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Fashion & Cosmetics

Am I Androgynous?

Louise D.

We would like to start this article by clarifying that androgyny is not a term often used within the LGBTQ+ community and is most often associated with the fashion world. However, because its use is ambiguous, we chose to include it here as this article could potentially shed some light on uncertainties that some people might have.

If the term “androgyny” is used within the LGBTQ+ context, it refers to a gender expression, not a gender identity or sexual orientation. Therefore, it is not related to who you are attracted to, not related to how you identify within yourself, but rather how you choose to express outwardly. Even then, does it not necessarily have to be a reflection of your gender expression. It can thus literally only have to do with the clothes that you like.

In many research studies on topics such as gender identity, transgender people, gender roles, etc., a measure called the BEM sex role inventory is often used to measure gender roles and categorizes masculine and feminine characteristics, androgyny, and undifferentiated people. Such measures can sometimes be frustrating, but they are the underpinning of empirical research, and there is always a call to keep them up to date and reliable as far as possible.


Is there a difference between “Androgyny” and a Gender Non-Conforming Person?

There is a slight difference, yes. Gender non-conforming is more readily associated with a gender identity, whereas androgyny refers to gender expression. The word “androgyny” is made up of two affixes: andro, meaning male, and gyn, meaning woman. While this is a confusing situation, it is essential to understand that even if someone identifies as more masculine or more feminine, it does not always mean that they will choose to dress according to that identity. Sometimes it is really just a matter of personal taste in clothing.

For some non-binary or transgender people, it might conversely be very important for people not to dress in gendered clothing or to dress in the clothing appropriate for the gender that they have a strong desire to identify with. But this will not be the case for everyone.

There are suggestions that there are positive and negative forms of androgyny. But this theory leans strongly towards binary and social constructs of gender roles. For example, it suggests that a person can have negative male and female traits, like being aggressive and temperamental, thus insinuating that aggression is the male trait and temperamentality is the female trait. This concept is largely problematic to many people, and the theory has fallen out of popularity.

That being said, there is scientific evidence that an androgynous person who has positive characteristics tends to be happier and better adjusted than someone who has mainly negative traits. It might then be useful to discard the idea of masculine and feminine characteristics and rather look at whether traits are positive or negative.

This way, we can reserve androgyny for expression and remove it from any connotations with gender identity.

Gender Identity, Traditional Gender Roles, and Androgyny

One of the main reasons why androgyny is not readily used within the LGBTQ+ community is because it suggests a binary approach to gender. Older definitions of androgyny strongly suggest that there are only male and female characteristics and that these are clearly defined. It does not view gender as a social construct and views gender roles as binary. As you can imagine, this causes some problems for some people, especially those who are non-binary.

That being said, androgynous fashion is useful to the transgender community and gender non-conforming people. More often than not, these individuals need to wear men’s clothing in order to express themselves (because female clothing is more obviously gendered), but when clothing lines commit to androgyny, they could produce gender-neutral clothing that is suited to anyone’s physical traits.

Gender Expression for an Androgynous Person

As much as we have placed emphasis on androgyny being mainly a fashion term, it is not always, and because it has to do with gender expression, you might encounter people feeling that they are androgynous individuals in terms of their identity. This is separate from biological sex and is not associated with gender dysphoria as much as it has to do with not aligning to social scripts of gender roles.

In fact, “androgynous” can be an umbrella term to describe people who express their gender in unexpected ways. These people can fall anywhere on the gender identity and sexual orientation spectrums. It is most strongly linked to outward appearance and style choice—things like clothing, hair, makeup, etc.

An androgynous girl might have short hair and might be dressed as a boy but will still identify as a cisgender girl. This is the part of the androgyne that is difficult for people to understand, especially when they are still trying to wrap their heads around the gender spectrum. You will also find that there is less stigma involved with the idea of a female being androgynous as society is more lenient about female expression overall.


Masculine and Feminine Characteristics

The term “androgynous” suggests that the linear concepts of male and female characteristics exist, which is not ideal to the non-binary part of the LGBTQ+ community. However, if we ignore the heavy social scripts associated with gender roles and rather look at it in terms of how we dress in comparison with our secondary sex characteristics, then it could be helpful to better understand gender presentation in relation to gender identity.

One of the main problems we face when trying to be gender-neutral is the fact that “male and female” is so ingrained within society and tends to permeate many different levels of our lives. Most frustratingly, it influences clothing. And although this is not a fashion-related website, we cannot deny that clothing plays a huge role in gender identity and gender dysphoria.

People with physical feminine characteristics are usually expected to wear “women’s clothing”, whereas people with masculine physical characteristics are expected to wear “men’s clothing”. This is a problem because people who favor the androgynous look may not identify with both male and female expressions.

Other Non-Binary Personality Traits

Gender identity is an extremely complex concept and cannot be accurately summed up into masculine and feminine characteristics. We have come to understand that the umbrella of ‘male and female’ is largely inadequate.

