Girls go on their night out. What do they wear? How do they behave?
In my last article, I talked a bit about how I believe that gender roles have evolved, conditioned by biology and a successful strategy that has been carried over millions of generations of the particular evolutionary branch we belong to; such mechanism has been described by Charles Darwin as sexual selection. But how does it relate to the next dress we’re going to wear for a night out with our girlfriends?
Reviewing gender roles
So, a brief recap on my previous article. I propose that gender roles are purely a social construct (since they change over time and with location), but they have an evolutionary basis. In gregarious species, alpha males tend to mate more with females (and in some species, they’re the only ones who are allowed to mate), and what exactly defines an ‘alpha male’ is the ability or skill set that allows the species to survive better: often it’s tied to strength, cunning, the ability to hunt, and so forth. In some gregarious species, females also exhibit certain traits which get them to be more selected than others as potential mates, even though in most species this is not the case.
When we take a look at our own species, we find that we became hunter-gatherers quite early on the fossil record. Males would become mostly hunters, and they would be selected for physical attributes (strength, dexterity, the ability to throw a lance, and so forth), but a few, who became shamans, also gathered respect (and potential mates!) because they were clever and cunning — as time passed and societies became more complex, potentially important characteristics became more and more diversified. On the side of females, they were naturally picked for their ability to bear children — wide hips, large breasts — but since they also needed to be gatherers, and that meant locating roots and berries (a skill involving good eye/hand coordination), so, such skills also became ‘desirable’ with time.
When we started to use clothing — losing our body hair meant needing to cope with a diversity of different climates, some of which quite cold throughout the year — we also ‘invented’ a new strategy to attract potential mates: clothing can effectively disguise some physical attributes but also enhance others. We all know how A-shaped skirts can create the illusion of wider hips. We can see how fashion in the 17th or 18th centuries had vast skirts (at least for the aristocracy) which definitely enhanced those hips to the extreme; and corsets obviously created the hourglass effect, desirable because it also enhances the hips (by creating the illusion of a much slimmer waist) and the bust (bras are a relatively recent invention!).
Makeup, of course, was invented to create the illusion of youth, perfect skin, and disguising irregularities in the face. We can trace all that back to pure sexual selection, which still continues to our day. It is claimed that the human species is not likely to ‘evolve’ much further — species that are perfectly adapted to their environment rarely feel the pressure to change; pine trees, for instance, might have been around by the time the dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, and they would have looked pretty much the same as they look today. In a similar vein, accounting only for better food (which produces taller humans — we can see that happening in countries like China, where the current generation is incredibly much taller than two generations ago, for instance), humans haven’t changed much in the past 30,000 years or so. This pretty much means that what moved us in the hunter-gatherer days hasn’t changed that much from what moves us today: it’s just that our societies, now spread world-wide with 7 billion people, have become unimaginably more complex than the primitive tribes, at several orders of magnitude of complexity.
Still, we were stuck with the gender roles developed by those primitive societies. The biggest change perhaps is that skills and attributes that were ‘desirable’ back then have changed from what is desirable today in a potential partner. For instance, physical prowess with throwing a javelin is much less in demand than a wealthy purse. Nevertheless, women are still attracted by tall strangers with muscles — even though our society nowadays doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ such stereotyped men any longer. If they’re intelligent (like shamans) and can secure wealth and a home, it matters little how they look like. This is probably the main reason why the human species has not evolved towards males who are tall and strong (everybody else would have gone extinct and dropped out of the gene pool) and females who have wide hips and large breasts: it’s thanks to our intelligence that we have developed very complex societies where such attributes are unnecessary to secure survival.
But gender roles still stuck. With a thousand generations or more of propagating such stereotypes, it’s hard to shake them off. They worked well for hundreds and hundreds of generations; it’s just the last hundred or two hundred generations that have lived in societies where such gender roles were unnecessary. The human species is comparatively young (when compared to the geological times of our planet), and that means that certain traits acquired for survival not so many generations ago are still with us, even if we don’t need them any more.
Towards a genderless society — and why it hasn’t happened yet
Second-wave feminism is credited for most of the equal rights enjoyed by women in democratic countries and the abolishment of laws that discriminated women. This movement was most active between the 1960s and 1980s and created the idea that women are not sexual objects relegated to the roles of perfect mothers and wives in stereotypical families, which was popularized after WWII and well into the 1950s. It claimed the right for women to have exactly the same rights as men to choose their career, have an education, and decide what to do with their lives, without being subject to discrimination; and, in a sense, they have shaped Western democratic societies by redefining the role that women ought to play in those societies.
