The Pursuit of Androygny

For some non-binary identified people like myself, androgyny is an ideal. A lot of us strive to exist in a world where we’re not gendered or where gender presentation doesn’t matter or doesn’t affect the way people treat you. For a lot of us, androgyny is the holy grail of existence and, as I’ve tried to push myself more and more toward androgyny, that I find it to be very problematic not only in how it’s conceptualised but also in how it’s executed.

Androgyny as a cultural construction

First, a practical exercise in understanding what “androgynous” means. Go to Google. Type in “androgynous” and pull up Google’s nifty image search. Take a good, long look at the images represented. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that those images reflect the standard by which we understand androgyny, by which we as a culture accept someone as androgynous, rather than gendered. Who do you see? What do you see?

Examples of Androgyny

Well, among these individuals I see some people I admire. Artists like David Bowie who I find inspiring. Actresses like Tilda Swinton. Model Andrej Pejic. Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing these people as representations of androgyny and I’m glad they are popular amongst others because it means that the concept of androgyny is somewhat accepted.

But largely, what I see reflected back onto me are thin people. White people. And a standard of androgyny that entirely depends upon a binary concept of gender. Let me explain what I mean.

Within Eurocentric societies, existing as an androgynous person means different things for different people. If you tack on “David Bowie” to that search of androgyny you pull up a variety of images. David Bowie is almost synonymously thought of as androgynous, usually with the addition of makeup. Now change that “David Bowie” to “Tilda Swinton” and in almost none of the photographs is she wearing anything overtly feminine, or makeup. When we step back and look at it, it makes a lot of logical sense. Add femininity to masculinity and you get androgyny. Add masculinity to femininity and you get androgyny. The problem with this is that femininity within androgyny is (and I am a geek) like the Waters of Mars. Anything more than a bit and… well, you’re not androgynous any more.

When androgyny is just masculinity

Notice in both of those searches, David Bowie and Tilda Swinton show up before you have to type their names out. Yet try to type out “Androgynous Boy” and you don’t see “Androgynous Boy George” or try typing “Androgynous Eddie” and you don’t see “Androgynous Eddie Izzard”. If you step too far, if you get too feminine, you’re no longer androgynous. And the same rule often applies to women. In most of the “androgynous Tilda Swinton” photos, she’s not wearing makeup. Yet, David Bowie’s androgynous pictures feature him wearing makeup sometimes, sometimes not, and even include him playing Gareth, the Goblin King, despite the fact that “David Bowie’s Crotch” in that role has over 6,000 likes on Facebook for reasons that appear obvious when you watch the film. What this says to me is that if society perceives you as male, your crotch could be showing and you can still be androgynous. But if society perceives you as female, being androgynous means a stitch of makeup or a bit of breast may cancel out a suit and a tie.

The issue is that if society classes you as female, you have to abandon all femininity to be androgynous enough. In a society where “male” is the default, there is a lot more room for masculinity displayed by androgynous people classed as “male” than for androgynous people classed as “female” and this has been my struggle. I enjoy wearing makeup, but can’t really get away with it if I wish to aspire to androgyny. As someone who is genderqueer, I have about as much desire to be overtly masculine as I do to be overtly feminine, but my simple jeans and t-shirts aren’t enough if I want to be truly androgynous. In order to be that which is genderless, I have to be more masculine. Doesn’t that sound a bit… ridiculous?

Thinness and androgyny

And as I mentioned above, most of the examples of androgyny accepted by our cultural standards are thin and white. Now, considering most examples of white supremacist cis hetero-patriarchal media are also white and thin, this is not surprising. However, I feel as though thinness is particularly a requirement to fit into the standard of androgynous, especially those perceived as “female”. When I’ve pursued a more androgynous image, I’ve encountered the roadblock of curvy hips and breasts which point out and call for gendering. In a standard where I have to be even more masculine to get toward being genderless, even the slightest bit of fat poking out here and there might give me away, and it certainly makes wearing masculine clothes (which I must wear at all times to be andro – I certainly couldn’t be andro in a skirt!) a lot more difficult. Thinness is already a standard placed and encouraged especially on individuals classed as “female”, but the pressure to be thin to be genderless is particularly strong. Which is not to say that I haven’t seen fat androgynous people, I have. But they certainly aren’t part of the standard of androgyny, a standard so many of us wish to achieve in order to be genderless in this society.

Androgyny and whiteness

And of course, there’s a distinct lack of people of colour represented in white supremacist cis hetero-patriarchal media of all types, but also within androgynous images. As a white person, I can’t speak to the specific struggles that androgynous BAME/POCs may face and the ways in which radicalised stereotypes interact and interrupt gendered perceptions. It would not surprise me for a moment to find that whiteness, being a default of culture, makes being perceived as genderless easier or that racist stereotypes such as “the angry black woman” have an impact on what behaviours one must adapt in order to avoid being gendered in certain ways.

