The Gender Binary of Fashion

Rethinking how we support an unnecessary clothing binary

Chaidie Petris
Gender From The Trenches

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Image by author via Canva

The point of this article isn’t to say that we need to abolish gendered clothing ASAP because it contradicts my beliefs. Honestly, I don’t think we’re at a place where something like that would be very feasible, and besides, lots of people, including myself, actually like many gendered clothes. What I do want to talk about is something I think we can and should change in the near future: people shouldn’t feel limited in their fashion expression to the clothing sections that match the gender they were assigned at birth.

A quick reminder on identities and expression

Gender expression versus gender identity

Gender identity = gender you are in your brain (does not always align with sex assigned at birth).

Gender expression/presentation = the gendered or non-gendered way in which you express yourself, e.g. clothing, makeup, haircut, appearance, body language, etc.

Gender expression and identity don’t have to align! Well-known but non-exhaustive examples of this include cross-dressing, drag, and other cases in which someone’s gender identity doesn’t necessarily align with the way they present themselves. This isn’t just limited to ‘boys wearing dresses’, and is often a lot more subtle and complex.

Corporate and social levels

Corporate

We’re all pretty familiar with ‘Men’, ‘Women’, and ‘Kids’ sections of the clothing store. If you’re a cisgender person who is comfortable dressing in the section corresponding to your gender, you may not have even put much thought into these sections. It’s not something that’s likely to make you feel limited or ashamed unless it negatively affects you.

As a transgender, non-binary person, I’ve always felt consistently aware and intimidated by the signage and clear division. This isn’t necessarily because I think these sections should be eradicated to fit my needs, but, like many other transgender people, the social pressures that make crossing the line into the other section are really intimidating.

Social

When you were a baby you were probably dressed in one of those adorable pink or blue one-pieces, then in tiny jeans, doll-sized dresses, boy’s graphic tees, butterfly print leggings — until one day you announced to your parents that you were grown up enough to pick out your own clothes, and many of you probably made a B-line for the section aligning with your gender assigned at birth since your parents dressed you exclusively in those types of clothes. If not, you were probably guided back there by parents enough times for the thought pattern to set and for societal pressures to define your own habits.

These early experiences manifest in a certain kind of expectation when people go to the store. The expectation is that you and everyone around you will follow a rule — which none of you made but all of you uphold — that there are invisible borders you cannot pass, and clothes that you cannot put on. Many people uphold the rule without being fully conscious they are doing it. Until you want to cross the line, it’s hard to realize that it’s there at all (hence this article). Whenever I shop in the men’s section, salespeople usually either gender me as male, or ask if I’m shopping for a boyfriend/father/brother.

What’s the big deal?

Transgender people who don’t yet pass, or who are non-binary and present in an androgynous manner, experience types of discrimination that are normalized further by our societal need to make it such a big deal to shop in a section other than one aligning with the gender you pass as. If people feel uncomfortable shopping in a certain section, or are discouraged by family/friends from doing so, it can be a lot harder for them to come out to people who may have been unconsciously humiliating them for their fashion choices for years.

Destigmatizing opening up conversations about transitioning, and creating accepting environments isn’t a small matter.

Often, it’s quite literally a matter of life and death. A 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics study found that 50.8% of transgender male adolescents, 29.9% of transgender female adolescents, and 41.8% of non-binary adolescents who were part of the survey reported that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This, contrasted with the 7.4% of high school students who had attempted suicide according to the 2017 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, is no small number.

Feeling unsafe to exist as who you really are is a huge risk factor, and unaccepting/unsafe spaces drive these numbers. Fostering a nonjudgmental space when it comes to fashion and gender expression may seem small, and is indeed part of a much larger picture, but can really contribute to making queer youth feel more safe and accepted.

Beyond the discomfort experienced by many pre-transition transgender and non-binary people, the fact is that very few people (yes, even cisgender people) have a gender expression that 100% aligns with their gender assigned at birth. For one thing, intersex people are real and valid and their fashion choices can vary widely and align or not align with how people tend to gender them.

Fashion is, when it comes down to it, just a form of warmth and art you use to cover your body, and doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with your anatomy. Yes, there are different fits and styles, and I’ve heard the ‘but it’s just not flattering’ argument as much as you have, but if someone wants to dress in something that bothers you, ask yourself why it bugs you so much, or why it’s your business at all.

Fashion is a fun tool to express yourself, and despite debates on which fits are most flattering, not everyone wants something that was tailored for their body type, or your expectations.

What can you do?

Some ideas for what to say when a piece of clothing someone wants to wear makes you uncomfortable:

Support, even if you don’t understand: Instead of “But that’s a woman’s shirt, it’s just not meant to fit you,” try, “I hadn’t thought of that for you, but I want you to wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable and genuinely yourself.”

Start a conversation (non-aggressively): Instead of, “I know you, this just isn’t you. Why are you dressing like this all of a sudden?” try, “How does wearing that shirt/dress/etc. make you feel?” or, “What do you like about this style?”

If you don’t know, ask: Instead of “I don’t really get what’s going through your head or why you’re making these choices or how I’m supposed to react.” try, “Is there any way I can be more supportive of your fashion choices and gender expression?”

All about the little things

Creating change, as I see it, is all about the little supportive moves you can make for people who don’t fully present according to the way you think they should based on social pressures and gender norms. This 100% includes people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Don’t stigmatize girls dressing in boys’ clothes, or vice versa. Saying things like ‘that’s too feminine’ or ‘are you sure you don’t want something that enhances your figure more?’ can, even without being aware of it, support an unnecessary binary (and sexualization/misogyny) in clothes.

Note to parents

In my opinion, normalizing exploring different forms of gender expression from a young age is a great thing. That doesn’t mean forcing your child to wear only clothes that are dull or gender-neutral, or solely clothes that fight the gender binary. It means encouraging choice, and offering your kid a variety of choices and making it clear from early on that there are no limits to the way you can express yourself.

If your child comes out as transgender, that’s one less thing they have to worry about you being upset over. If they’re cisgender, they’ll probably grow up to be even more confident dressing in clothes that really feel like them and express their genuine style interests.

DON’T say things like, That’s totally not you; I know you, or, Don’t you think you would look so much better in x?

For one, young people — and adults, for that matter — are always in a state of change, so if something is different than you thought, go with the flow and ask non-admonishing questions to learn more (see above). Shutting people down before they have a chance to explain how they feel discourages communication and relationship-building, and increases the likelihood of perpetuated secrecy.

A lot of parents are terrified at the idea of their child maturing and wearing clothes that might make them the target of ridicule, of sexualized glances, even of violence. And it’s good to educate them of the risks associated with certain fashion choices. But ultimately, the choice of gender expression (not to be confused with gender identity, which is not a choice) is individual, and should not experience pressure from community — whether that’s strangers at the mall, family, or anyone else.

Gender expression is fun!

Wearing clothes that truly express your interests and personality is such a confidence-booster. Speaking as someone who wore a lot of blazers, over-sized trench coats, and quarter-zips sophomore year, I can confirm that, sometimes, it can be a source of amusement or confusion to people around you.

But ultimately, unabashedly dressing in the colors and styles that actually appeal to you and playing around with different looks can really help foster creativity; it can even make you less apologetic for your choices and work.

Honestly, there are a lot of things wrong with how people perceive and judge each other in the world, but if whoever’s reading this can do even the smallest thing to destigmatize crossing gender lines in fashion for those around them, then maybe we can make someone’s life a little easier — and that’s a win to me.

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