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The Vocal Local: How the patriarchy took my childhood

At the age of eight, Mia Bleach announced to family and friends that she wanted to be a boy. Mostly she just wanted to play football, but there was more to it than that – she wanted to run on a level playing field.

“Who told you you could wear makeup?”

My 11-year-old cousin’s eyes darted around the kitchen in perplexed amusement at her uncle’s gentle mocking. She’d spent the afternoon transforming herself into a version of Wednesday Addams: wonky plaits, patchy white powder and perfectly symmetrical eye flicks, formed with sellotape.

“Your auntie has skin as smooth as silk, and d’you know why? Because she never puts a scrap of paint on her face. It’s poison!”

It was all in good fun, for her uncle at least. My cousin didn’t know what to say. Together we turned it around, telling him he could use a bit of makeup himself, if he’d only sit still for a minute. There was laughing and some mild protest. But as my cousin reached for the sparkly eyeshadow, her uncle shut it down: “If someone doesn’t want something done to their body, you have to respect that.”

It takes courage to reap joy from anything defined as typically ‘girly’. Dolls are for babies. Flowers are soppy. Pink is weak. Dresses are for girls. Girls are… bad?

It’s true, I thought that evening, as I removed my own makeup in front of the bathroom mirror. And by the same token, if my cousin wants to put makeup on her body, her uncle has to respect that too.

But in the moment – in the kitchen with my cousin and her uncle, and her auntie with her hands in the washing-up – my mind drew a blank. The mood had shifted. The patriarch had spoken.

***

Growing up, it takes courage of conviction to experiment with makeup in the frowning face of the patriarchy. You certainly risk being called “silly”, “shallow” or “vain”; you may be told you look like a “clown” or a “prostitute” or accused of “trying to look older” for male approval. Even though men “prefer the natural look”, apparently. It’s hard to keep up.

In fact, it takes courage to reap joy from anything defined as typically ‘girly’. Dolls are for babies. Flowers are soppy. Pink is weak. Dresses are for girls. Girls are… bad?

Boys are good. Boys are strong. Sport is serious. Fire, Power Rangers, guns.

When I was eight years old, I practically took notes on the rhetoric and devoured it whole. I sucked it into my soul and etched it on my heart because I needed male approval like lungs need air.

***

When I told my parents I wanted to be a boy because I liked climbing trees and playing football, they gently pointed out that I could be a girl and like those things. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted my interests to be taken seriously. I wanted to be taken seriously. And how could I achieve that if I was encumbered by a Laura Ashley dress, pigtails, and stick-on sun-and-moon earrings? Well, I couldn’t. It was all or nothing.

My classmates roared with laughter the first time I came into school with a bowl cut. I put my white-blonde head of newly chopped hair on my desk and hid my face in my hands but I knew that in the long run, it would be worth it. I was joining the winning side.

Now I had short hair, people were mistaking me for a boy all the time, and each misconception sent a rush surging through my veins that was so strong, even sherbet Dip Dabs couldn’t match it. It lead to some incredibly elaborate on-the-spot lies that I drew my little brother into, including one where we ‘convinced’ my mum’s colleagues that they’d been mistaken all these years about me being a girl. That I’d always been a boy. We did have a sister… who’d just been born. Why hadn’t our mum mentioned the new baby before? We didn’t know. What a buzz.

Praise! From boys! And all I’d had to do was stomach weeks of knock-backs whilst I infiltrated their ranks and rejected my gender.

To be clear, I really did like climbing trees, and I especially liked football. It’s how the whole charade started. Football and being a boy seemed intrinsically linked. It was the mid-’90s, and there was no room for girls on the field. I was laughed off the pitch, called a “skirt” and, true enough, accused of trying to get boys to like me. I wanted boys to like me and I wanted to play football. So I kept trying. It was hard.

It took a long time before the boys in my class let me join their breaktime matches, and they were irritated at first, swearing under their breath as they dribbled round me like I was a saucer cone. But eventually, they had to admit that I’d “got quite good, for a girl”.

“Bleach is good, she stays with you,” shouted James to no-one in particular, deflecting the embarrassment of me having blocked his shot. Scott nodded sagely in agreement. Praise! From boys! And all I’d had to do was stomach weeks of knock-backs whilst I infiltrated their ranks and rejected my gender. This was so worth it.