Androgynous people, if they are transgender, would not identify with their gender assigned at birth and would likely fall somewhere in between feminine traits and masculine traits. There would normally be a combination as no one really identifies with the most extreme social forms of male and female.

Androgynous people are often associated with an unconventional appearance which can serve to make some cisgender people uncomfortable because it could be challenging to put them into the usual social scripts. However, non-binary people do not think in terms of male and female, so this would not be important to them. In fact, sex might even be a strange concept to them (not in terms of the physical act, but in terms of characteristics).

History and the concept of androgyny

Androgynous figures existed openly within ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian cultures where physically male people dressed and spoke like women (specific dialects of the languages that were reserved for women), even having sex with men. Many of them were seen as priests of some sort and were often associated with gods like Ishtar. Ancient Greece promoted androgyny through the social statuses of those believed to be hermaphrodites (we realize that this term might be offensive in a modern context, but in this sentence specifically refers to an ancient Greek concept).

There were also a number of philosophers throughout the ages, including Philo of Alexander, who promoted androgyniety. More recently, around 1550, the concept of the divine androgyne originated and served as a major social influence. It is, therefore, safe to assume that, in an ideal world, the concept of androgyny should not really be that strange to us.


Modern Contexts

In today’s society, there are several celebrity figures that can be described as “androgynous people”. For example, Boy George and David Bowie. Both of these individuals are biologically male but also have some strong traits that are feminine in nature. They wear make up, and feminine clothing along with more traditionally male clothing and are overall good examples of androgynous people who are generally well accepted by society.

There are also some examples of famous women who generally tend to play both feminine and masculine characters or even gender-neutral characters in film. For example; Tilda Swinton who is a biological woman who played the role of Orlando (a famously androgynous character who starts off being a man and over time becomes a woman, even giving birth to a child at some point in their life), and the character of Gabriel in the movie Constantine, where the purpose of the characters is to be genderless.

Very recent history is not necessarily kind to androgynous individuals as it was heavily focused on socially accepted gender roles. Advertisements in the 1950s are a good example of this. Men were the masters of the house who worked, wore manly clothes, did not cry, and mowed the lawn. Women vacuumed, stayed home, wore dresses and heels, cooked, and raised children. There were even little etiquette manuals for women who worked; even female police officers were expected to wear pantyhose and make up, and many uniforms for women involved a dress or skirt that was sometimes highly impractical.

Luckily towards the end of that era, we moved away from such strict gender roles, and your sex began to matter a lot less when choosing a career or even within the home environment.

Think about the fact that clothing design is expected to be dominated by a female representation, but most of the world-famous fashion designers appear to be male. The fashion industry as a whole is a safe haven for modern androgyny and has been for quite some time.

Does the word Androgynous still have a place in the Modern World?

It is difficult to say. It seems to be serving a good purpose in fashion and is paving the way for new innovations in clothing that is much more inclusive of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities. The idea of androgynous people is slowly becoming commonplace, and the number of androgynous actors and models seems to be on the rise—even those who are cisgender.

Furthermore, it could be a way to try and explain to people how gender non-conformity works if they struggle to understand it in another context. Most people have some understanding of the word androgyny, and it might serve as a gateway to better understanding later down the line.

What is not favorable about the concept of androgyny and the androgynous is that it draws too much focus on outdated concepts like masculinity and femininity. In many instances, it still supports the idea of a “girl and boy” divide in gender identity. The terms gained more prominence in the 1970s with the rise of some androgynous celebrities but are pretty outdated today. This was also in conjunction with the sexual revolution that saw the rise of female equality protests and the call for adjustments to the societal expectation of the female role.

Is there a positive way for an ally to promote androgyny for their LGBTQ+ friend?

There is always a positive way for an ally to promote a concept for their friend. If we want to promote positive aspects of androgyny, we need to challenge riding concepts of femininity and masculinity and promote the idea that gender and expression fall on a spectrum and that people can find themselves anywhere between “boy” and “girl”.

Human history and mental health history both show how problematic terminology can complicate concepts, but at this point in time, terms like “androgyny” and “androgynous” do not fall within this category as yet, which means that we can still save both word and concept.

Therefore, a good place to start is:

Gender-neutral terminology in conjunction with the terms we want to preserve.

So, instead of talking about an androgynous woman or an androgenous boy, we should rather be saying things like androgynous person. We should not be connecting androgyny with sex, masculinity, femininity, etc.

We also need to be respectful of the fact that a cisgender person, man or woman, can also be androgynous, and this fundamentally separates transgender identity from androgyny as an expression.  


Additional Questions that can help you answer a question like “Am I Androgynous?”

How do I feel about being categorized as “masculine” looking?

How do I feel about expressing femininity in the way I dress?

Do I associate make up with a woman specifically?

Do I feel better in the company of women or men?

Would I mind being associated with women if my physical gender is not female and I am not transgender per se?

How do I feel about fulfilling the stereotypical gender roles associated with my physical sex?

How do I feel about terms meaning “woman or man”?

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but they should set you on the right track for now.

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