They also sort of hinted that a future society ought to be essentially genderless. This lead, for instance, in the late 1980s, to young girls to dress like boys — T-shirts and loose jeans with All-Stars tennis shoes — to wear their hair short and to forfeit any kind of makeup. I remember despairing during my late teens because all my girlfriends all of a sudden stopped being feminine. Bad looking or good looking, that would make no difference; soon they all would be cutting their hair short and start dressing like boys.
Third-wave feminism, starting in the 1990s, in a sense, was a bit more embracing, but also more controversial. On one hand, it recognized that there were all sorts of women — not just those who became stereotyped in the 1950s, but also not only the androgynous, genderless individuals of the 1980s. Each woman should be allowed to express her own version of femininity, not conforming to a single standard, but have the freedom of choice. Thus, third-gender feminists brought back fashion clothing, makeup and sophisticated hairdos — while at the same time embracing those who preferred a completely ‘male’ look if they so wished. The word of choice was ‘inclusion’, and that also meant accepting the reality of transexual women. The two groups — feminists and LGBT activists — came together and fought side-by-side when demanding an end to discrimination and more civil rights for both groups.
The problem with trying to be too inclusive meant that not everybody agreed with what they were fighting for. Feminism is strongly tied to getting rid of a patriarchal society, where conservative white upper-class males impose role models and define ethics and morality for all. LGBT members definitely agree that the stereotypes imposed by this patriarchal society also hurt them, so there were still some common points between both groups. Where things started to become confusing was when transexual women publicly defined what ‘womanhood’ meant to them. Here some feminists started to feel uneasy. For some of them, transexual women, especially those who have risen high in popularity — Caitlyn Jenner is just the latest one — had been members of the privileged male class for way too long before transitioning. And invariably they pick a female image which aligns closely with the stereotypes that feminists have been fighting to eradicate for so many decades. And on top of that, they even claim to know what it means to be a woman. This, of course, made many feminists rethink their position, and they suddenly realised that the more they openly supported LGBT activists, the less they were in the position to have a saying in the definition of what is supposed to be a ‘woman’. They would have to share that definition with a new generation of activists, whom they seen as… not really being women.
Worse than that, those transgender activists seemed to be quite comfortable with a stereotypical gender role as women. The quest for the genderless society seemed to have come to a full stop.
So at last we have come to a point where there are some serious questions to be asked. On one hand, everybody seems to agree that conservative white males in power are at the root of all the trouble. We wouldn’t have raping and domestic violence if the patriarchal society hadn’t protected their peers for so long, and, even today, male judges are keen to assign some blame to the rape victims for ‘dressing inappropriately’. Stereotypes push women to work for lesser pay than men and to jobs that are not ‘typically male’. Women are brought up thinking that they cannot do maths properly and pushed to jobs having to do with language skills — while there is no reason, except for popular stereotyping, why women shouldn’t be good in maths. In fact, there are currently far more women studying science and starting a career there than men. In a generation or two, almost all scientists will be female, not male. In my country, because women study much more and for longer periods than men, and graduate so much earlier than men (who easily become slackers!), there are incredibly few young male doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and scientists. In a generation or two, it will be very hard to find a male with a higher education — almost all will be female.
But at the very top of the power pyramid will be those few privileged white males, still keeping women at bay.
Gender roles, as defined by men in power, are the source of all gender conflicts. As such, there is a tremendous appeal for a genderless society. It would solve not only gender conflicts, but many others. Things like ‘power games’, popular among the financial elite — still dominated by males — would very likely disappear if only women held those roles. The consequence would be an end to financial crisis for profit and fun; women are much more ruthless in dealing with such issues.
And, of course, LGBT activists would also not need to worry any longer — a genderless society would fully embrace anyone. It’s conceivable that the abolishment of gender roles would reduce the number of gender dysphoric individuals: after all, they wouldn’t be pushed to ‘conform’ to any gender role. They could simply pick the one they prefer and would not be bothered by anyone.
Naturally enough, those who would still like to cling to old stereotypes would also be welcome — third-wave feminism is, after all, tolerant towards them as well.
But there’s a catch.
It requires some intelligence to overcome the urges and drives that have been evolutionarily conditioned and are part of our biological makeup. Although intellectuals defend the idea that we are not defined by our biology, but by our minds, and as human beings, can go beyond the limits set by biology, this is not universally true. In fact, because I’m much less optimistic in that particular issue, I view most of humanity simply not being as clever as those intellectuals. Feminists may defend the right for women to adopt genderless roles, or at least roles that are not stereotypically feminine, and to go beyond the social constructs imposed upon them by the patriarchal societies, but the problem is that most people do not want that. They’re fine with their biology. They’re ok with gender roles. They feel no intellectual need to ‘go beyond their bodies’. And, surprisingly, they don’t all live hopelessly frustrating and depressing lives because of that.
