Art by Johanna Roberts.
When I started university, I tried really, really hard to be androgynous. At the time, my source for “androgyny” was Google Images, which told me that androgyny meant skinny, white people with flat chests, cheekbones and masculine attire.
I’m curvy, not at all flat-chested, and have no visible bone structure whatsoever. I overcompensated with a bad haircut and a lot of oversized flannel.
Since then, my understanding of androgyny has evolved. My brief stint as a linguistics major encouraged me to consider that the word androgyny is literally a fusion of masculine and feminine.
I started to have questions. Where is the feminine in androgyny? Why are “androgynous” people so often thin? What does it mean to be androgynous?
There’s no straightforward answer to these questions – there’s no central organising committee for androgyny. There are only androgynous people, and people to whom androgyny means something.
In this piece, I talk to a number of people who identify with androgyny in different ways. The sample is imperfect; despite my attempts to source diverse interviewees, those who agreed to talk to me were predominantly AFAB (assigned female at birth), and all of them were white.
The absence of other perspectives matters. There is so much more to be said. Still, the interviewees have something to say.
Androgyny is ultimately personal; it means something different for each person who experiences it. I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Being androgynous means different things for different people.
Our construction of gender is incredibly specific to culture and time. Indigenous cultures have totally different ways of framing and imagining gender. There were more than 20 recognised genders in India before English invasion.
I identify with the term androgyny, but I’m not sure I can define it. A lot of people think of it as a middle space between male and female, but I like to think it can occupy something in its own right.
I don’t want to be seen as a woman, but I don’t want to be seen as a man either. I’m endlessly frustrated by attempting to express my gender. There’s no way to get people to consistently read me as non-binary – the most I can hope for is a moment of confusion, which is dangerous because it unsettles people.
I’m not particularly masculine, and I don’t have the right body type to hide my curves successfully. Masculinity is uncomfortable – it’s binders and layers and tight neckties.
I try to express androgyny by going for a deliberately kind of weird, hippie aesthetic, but people mostly just read me as a queer woman.
I get frustrated by androgyny tending to mean masculinity. It comes down to misogyny and transmisogyny, I think. It’s fine for AFAB people to go masculine, because that’s levelling up. Little girls can play with trucks, but little boys can’t paint their nails. When cis women don’t shave their legs it’s an act of feminist rebellion. When trans women don’t shave their leg it’s “lazy”, and “proof that they’re not real women”.
I try to mix codes sometimes. I’ll have a bow tie and a skirt, or clompy boots with a lacy blouse, or angry spiky jewellery with sparkly eyeshadow.
At Fair Day this year there was a stall selling “androgynous clothing”. It was actually just masculine clothing for AFAB/curvy people. Nothing for the AMAB non-binary person, and nothing complicating the idea that androgyny is just expressing the opposite of someone’s assigned gender.
I want androgyny to be something occupying its own space, not just negative space. But we gender everything. Shampoo for men and shampoo for women. No hair products for androgynous people.
I don’t really have any role models when it comes to gender. I feel like I have to carve out my own space. And a lot of the time I have to throw things away. My dresses are non-binary dresses now because I, a non-binary person, am wearing them. My lipstick is non-binary lipstick. My armpit hair is non-binary armpit hair.
I guess I’d define androgyny as a mix of masculine and feminine elements, usually in fashion, though a lot of people use it for a lot of different reasons. Personally, I identify with it as a means of self-expression, mostly in dressing because that’s what people can see.
I guess the look I’m going for is like a really femme boy. I wear a lot of dresses and skirts, though, so I’m not sure if the way I see it translates to a lot of people.
Someone recently told me they thought I was androgynous, which surprised me. In queer spaces, though, I’d assume I’m being perceived as more androgynous than if I were just walking around.
Before I started identifying as gender fluid, I would make an attempt to mix things up in my life, and dress really boyish one day and really girlish the next.
I feel like I should acknowledge the way that these tiny specific things are gendered is really weird and arbitrary. It’s ingrained in your mind, like “this is for girls” and “that’s for boys”.
But it was dressing like that and combining those things that probably got me thinking about gender. It was an interesting way of experiencing myself.
I often consciously stop myself from dressing too masculine because I don’t ever want to let myself fall into the trap of masculinity. It’s gross, and sexist, and full of terrible things you don’t want to be associated with.
I usually feel that I want to start at a masculine point, and then make the outfit more feminine from there. It’s just personal preference and feelings.
I really want to grow out my hair, but I don’t want it to look like girly long hair. I want to have boyish long hair, but it’s difficult because no one would really perceive me that way.
I didn’t really start feeling comfortable about the way I was dressing until I came out as queer. Before that, I’d feel like I couldn’t wear a tie or something because people would think I was a lesbian. Since I started dressing more androgynously, I’ve felt way better about my body.
