably around thirty, and like my little-girl tomboy self I had nontraditional interests. I was doing stand-up comedy, which meant that I was hanging out in dive bars and telling jokes to strangers. I was proud that I had finally gathered up the guts to pursue this weird calling that I'd felt I had since I was a ten-year-old girl dressed as Groucho Marx for Halloween.
But dressing like Groucho for Halloween when you're ten is different from dressing like Groucho as a consistent style choice when you're thirty. I was single and living by myself in a dark sublet across from the BQE in Brooklyn and I wanted to get out of there. I was sick of dating funny but emotionally stunted guys. I wanted to find a Grown Man. It seemed only fair, I decided, that if that was what I wanted, then I should make some attempt to become a Grown Woman. But when I looked at what it would mean to become a womanâone of those standard grown-up ladies, like the ones from commercials for gum or soda or shampooâit all seemed to involve shrinking rather than growing.
Â This led to an epic impromptu comb-out by my friend's little sister Gracie one Sunday afternoon. As it turns out, I had a matted hairball the size of a pregnant hamster living at the nape of my neck.
Â I learned later, to my complete horror, that my mother has held on to this lipstick and has been using it for
. This kind of unself-consciously gross behavior, of course, was part of what my tom manhood was modeled upon.
here are only a few commercials from my childhood that remain vivid in my memory. Some of them are imprinted because they were selling products I wanted very badly. At the top of my list was the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, a plastic doghouse in which you stuffed ice in the door and poured syrup into the chimney, then turned a handle a few times, and voilÃ , you got a sno-cone. I still remember the exact notes of the jingle and how this toy seemed to combine everything I wantedâsugar, cold, Snoopy, something we couldn't afford. Other ads I remember because despite the fact that they ran constantly, I was too young to figure out what they were really selling. Of these, the one I recall most vividly is that famous spot for Calgon, in which a beautiful woman who's seriously about to lose her shit tells us about everything that is making life unmanageable: “The traffic! [Shot of apocalyptic 1970s traffic.] The boss! [Shot of clichÃ© mustachioed rapey boss yelling into a telephone.] The baby! [Shot of clichÃ© baby crying.] THE DOG! [Shot of an adorable sheepdog who doesn't appear to have done anything wrong, but whose existence has pushed her over the edge for some reason.] That does it!” she declares, submitting to her nervous breakdown. “Calgon, TAKE ME AWAY!”
They would then cut to her in an enormous circular tub overflowing with bubbles. The set was in some kind of pseudo-Greco-Roman columned whitespace, but it had the same remote feeling as the sets on
âas if she'd totally left earth behind. Even the word
itself seemed galactically foreign, like
. But wherever she was, she was happy. “I LOVE IT,” she reported from the spacetub, finally relaxed.
Despite watching this spot literally hundreds of times, I was never clear on exactly what product I was being sold. Was it the tub itself? If it was simply a bubble bath, what would be its relationship to the dog and the boss and the baby and the traffic?
Looking back, I realize the reason I was so confused was because I didn't get the notion of a bath as something transporting, as an escape from the overwhelming pressure of the average female life. To me a bath was just a bath, and I never particularly liked taking baths. Calgon was selling the bath as a solution to a problem I was too young to understand.
Then I grew up.
I now understand that there is a whole cottage industry around bathing. And though it existed before Oprah, Oprah blew that shit way up. For years, she has championed the notion of bathing as the ultimate luxury, the place and experience where she is her happiest. Given how much she talks about it, I am fairly certain she spends more time in water than on dry land. Just recently in
magazine, the magazine for people who love O(prah), she wrote an article about “letting go of things” in which she admitted that her most prized possession on earth was a bathtub she had had custom-made for her, hand-carved from (she repeats this over and over) a single piece of Italian onyx. She writes, “Those of you who regularly read this column know that bathing is my hobby.
I revel in all things that enhance the experience, which is why, over the years, you've seen so many bath products on âThe O List'â¦they delight my senses and help soothe me, body and soul.”