Because a majority of humanity does not want to rise ‘above the constraints of their bodies’, there is no simple way to achieve a genderless society. At least not by peaceful means. The only alternative is a bloodthirsty revolution that imposes such a genderless society and forbids by force to adopt stereotypical behaviour. A bit like what Mao Tse-Tung did during the Cultural Revolution. We certainly don’t want that to happen again.
Instead, intellectual activists have to embrace inclusivity of those who wish to adhere strictly to stereotypes, while still fighting for more rights and less discrimination. Hardly an easy task!
Are crossdressers also stuck to stereotypes?
When I first saw images of popular MtF transexuals, I was always astonished by their beauty as females. It was perhaps one of the many reasons that made me early on stick to the label ‘crossdresser’. I simply couldn’t aspire to such outstanding looks.
But on the other hand, crossdressers also included drag queens, and, for me, they were always caricatures of women — they never intend to look like ‘real’ women, but always to exaggerate them, for whatever reason. Other kinds of crossdressers favoured a more ‘normal’ look, and it would be up to each of them to enhance their good qualities while disguising their more ‘male’ attributes in order to look passable. ‘Passing’ is something that many crossdressers wish to achieve, and spend a lot of time worrying about it.
‘Passing’ also implies ‘sticking to stereotypes’. Not all crossdressers are worried about passing, of course; there is such a vast variety of crossdressers that it is very hard to generalise. But definitely there is a group of crossdressers to whom ‘passing’ is important, and that means figuring out what contemporary female fashion looks like, and how one can emulate it — how to look like an average woman while having a mostly male body. That’s the challenge, and the result, or reward, is not to attract undue attention in public.
Clearly, some transexuals struggle with the same issue, but not all of them. After my initial fascination with the images that the mainstream media showed of some MtF transexuals, I quickly found on the Internet a lot of forums and discussion groups where ‘real’ transexuals would talk about their issues. One of them was the desire to be addressed by the correct pronoun in interactions with complete strangers.
At first, this baffled me. It would confuse me to be publicly on a street or restaurant or shop in a dress, with long hair and makeup, and wearing heels, and get addressed as ‘sir’. I would find it extremely rude, so I empathised with those transexuals. On the other hand, I didn’t understand why that would happen. I was still mesmerized by the images of those lovely MtF transexuals that we get to see everywhere. How would possibly anyone know that they hadn’t been born like that? Why was there any doubt? To me, those people were clearly female, and impossible to ‘confuse’ them with males. So how could they be treated as anything but women?
Reality, of course, showed me that unfortunately most transexuals are definitely not that good-looking as the mainstream media portraits them. And, more to the point, many MtF transexuals don’t even pretend to look like stereotypical women at all. They adopt a visual that is much more genderless and androgynous. This is especially true for younger people. In other words, there is not much difference in their attire before and after transition. They might shade their hair in a more outrageous colour, add a few piercings, wear bracelets, but, in essence, they still dress in a relatively unisex — or genderless — way. Because the results of hormone therapy vary a lot between individuals, in many cases it’s really hard to guess what gender they are presenting. Thus the source of confusion.
Often when I’m on my own, wearing male clothes, I slip a bra and some padding beneath my T-shirtand jacket, just to see if people notice. Almost nobody notices. It’s definitely clear that just having breasts don’t make people start changing pronouns when addressing me — since the rest of my visual presentation is so clearly male. Even those who notice the ‘lumps’ where there should be none would not be ‘confused’ (they might just think I’m overweight, or have something inside my pockets). They would never hesitate in addressing me as ‘sir’, because everything in my presentation fits the male stereotype, except for a tiny detail.
