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.

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
premier league
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam