Although I oftentimes use the label “woman of color” to describe myself, it isn’t exactly an accurate term. I use it because it’s useful; it describes the way others view me. It describes much of my experience. I was socialized as a girl, presented as a girl, and treated as a girl. I had never questioned it because I did not know that gender was a question, but I had never exactly felt like a girl, either. My understanding of being a girl was merely this: others say that I am a girl, so I suppose I must be one.
Of course, now I’ve realized that gender encompasses a large spectrum of identities, and I’ve also realized that identity ought to come from within. I’m non-binary. I used to present in a very stereotypically feminine manner, complete with frilly dresses. I used to present in a very stereotypically masculine manner, always in T-shirts and shorts, never skirts, and absolutely no dresses. Now I am in-between, but identifying as non-binary has opened my eyes to expectations of gender presentation. It has made me acutely aware of both the expectations society has for women and men when it comes to presentation, but also for those who identify as in-between, both, or neither.
Although the idea that girls should always wear skirts or dresses has faded, our universal symbol for woman, such as the one seen on bathroom signs, is a person in a dress, and during a fancy social function seeing a woman in a pantsuit is fairly uncommon. Women are expected to leave the house with make-up on, to the extent that there are many who believe that ‘heavily made up’ is synonymous to ‘natural’. Women are expected to pluck their eyebrows, shave their legs, and shave their armpits. Failure to conform oftentimes leads to, at the very least, some odd looks.
For men, it is the expectation that no skirts or dresses are worn, that nails are unadorned, and that faces are left unpainted. Truthfully, I cannot speak to much other expectations of gender presentation for men; it is one identity that I have never used for myself.
And for those who identify as neither, there is an idea that we should dress androgynously. However, androgyny rarely, if ever, means a skirt or a dress. If I want to be read as non-binary, society seems to say, I ought to dress in oxford shirts and straight-cut slacks. Dress “like a man”. Yet we rarely see photos of androgyny featuring people in dresses and skirts. At the very least, I have yet to see any.
It only highlights that society still sees men as the default. Women and ‘femininity’ are outside the realm of normal. They are a special category to themselves; partaking in “femininity” means that you must be female. You cannot be neutral, or both, and still be “feminine”; it is a special interest category.
The question I have is why. Why can I not be non-binary and femme? Why can I not see others who are presenting themselves in a stereotypically feminine manner on pro-androgynous-fashion blogs, or even a mixing between “masculine” and “feminine”? Why can I not even find “androgynous” clothing in the “women’s” section of the store— not even an oxford shirt that looks like a “man’s” oxford shirt but is tailored to an assigned female body?
Why must gender presentation be such a box?