OKAY OPRAH WE GOT IT.
It seems like most women agree with Oprah. They love to take baths. But I never liked to and still don't. Besides Calgon, there are two other pop-culture images of women in the bath that come to my mind: One is Julia Roberts in
, up to her neck in bubbles and rocking out to Prince, happy in the knowledge that soon Richard Gere will buy her out of prostitution! The other is of Glenn Close at the end of
, seemingly drowned by Michael Douglas but then popping up one last time with a kitchen knife before getting shot in the chest and sinking back into the water. It's exciting but sad.
I tend to think more about Glenn Close than Julia Roberts.
To me there has always been something vaguely miserable about bathing. The soaking, the sitting, the water getting dirty and cold, the inevitable random hair floating up against your skin, the pruning. It always makes me feel like I am stewing up the world's saddest soup out of myself. It hurts my neck. (I've thought about getting an inflatable bath pillow from Bed Bath & Beyond, but every collection of online product reviews contains at least one written by some angry woman who has been deeply disappointed that the bath pillow subtracted from, rather than enhanced, her experience. This is a risk I cannot afford.) I get hot and thirsty in the bath and when I stand up I always feel like I'm going to pass out. Because I feel less clean than when I got in, I have to take a shower afterward. Ultimately, it feels like I've gone backward, hygiene-wise.
But these are just my physical issues with the bath. My conceptual problems with bathing begin with the very same ideology some adman for Calgon decided to trade on forty years ago: the idea that the bath is the last space a woman can escape to, like a gazelle fleeing a lion by running into water up to her head. I feel like getting in the bath is a kind of surrender to the idea that we can't really make it on land, that we've lost the fight for a bedroom corner or even just our own chair in the living room. And once the bath becomes our last resort, a Stockholm syndrome occurs. We cede all other space to the husbands or boyfriends or kids and then convince ourselves that this is awesome! Yay, I'm submerged in a watery trough! This is incredible! This is my happy place! I definitely wouldn't prefer to just be lying in my own bed watching
Bachelor in Paradise
! I would much rather have grainy bath crystals imprinting into my butt than be in my own room! This is PERFECT!
I realize I'm being harsh here. And judgey. I know I know I know. It's just there's something so sad-lady about the bath to me, so Cathy cartoon. And I'm probably going overboard. But there is one more important point to consider:
Men don't take baths. There are exceptions, of course, but like all exceptions they prove the rule. I know they don't take baths because I have never known a man who likes to take baths except in cases of extreme medicinal need. Also, I went on Facebook and conducted a very scientific poll, asking hundreds of friends if any of the men, or the men that the women know, take baths. And the answer, almost across the board, was no. Some men wrote of hating them and finding them disgusting, and moreover being completely bewildered by women's fascination with them.
I asked my husband, Mike, why he thinks women are so obsessed with baths.
“Maybe because women like to smell good? Women care about smelling good. Or because they get to use products? Women like products. Oh, orâmaybe because they get to be weightless!”
(The weightlessness was something I hadn't considered. I remember going to the Hayden Planetarium a few years ago and finding an area where you could stand on different scales to see what you would weigh on other planets. One woman was getting on a scale to weigh herself on the moon and she handed her purse to her friend. SHE HANDED HER PURSE TO HER FRIEND so that she wouldn't THROW OFF HER WEIGHT ON THE MOON.)
Men do not care about being weightless. But I think there is a bigger reason that they hate to bathe as much as women love it.
I think it's because they sense what I know: that the bath is where you go when you've run out of options.
I worry that one day I will be a mother who ends up in the bath, reading a water-crinkled old book that I've been trying to finish for over a year, squeezing the last gloops of peppermint something or other from a plastic bottle into the water, wishing that there was more space for me than this.
This is why Virginia Woolf stressed the importance of having a room of one's own. If you don't fight for it, don't insist on it, and don't sacrifice for it, you might end up in that increasingly tepid water, pruning and sweating while you dream of other things.
Â Oprah's hobby is BATHING.