I’ve found myself in an ironic gender catch-22 where I have to adhere to gendered looks and standards in the pursuit of attempting to be genderless, where I shun and demean fatness for what it adds to my already perceived “femaleness”, where I have an overwhelming amount of white individuals to look up to as ideals of androgyny and would only reinforce that should I even attain a state by which I am accepted as genderless in this culture.

And it’s for this reason that I’ve given up on the pursuit of androgyny.

I feel comfortable and happy in makeup now and then. I wear jeans and t-shirts. I bind my chest, but I have a feminine face. I may never fit in with the classic androgynous image. But, to me, identifying as agender means that I am not “male” or “female”. I do not choose, nor do I see validity, in being more masculine presenting in order to be perceived as genderless. While it would be great for me to have an image that stopped assumptions and made people think, I think it’s ridiculous to sacrifice my own comfort and wants for the sake of doing exactly what felt oppressive to me before I found the concept of non-binary identities: adhering to gendered stereotypes for everyone else’s comfort.

I hope that in the future we expand our concept of androgyny. That images of Tilda Swinton in a dress come up when we think of androgynous. That BAME/POCs will feature more often and people of size will show up. I hope that people don’t feel pressured to adhere to a misogynist “male” gender default and be more masculine in order to fit that mould. Until then, when someone asks me why I don’t present more androgynously, I’ll answer honestly. Because I am agender.

This article was published on June 2012 and last updated September 2014.

20 Comments

  1. […] “present” as anything really. I present in clothes that make me feel comfortable. I don’t see a purpose in attempting to be “androgynous” because I see that as adhering to gender roles just as much as I would attempting to be masculine or […]

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  2. […] much logical sense. They see me, someone who does not buy very much into the concept of androgyny, for reasons I’ve explained, and they see someone who they assume is female, who wears makeup, and who has visible breasts. The […]

    Reply

  3. Wow, you very clearly laid out a lot of things that have been bothering me about cultural perceptions (or rather “rules”) of androgynous people. It is a catch-22 for most of us, and there’s no clear way of breaking out.

    Reply

  4. I was just thinking about writing something about this myself when I found your post, which pretty much says everything I was thinking. I’m really glad that I’m not the only one who’s frustrated by the “masculine as gender neutral” aesthetic amongst FAAB people.

    Reply

  5. […] and match the androgynous stereotype better. Now I’ve realised that looking androgynous, as I’ve blogged about before, is yet another role I’m trying to shove myself into, that I may be gendered by others and I […]

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  6. […] BoldlyGo Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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  7. I’ve stumbled upon your blog (and this article in particular) while researching about androgyny and gender identity for a photography project that I’ve just started. I was really impressed by your argument and I also felt like I had been totally brainwashed by western media, as I had a pretty stereotypical “white and thin” image associated with the word androgynous in my head. I wanted to send you an email, but I can’t find your contact details anywhere in this blog, so I’m writing this comment. Since I’m based in London as well, I was wondering if you’d be up for a chat and a coffee sometimes. I hope I don’t sound totally creepy, I would just like to discuss about gender and androgyny with you to inform my photography project (plus if you like, you can take part in the project, but that’s totally up to you). If you don’t feel comfortable meeting a stranger off the internet, I would be extremely grateful if you could recommend any reading on the subject that you feel could give me interesting insights. Thanks. Looking forwdard to hearing from you x

    Reply

  8. […] (as did I) what Kate means when she calls herself genderqueer. There is an excellent post on Androgyny and Genderqueer identified people from the blog Boldly […]

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  9. […] about these quotes is first the assumption that androgyny means freedom. I’ve already discussed previously that androgyny is, in the West, based usually off of problematic standards. Making yourself […]

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  10. I spent much time living as androgynous, but wearing mostly men’s clothes. It seemed like only the simplest of clothing could ever be perceived as androgynous.
    Deep down, it was not the clothes that made a difference. It is amazing how much a persons complexion factors into gender reading. Perhaps more than manner, nearly as much as speech.

    Reply

  11. Thanks for this. I’ve never felt comfortable identifying as male or female but at the same time I like traditionally feminine clothes (just because they’re generally more expressive) and I don’t see why my gender should be dismissed if I wear them. I used to present a more clearly androgynous image in them because I had well toned muscle. Now I have a muscle wasting disease that has left me visibly fragile and I find it much harder to dissociate from assumptions of ultra-femininity. I think of that scene in ‘The Man who Fell to Earth’ where David Bowie is so fragile he had to be lifted out of the bathtub, and I actually look quite similar, yet he is labelled as androgynous there and I am not. This is giving me an increasing sense of dysphoria which I feel I can do nothing about.

