One sister and nine misters: on growing up a girl in a boy-filled house

Lulu Le Vay grew up surrounded by brothers. She recalls how her life was defined by a desire to be 'one of the boys' – and how she finally made peace with her feminine side

At six years old I recall the devastation that I felt when my mother informed me that I would never be able to grow a beard – or sideburns, or a moustache – like my father and my nine brothers. This was a defining moment, when I realised that my sex set me apart from the rest of my siblings. That I was different.

Compared with most families I know, mine raises more intrigued eyebrows than an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Imagine The Waltons with a sprinkling of Woody Allen dysfunction (de rigueur: my father was Jewish) and you're almost there. It's complicated to explain at friends' dinner parties or during a conversation with a probing stranger down the pub, but after much practice I've got the explanatory patter down to a digestible script. My fraternal twin, Josh, and I are the youngest of my father's 11 children. With the help of two women, he managed, between 1940 and 1970, to "contribute" to the spawning of nine sons and two daughters. As I often conclude – after the obligatory sultry wink – "he was looking to create perfection so stopped, naturally, when he had me". This explanation is far preferable to admitting to being the accidental runts of the litter. At 55 and 40, my parents had the responsibility of nine children between the ages of eight and 30 – quite enough to handle without a final booby prize of twins chucked in for good measure. We were loved, but were a ball-ache to cope with, especially for my sister, who, at 15, was dragged into a stinky sea of nappies before she jumped ship for the peace of full-time study.

Being the youngest child, surrounded by boys growing up, naturally had an impact. I idolised them and was always desperately seeking admittance into the brother fold. From sitting in my elder brothers' rooms for hours on end stroking imaginary chin fluff and rolling Rizla papers into pretend cigarettes and irritating them by loitering during band practice, through to jumping out of tree houses and hurling myself into lakes (near-death was a daily occurrence), I embraced a masculine edge. There was no room to be a girly-girl if I wanted to fit in. Undoubtedly these early experiences have influenced my career, which has included music journalism and artist management – roles traditionally taken by men. Being in the minority at work has never fazed me; if anything, I've felt more comfortable around men than around women. I embrace tough sports such as boxing and long-distance running and I now work in marketing for a group of London gyms and write for a running magazine.

Alongside these "traditionally" considered boyish activities and interests, as a young adult I was also considered "unfeminine" – through, that is, the smudgy societal lens – by towering over other girls, and many boys, at an Amazonian 5ft 11in with size-9 feet (sadly, supermodel rules did not apply in sleepy East Sussex). Trainers were default footwear and as a bit of a chubby girl back then, frocks were not a viable option. Thanks to my ruddy cheeks and a home-massacred bowl-like hairdo, I was often mistaken for another brother. I struggled to locate my feminine sense of self. My navigation points were blurry and remote. My mother's priorities understandably were elsewhere as she was left to cope on her own – my surgeon father worked abroad as often as he was able to – and my older sister had catapulted from the nest long before.

Spending my lunch money on teen-rags and observing the popular girls at school were my only compass. But I mostly flung myself into the wrong direction. Floundering and awkward, what emerged was prickly and challenging. By the age of 15, I made Robert Smith look more like Delia. My father, on visits to our house post-divorce, used his newspaper as a goth shield, refusing to look at me. As his younger daughter I wasn't quite the princess he had hoped for.

Interestingly, it wasn't until his death 12 years ago that my feminine self truly began to emerge. I shed weight, started wearing heels and grew a penchant for sexy threads. The somewhat iron-like shutters began to dissolve. I not only softened but I slowly began to flourish into the woman I am today. Therapist Victoria Davenport believes this is not uncommon: "Women with lots of brothers often 'come out' as feminine in later life," she says. "For many, if they had done so as children it would have meant they were different when all they wanted to do was to fit in."

But the beginnings of this change were ignited a few years earlier. In my mid-twenties, after several years working in record shops – more interested in clubbing than anything to do with the self or gender – my curiosity to explore my entangled masculine/ feminine persona took a more academic position. My undergraduate dissertation explored notions of femininity and masculinity through female-to-male cross-dressing. For research I participated in a "drag king" workshop led by US performance artist Diane Torr. My boobs were taped down, I wore a pinstripe suit and finally had the sideburns as a child I'd always wanted. I hated it. The moment I got home, I ripped it all off and put some lippy on, almost sobbing with relief. I'd had an epiphany: I realised femininity was a strength – not a weakness – and I was ready to let it seep through those masculine cracks.

I am aware that being surrounded by an army of brothers may have impacted in some negative ways during my self-development. High academic achievement was normalised and encouraged among the boys – the current line-up radiates three professors, three published authors and a lawyer – and my exclusion and discouragement were based purely on my gender. My father believed "hotel and catering" was a suitable career path and was stunned when I had my first feature published in a national newspaper. It is due to these early knocks that my academic confidence has only just now found its footing. I aced a Masters in media and gender studies last year and am about to embark on a PhD. I often wish my father was still alive so I could rub his hairy face in it.

But now, as an adult, despite my grumbles, I can appreciate the edge it has given me. At 42, I have never felt so womanly. I have been able to fight my own corner and carve my own way in the world. I am an unusual woman with an array of experiences and interests, and more importantly I understand the importance of the strong female role model, which I continually aspire to be – for my students, my younger work colleagues and my nieces and cousins. I am an alpha female and I would do nothing to change the person I have become.

I'm still often the only woman in meetings, but the only difference now is that I might be painting my nails while chairing it.

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