By contrast, if I go out fully dressed as a stereotypical woman, people would not address me as ‘sir’ (Portuguese is a language where you can be extremely polite and still avoid using gender pronouns; anyone having doubts about my gender would simply use a neutral way of addressing me). I’m not claiming that I can ‘pass’ — it’s easy to notice that there are a lot of typical ‘male’ issues in my presentation — but at least I can show very clearly that I have the intention of presenting myself as female. I might be hampered by biology, which prevents me to look completely female, but I adhere to typical stereotypes — not only wearing what would be appropriate for the location and my age, but also by having long hair styled in a feminine fashion and wearing makeup designed to enhance female aspects. And showing off my cleavage. 😉
By sticking with a stereotype, it’s easier for me to be more accepted — in fact, the ultimate acceptance is to become invisible, i.e., not attract any attention whatsoever. ‘Being invisible’ means that I’m not making anyone uncomfortable in my presence. It means ‘fitting in’. And the best way to achieve it is to adhere to feminine stereotypes, instead of looking like Conchita Wurst. In other words: because we don’t live in a genderless society, it’s more easy to be accepted if you present yourself according to established gender stereotypes, instead of defying stereotypes — which will invariably attract attention (and displeasure).
Now this is the kind of thing that feminists detest. They would claim that my endorsement of a female stereotype when dressing and going out as a woman is incredibly sexist. They, of course, would claim that as a member of the patriarchy that imposes social norms, even if I claim to be transgendered, I’m still following the rules of my white male patriarch masters, by adopting a femme persona that is purely stereotyped, thus perpetuating the male supremacy. Instead, they claim, if I were really interested in establishing a better society, one without gender discrimination — and one that would also accept transgendered individuals better — I ought to refuse to accept female stereotypes, and present myself as genderless, or, at the very least, avoid stereotypes.
Such arguments were actually made by feminists attacking Caitlyn Jenner’s image. They fear that Caitlyn’s endorsement of the image of a stereotyped female will hurt their cause more. After all, if women — and transwomen — are happy about being stereotyped, what was the point in fighting for women’s rights?
Unfortunately, the history of feminism is full of those issues. Second-wave feminists, for instance, tended to exclude lesbians from their groups, since they also saw them as a menace to their goals and purposes. The problem with feminism, once again, is how inclusive it should be. In other words, feminists believe that only feminists (who have to be genetic women) are allowed to define what the word ‘woman’ means, and who is ‘allowed’ to use that word. Transwomen are definitely not on that list, since they have originally belonged to the patriarchal class, even if some feminists reluctantly agree that this didn’t happen by choice. Others, of course, are very critical about the non-inclusivity of those feminists, and the discussion is definitely not settled — Anna March is one of those critics, and she firmly believes that a true feminist movement has to be inclusive.
So that means that women have the right to pick whatever stereotype they wish. But those who want to look like women should also have the same right as well.
My personal choice
The other day when I came back from a dinner and a night out with my crossdresser friends, my wife had been reading and thinking a lot about those non-inclusive feminists (in fact, I got the link to the NYT article from her). She had been looking at Caitlyn Jenner’s sensual poses on Vanity Fair and at the way I dress; and she asked me why we gender dysphoric MtF individuals always want to become ‘babes’ and are not happy about simply being ‘normal women’.
On that particular day, I was not especially overdressed. Lately I have been making an effort to go for ‘elegantly casual’ instead of merely ‘elegant’, because I know that the less elegant I look, and the more casual, the more I will earn my wife’s approval. She already flagged one of my dresses as being ‘something only a professional would wear’, which actually hurt me. It’s a very plain red dress. It doesn’t even show a lot of cleavage — in fact, while V-neck-shaped, it’s above the cleavage area. It’s not too short, and I have had it lengthened with some black lace at the bottom, which enhanced the dress, since it’s so plain and, frankly, a bit boring. So I had no idea why she hated that dress so much. In any case, I’ll be offering it to my crossdresser friends.
The outfit I was wearing that day was a 10-year-old skirt that my wife picked for me, when I first started crossdressing in her present. And the top had been a gift from her sister, which didn’t fit her, but I had no problem in using it. So I thought I was rather plainly dressed that day, and my makeup was toned down; not even my shoes were very fancy, but quite classic, even though they were high heeled. So I wasn’t really understanding her point.
I said that what is ‘normal’ for women going out with friends to a fancy restaurant and a bar was to ‘dress up’ a bit, and that’s what I had just done. I’m also sure that Caitlyn isn’t wearing what she wore on Vanity Fair every day, but just on very special occasions. My wife is fond of watching what the starlets dress during galas and special occasions. She has often said that she admires beauty — not only human beauty, but beauty in general. On the other hand, she hardly goes out with friends, and when she does, she doesn’t dress up much. She has changed her views slightly in the past month or so — she dresses much better these days, and now wears makeup and polished nails every day, something I had never seen her doing since we live together, not even on very special occasions — but I could see that something was nagging her.
