Society encourages, and perhaps even created, the connection between appearance and gender. Whether you’re male or female, your hair is going to grow long if you don’t cut it, and at one time it was common for men to have long hair—but at some point in history long hair became a woman thing, and short hair the appropriate look for men. Men and women used to wear similar clothing, but then it was decided that dresses and skirts were the only acceptable clothing for women, while men wore pants, and it was a big deal in society when women finally gained that freedom.
In western society now, people have much more liberty when it comes to personal expression than they were allowed in the past—but society does still place limitations on people’s appearances according to their sex and gender. Walk into any clothing store and you have to choose a side—the women’s section or the men’s. I’ve admired clothing in the men’s section before, and thought about shopping there, and when I was a teenager I bought a few pairs of guys’ shorts, because they were comfy and long. But I only had the courage to do that after seeing my camp counselor wearing boys’ shorts and hearing her say she’d gotten them from the boys’ section at Walmart (which is a store I no longer frequent), and I still felt self-conscious venturing into that territory where I didn’t belong, looking at and trying on clothes that the store and society said weren’t for me.
Another obstacle to crossing clothing sections is the size issue—I can wear shorts meant for 12-year-old boys, but I’m not going to fit into much of anything made for adult males, and conversely, a lot of men are going to have a hard time fitting into most women’s clothes. So even if I were to be bold enough to seek out more gender-neutral clothing options in the men’s section, I probably wouldn’t have much luck finding items that fit. So besides the issue of cross-dressing not being socially acceptable, it’s also just hard to do from a practical standpoint.
However, I mostly dress in fairly casual clothing (since my office had a very relaxed dress policy and I now work from home), and so I can easily find fairly gender-neutral options while staying inside the women’s section. Sweatpants and t-shirts are basically gender neutral, with only colors or relative tightness marking them as for women versus men. But clothing gets more gendered the more formal you get (ignoring summer clothes, that is, which for women at least can be quite gendered no matter how casual). The next step up, jeans, comes in masculine and feminine styles but does still retain some overlap (e.g., both men and women wear skinny jeans). Business casual creates more of a distinction; while women can wear pantsuits, they don’t wear ties, and they could also wear skirts and dressy tops (if they wanted to, or if it was expected/required), and men and women wear different styles of shoes at this point. Then you get into cocktail/formal wear, and it’s dresses for women and suits/tuxes for men. At this level you’ve lost the gender-neutral options, and people are forced to take on either a masculine or feminine look. There’s no middle ground.
The most formal events that I’ve been to are weddings. In the one I’ve been in so far, dresses were mandatory for the bridesmaids (not that the bride specifically said, “You must wear a dress”; it was just assumed that we all would)—and, speaking of weddings, of course in traditional ones the bride is always in a dress, and the groom and groomsmen in suits. As a wedding guest in the future I plan to try get away with wearing pants as much as possible, but if I’m ever in another wedding I’ll almost definitely be asked/told to wear a dress—and I will likely do so, even though it would go against my preferred mode of expression. I just wouldn’t want to create an issue or upset the bride (or call attention to myself), and what would my other options be, anyway? Women have worn suits in weddings, but a suit is still coded as masculine in our society. I wouldn’t have a gender-neutral option to turn to; I would have to either blend in by dressing in a traditionally feminine way, or stand out by dressing in traditionally masculine clothes.
It is at least conceivable, though, that I could request, and be granted the request, to wear a suit in a wedding. But imagine if a groomsman wanted to wear a dress, or even if a male guest were to show up wearing one (in certain communities of course this would be fine, but in most it would not). Most men probably wouldn’t step outside the gender boundaries in this way, even if they wanted to, because of the negative attention it would earn them. Society says dresses are for women only, and it would be really hard to defy that rule at a big social event.
I think the reason it’s more acceptable for women’s dress to cross into men’s territory than the opposite is the patriarchy. Thinking beyond appearance, it’s more acceptable for women to do things that are typically coded as masculine than for men to do anything deemed feminine—because femininity is considered inferior. So a man wearing women’s clothing or doing something “womanly” is going to get mocked for being girly and weak, while women are able to get away with doing/wearing masculine things, because masculinity is seen as the norm, something that people, including women, should aspire to. While sometimes women are still mocked or derided for straying into masculine territory, to get that response their behavior often has to be more extreme than it is for men. For example, women can wear men’s shorts (like my camp counselor and I did), and most people probably won’t take much notice or think it’s that weird, and other women specifically won’t care or make a big deal about it. But if a man wore a skirt…
Another idea related to appearance, gender, and sexism is that it’s easy to look at someone and peg them as looking “girly” based on specific elements of their appearance, but harder to define someone as looking “manly”. I can think of a variety of different looks that could be coded as feminine, but not nearly as many that are definitely masculine-looking. The main image that comes to mind is a guy with a beard and big muscles, which are things associated with male bodies, rather than superficial elements that anyone could put on if they chose, like a dress or makeup.
So a skirt and nice top could be seen as a typical feminine outfit, but what would a typically masculine outfit be? At most, a male-coded look (one possible for anyone, regardless of physical sex or body type) might consist of the few items of clothing men typically wear that women don’t, like baggy jeans or cargo shorts. Otherwise, most clothes in the men’s section could be worn by a woman, and that woman wouldn’t be seen as presenting a masculine gender identity, because most men’s clothes are actually pretty gender-neutral. So masculinity equals the norm, the standard, and deviating from that is being feminine—which, as I said above, is seen as a bad thing. (I’ll address these ideas further in the next post in the series, which will be on appearance and sexism.)
One example of this idea is this article, which describes an incident where a DMV forced a boy to remove his makeup before they would take his driver’s license photo, because he “didn’t look like a boy should”. What could a woman do that would get her the same reaction? I can’t think of anything. With my super short hair, I’ve been told I look like a boy, but haven’t received any comments specifically policing me for not looking feminine enough.
Another example is this article, in which a genderqueer man talks about the difficulties he faces expressing himself in the professional world:
I thought back to all of the times that people had told me to “tone it down for work.” I thought back to conversations with my father, where he told me to put away the “flamboyant shit” if I wanted to be respected. I thought back to former internship supervisors who told me that I would not be respected around the office if I chose to express my gender identity. I thought back to the countless memories from childhood of being mocked for being a “sissy.”
So while women have made many gains when it comes to crossing gender boundaries, our society still has a ways to go before it’s socially acceptable for men to do the same.
Sadly, it’s not just mainstream society that polices the appearance and gender expression of men and women. As Alice writes in this post, the trans* community does the same. For trans women specifically, “If you don’t dress and present in an expressly feminine way – party dresses, false lashes, nails that could hold up the Forth Bridge, enough makeup to keep the Kardashians in business for five years – then you’re ‘not properly transgender’ and just putting it on, seeking attention.”
Being a woman or a man doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way. I wish people would stop insisting that it does.