– by Jessica Edney
I wore unisex clothes a lot as a toddler. My mum was studying concepts of gender for her MA, and I was her experiment! She didn’t want to force a feminine identity on me if that wasn’t who I wanted to be, so no frilly pink dresses for me – in most of my baby photos I’m in dungarees. Then suddenly I wanted to be a princess and wear those frilly pink dresses – and that was absolutely ok. It was also ok when I wore a frilly pink dress to go and dig in the dirt with my little brother, or climb a tree. I never felt that I couldn’t do something or wear something because I was a girl, and I’ve got my mum to thank for that.
For my brother Jack, it was the same. Careful not to restrict him, Mum wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he put on a neon pink tutu and brandished a magic wand – although she quickly realised that he only did so to copy his older sister. I’m sure Jack would want me to state at this point that he has not worn a pink tutu since he was about five, so for the sake of his masculine pride, I will do so! But imagine he did want to wear a skirt one day – even if he got some funny looks in public, neither my mum nor I would raise an eyebrow at home.
It seems strange to me that (ignoring differences in size) I could wear any item of clothing in my brother’s wardrobe and nobody would give me a second glance in the street, but I own very few items that Jack could get away with wearing. Why is more acceptable for self-identifying women to adopt ‘masculine’ clothing than it is for self-identifying men to put on a dress? Some would argue that we connect masculinity with power, and if a woman dresses more ‘manly’, it is a way for her to look stronger and more powerful. Meanwhile, femininity is still associated with weakness, frivolity and superficiality. There are a lot of men don’t want to look like a ‘girl’, because of the negative traits society continues to attribute to the female condition.
It’s an interesting statement, and there may be an element of truth to it. The trouble is, the world doesn’t divide easily into Masculine Things and Feminine Things. You might have grown up believing that skirts were for girls and belonged to the Feminine category. But then you come across a burly Scotsman wearing a kilt, and suddenly you’re not so sure anymore. I used to think that beards were 100% Masculine, but that was before I knew that women could have them and feel just as womanly*. Even the colour that is supposed to represent girlhood everywhere was a ‘boy’s colour’ less than a century ago!**
The bottom line is, nobody can agree about what is Masculine, what is Feminine, and whether the two are even mutually exclusive (personally, I think not). And that is just in our Western industrialised society! Elsewhere, the diversity is even greater. There are so many more issues in the world to worry about than whether somebody else’s outfit conforms to your gender norms. I vote we all just wear exactly what we like and what we feel comfortable in, because in another hundred years’ time, who knows what boys and girls and everyone else will be wearing?