A lot of things I used to dislike about my appearance because they weren’t “feminine” enough are actually some of my favourite parts of my body now.
I find performance a really safe space to be able to switch up clothes and gender. In the show I just had, I was a transit officer, which is very boring, bland – the worst kind of masculine there is. But I got to be a little girl as well.
People who wouldn’t normally be comfortable around someone changing their clothes all the time and being in different gendered clothes are fine with it during a performance, which I think is cool. It gives you a context where you get to experiment.
I identify with androgyny sometimes, some days. Mostly I identify as more genderqueer. Androgyny in my head is more like masculine clothes. It’s just the image of a person in black Doc Martens and black clothes, who’s white and cheekbone-y. That’s totally not what I’m going for.
I think androgyny is generally so masculine because there’s such a stigma against men wearing dresses. Even for women there’s femmephobia, and this idea that being masculine is better. I think that’s why androgyny is more masculine; it’s safe.
It’s safe now for a person who’s read as a woman to wear masculine clothes – you can still kind of pass, and no-one will hurt you. But it’s still not safe for a person who is read as a man to wear a skirt.
I like the idea of pairing stuff that’s opposite, like boots and a tutu. I prefer going hyperfeminine rather than normal feminine, because to me, normal feminine is normative and what’s been pushed on me.
But if I wear a ridiculous tutu, or a really pink dress, then people can see that it’s a choice and I’m doing it not because I’ve been told to do it, but because I’m like “yeah, I’m gonna take femininity and I’m gonna do it my way, fuck you.”
Clothes can mean something different for anyone. A tutu can be hyperfeminine, or it can just be really fun, or bright and happy, or ironic. They could be going for childhood, not femininity. It generally depends on what their identity is.
I’m generally read as a cis woman. I would love to be read as genderqueer, but I think once people get to know me they see the way I dress not as expressing a gender, but just as Shevvi being weird. I attempt not to read other people’s clothing as gendered, but that’s not always going to work. There’s a lot of unlearning involved.
I know clothes don’t have inherent value, but sometimes I have to switch clothes during the day. I’ll suddenly feel really uncomfortable. If I’m wearing pants and a shirt I bought from a men’s store that I’m still kind of getting used to, I’ll have a dress in my backpack if I have to change, and that’s happened.
It’s happened three times in a week, actually. It’s not a major deal, I’m not crying or anything. I’m just like “oh, I feel really uncomfortable right now, can’t move the way I want to,” and then I go change and I feel better.
I think androgyny as a concept is quite appearance-based. People like David Bowie and Michael Jackson took it into the mainstream without making it a comment about their gender so much as a statement about how they liked to dress and appear.
So I think that for a lot of people, androgyny is thought of as a fashion style rather than a really intrinsic identity. I feel I sort of dabble in both. I’m personally unsure of my gender identity, and I’ve been exploring/struggling with that for a while now.
When I choose to dress androgynously, I do so because I personally desire it, but my desire to express myself in that way is interlinked with the notion of people seeing me in that way.
It’s harder to put together an androgynous wardrobe than it is to put together a binary wardrobe. It’s very easy for me to put together an outfit that looks good as a man, because I’ve got a lot of places to draw from, a lot of notions of how it’s meant to go together.
You don’t necessarily have that with androgyny unless you’re going with a very specific set of guidelines, and that set of guidelines usually are that you have to be really thin, you generally have to be white, and you have to have sort of ‘70s glam rock-ish stuff available to you.
It’s weighted towards masculinity, too. One of the most frustrating things when I’m searching for androgynous clothing to wear is that it’s almost exclusively “male” clothing for women. And people tend to consider Adam Lambert as androgynous, but all he does is have tight-fitting clothing and eyeshadow.
When you look at female cultural icons who are considered androgynous, the degree to which they adopt “male” characteristics is more excessive than the degree to which someone like Adam Lambert adopts feminine characteristics.
The environments in which I’ve chosen to dress androgynously have been ones where I can assume people will be quite positive about it: at university, within the debating community, both of which are generally quite left-wing but especially so on social issues, which is what’s important.
I come from an Afrikaans background, which is a very socially conservative background. I’d never let my parents see me dress that way.
Androgyny for me is linked with issues of gender dysphoria — basically, feeling really shitty in your own body. Being able to dress androgynously offsets that to a degree. To be able to appear the way you want to appear and have that recognised by other people is really positive.
It just makes you feel totally different from the kid who in Year 9 sat in the back row of Christian Studies and thought “fuck, I think I want to be a girl, that’s really weird and I can’t tell anyone.” It takes you away from that self-loathing and that capsule of who you were at that time, into a much more positive way of being.