    Reply

  12. […] I’ve already discussed how I feel that androgyny for AFAB individuals tends to create a situation where we must become much more masculine and abandon all feminine qualities in order to achieve a “genderless” look. Therefore I understand why a rejection of the feminine, femme-ness, and “female” represents some freedom from gendered constraints. Within this gender disordered society, many are often searching for something that will get a recognition of gender neutrality or at least a lack of gender from others. But what I think a lot of non-binary people forget is that we’re negotiating with a society that refuses to accept our existence all together. Audre Lorde once wrote, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Playing by their rules of “gender” and what is constructed as “genderless” may not actually break any of those rules. […]

    Reply

  13. […] Since we are going to discuss body and society next week, I thought it would be appropriate to share this piece which discusses androgyny http://boldlygo.co/36/ […]

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  14. Good points raised here, thanks. I’m mtf but am evolving mtftm, which I know is binary language but when I use ‘androgynous’ people assume it’s an affectation. I can only hope that more people will emerge as such and the ‘category’ will achieve recognition, perhaps not in my lifetime, but hopefully.
    I used to work in the Fashion industry so standards were set high for me by people who have known me as a glamorous youth. But knowing what I now know, that industry is highly immoral and a tool of normalisation. In the 80s the trend for Androgyny was strong and universal, the icons were in all media, Boy George, Marilyn, Grace Jones, Bowie, Annie Lennox, Pete Burns etc. I find it hard to accept the return to hyperfeminine female roles now, the bar has been raised too high. But what we must learn from all this is to appreciate the hidden strengths of the masculine and feminine, not just the overt.(You all surely know that, being on this thread). If I have to assume a male persona again, this time I want it to be genuine, and enjoyable, not enforced. And dammit I decide which clothing types are acceptable…

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  15. Thank you for this. One of the reasons I don’t even try to do androgene is that with 44G breasts there is no way I can be read as anything but feminine. I admit to being really jealous of skinny genderqueer people because they have more options.

    Reply

  16. I’m extremely grateful to see this addressed. It’s just a simple problem: if you aren’t naturally androgynous, and you are genderfluid, you have to sacrifice your ‘birth’ gender to be perceived as any other way. I grew up with the classic androgynous look and find it very beautiful, but for me it’s not achievable.

    As a woman, one of the only outlets available to me is to cut my hair — but I love long hair, and also, with so many famous white hetero actresses doing just that and being lauded as ‘fashionable’ and ‘brave’, the impact is minimized, particularly if you have a very feminine face. Binding is uncomfortable, so there’s another catch-22. 

    So yes. I’ve mostly given up as well. I crossdress fairly regularly, but even that has been corporatized to the point where I’m often not even read as expressing masculinity. The times when people get the point is worth the trouble, and it’s an important act of catharsis, but it’s disappointing. 

    I suppose those of us who aren’t *visibly* genderqueer can continue to speak up — that’s all we can do, really.

    Reply

    1. And to me the idea of genderqueer visibility is ridiculous. Not only because WHO exactly do non-binary people want to be visible to and WHY? And what does it even mean to be visibly non-binary?

      Biyuti writes a lot of really great things about visibility and how the context of that is really problematic.

      Reply

  17. […] “The Pursuit of Androgyny” looks critically at the current, broadly accepted definition of androgyny. It begins by giving us not a dictionary definition of androgyny, but rather one that is much more telling of society, a Google image search definition. There the author finds thin, white people walking the line between looking traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine, with a noticeable trend; none of these people look “too” feminine. Makeup on men is helpful, anything other than a “natural” look on women is too much; by my own search dresses appear to be completely out. There is no line to cross for being “too masculine” in attempting androgyny, only too feminine. […]

    Reply

  18. So glad to have found your site and this post in particular. I am a woman (early 40s), happily married to a (somewhat androgenous) man for 10 years. I consider myself bisexual, though have dated more men than women.

    I have been relatively comfortable being “in the middle” my whole life, though the last several years, I have been perplexed by comments from friends and relatives who start to classify me as “bossy,” “dominant,” and “hard,” because I don’t/can’t conform to the gender rules of girly girls or boyish boys. (A strong or self-assured, yet quiet, female is suddenly not who she sees herself to be?)

    My body follows this-I am tall, slim and small chested and very happy being so. I was sometimes mistaken for a boy as a child. Just wanted to say thank you and express how happy I am to have found others who struggle with this society-induced “gender assignment.” I wish I was even more brave, and admire those who are. Thanks.

    Reply

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