During that same match, my best friend Nat ran across the pitch. She was being chased by another girl and they were laughing. The ball bounced off the back of Nat’s head but she seemed oblivious to it. My eyes followed them as they weaved past the hopscotch and the big frog bin. We used to play like that together all the time. I felt annoyed. Girls just didn’t understand the importance of football. I grit my teeth and got my head back in the game.

When a boy in the year above saw me practising my ninja kicks in the playground and said: “You used to be all like, Little Red Riding Hood. But now you’re cool,” I felt like I’d finally made it.

If this all sounds faintly ridiculous, it’s because it was. It was also fun and scary and sad and isolating and empowering and embarrassing and exhilarating. And it all felt absolutely necessary. I’d shattered the playground’s glass ceiling; well, cracked it, a bit. But at what cost?

Alone with my thoughts, I knew I didn’t really want to be a boy. I didn’t want a willy – (I once attempted to wee standing up in a public toilet, resulting in a sort of high squat over what I’m pretty sure was a bidet) – I just wanted to be accepted and liked. But I’d fight my thoughts; tell myself I had to keep the act up or I’d never be taken seriously. I was tired. I knew I was playing a game with the adults in my life – how far will they let me push this? – I just didn’t know I was playing myself!

Wanting to be ‘one of the boys’ followed me right through to adulthood. As a twenty-something graduate I scored a job on a lads’ mag and pretended to love it.

Besides. The boys only tolerated me playing football with them, they didn’t want me there. And one boy I particularly liked had started calling me “mop-head” on account of my grown-out bowl cut. My mum had had it with me leaving football stickers and Pogs everywhere. “This isn’t what a girl’s dressing table is supposed to look like,” she hissed, sweeping firecrackers into her palm. She’d also started referring to football as “kicking a stupid ball around a stupid field”. Things started to come to a head when I announced that I wanted to be called Jamie and then preceded to ignore my dad, who I was in the middle of a conversation with, because he’d addressed me incorrectly. I remember him shouting my name over and over, louder and louder, and sinking further and further into the sofa until I couldn’t not respond.

Dad never shouted. My act was getting old.
So if girls were sissies, and tomboys were try-hards… who exactly did the world want me to be?

***

I can’t remember how the phase fell away. My end-of-year school picture shows me sporting a checked summer dress and a bob with a heavy fringe typical of the time, so I guess I got bored after a few months. But the sentiment of my wanting to be ‘one of the boys’ followed me right through to adulthood in various other guises: the teenage Pick-Me Girl that “just gets on better with guys”; the twenty-something graduate that scored a job on a lads’ mag and pretended to love it. (At the office, I was ignored at best, detested at worst. One senior staff member took to calling me a “stupid fucking cow – it’s a joke!” Another story for another time.)

***

My deep need for male approval began to lose steam shortly after I had an article published for the Guardian, in which I naively attempt to wrap feminism up in a neat little package and put a bow on it. I was in the process of rebuilding my self-esteem after quitting my horrible job, trying to make sense of it all and basking in the grateful glow of being treated like a human being – an equal, in spite of my private parts – whilst working at another lads’ mag. (Apparently it was enough just to do a good job. Who knew?)

The commenters tore my article to shreds and I was forced to swallow the bitter pills I’d been retching up for years – that we live in a patriarchal society (a term I’d just learnt); that men and women are different; that life isn’t fair, just like Mum always said. And in accepting that feminism is too big to be giftwrapped for consumption, I was released.

I was 25 when that feature went to press. And not long after, my freshly sealed frontal lobe realised I didn’t actually need the patriarchy’s blessing.

***

I’m 35 now, and still play football sometimes. But that I felt I had to ‘become a boy’ to play in the first place – to be taken seriously and treated fairly; to feel acceptable and accepted – breaks my heart. My inability to properly speak up for my cousin when her uncle mocked her makeup is the patriarchy’s omnipotence in action. Maybe when I’m 45, I’ll be able to find the words – find the balls – to tell Uncle where to stick it.

Mia Bleach is a freelance writer from Blackpool who is now based in Cornwall. Read a short story by her here.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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