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?
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.