She started by defending the non-inclusive view of feminists, by saying that we crossdressers were still stuck to gender stereotypes, and that this was the source of our dysphoria, while people (not only women, but men too) should simply abandon all stereotypes and just dress casually in a genderless way. The dress doesn’t make the woman, she said. I could simply wear some jeans and a loose top, and still present myself as a woman that way.
Well, brushing that argument away for a while — I simply look horrible in jeans or pants, and loose tops will just make me even fatter than I already am, and defeat the purpose of using a corset to slim my waist down — her philosophical argument was sound. It’s obvious that it’s not the dress that defines the woman. Nor the makeup, nor the nail polishing. There is obviously much more than that which is fundamental or essential, and the visual image is allegedly completely irrelevant. Caitlyn, after all, has always been a woman, even if she had to present as a male for 60+ years and live a life of lies to conform to society; that never prevented her from feeling to be a woman inside her mind, which is what counts. My wife is not especially attractive, nor does she ‘dress to kill’, but she isn’t a ‘lesser woman’ because of that.
I sat down, and had to explain my issues from a different perspective. It’s obvious that I share the same ideals as the inclusive third-wave feminists — I think that women (and men, too!) shouldn’t stick to stereotypes in order to be accepted, and that we, as a society, should go forward to allow it to be that way. However, I also support the wish for women to look like stereotypes, if they wish (as opposed to be something they’re forced or pressured to do). In my personal case, the problem is that even by adopting a female stereotype for my presentation, I will still not ‘pass’ as female easily. But it’s way harder to do so if I refuse to present myself as a stereotype. More than that: the current fashion, at least here in my country, is for women of any age and social background to ‘dress up’ when going out. Because probably the last time my wife went out with friends was in the late 1980s, when girls would never dream of ‘dressing up’ — it was completely out of fashion — maybe she is still influenced by her teenager days. But things have changed. She is just not aware of them because she dislikes going out so much.
So to be more ‘accepted’ in the public places I go with my crossdresser friends, I have to look and behave according to how genetic women look and behave in those places. Of course there is still a lot of freedom in my presentation; there is a lot of margin for my individuality to be expressed. Women, in fact, have so much more choices than men in this regard; so, among all the possible stereotypes, I just picked the one that expresses my personality better. Not necessarily my ‘female personality’, but my personality in general. One of the reasons for my gender dysphoria is that I cannot express my personality through a male presentation, because there are simply too few choices for that. That’s one reason why I don’t even buy male clothes: I just wear what I’m given for my anniversary and for Christmas, and care little about those choices. But they are not my choices. Even if they were bought by me, there is simply nothing among male fashion that I would consider to be ‘my’ choice, anyway.
This is not really very easy to explain, and I felt a bit awkward to do so to my wife. But at some point I argued with her that she was so fond of admiring beauty and good style choices in those women that she admires on the magazines and TV shows. What she was saying to me is that crossdressers had to be ugly and dress sloppily, because ‘women are not defined by their clothes’, so if we wish to embody our femaleness, we should go beyond the physical body, go beyond biology, go beyond stereotypes, and just dress plain ugly and be content.
I told her that I found that argument very reminiscent of second-wave feminism, which was a bit out of date. These days, third-wave feminism allows women to be beautiful too, if they wished. I like to admire beauty in women. I have no wish to emulate ugliness. It’s an aesthetic argument. Why should I, as a crossdresser, be restricted to be ugly when going out — when all genetic women were allowed to dress up and look great?
I was obviously accused to be sticking too strongly to gender stereotypes, and forget that beauty is skin deep, the real beauty is in one’s mind. That’s obviously true, and I cannot deny that; I fully endorse that view as well. Still, one can admire both the beauty of a mind, but also the beauty of the physical world. As an artist, my wife is always striving to turn the world into a more beautiful place, through her art. And, in turn, she revels in the attempts of other artists to do the same. So if I were in a mean mood — which I wasn’t! — I could have accused her of being ‘stuck’ with artistic ideals of beauty. Why can’t art be ugly as well? (After all, we have so many examples of ugly art these days.) What’s the point of striving for beauty in the world, if it’s so shallow and superficial?
Obviously there was some disagreement between us both on this simple matter.
Sticking to gender stereotypes makes life easier
At the end of the day, this issue is actually a bit more profound than it seems. Many have called Caitlyn ‘shallow’ because all she seems to worry about is how great she looks on Vanity Fair; her second tweet, related to her upcoming reception of an ESPY award, was ‘what should I wear?’
This reminded me of something I read about a MtF transgendered person who detransitioned. He wrote somewhere (I wish I had made a note of the URL) that he was essentially unhappy with ‘the shallow feminine persona he created’, worrying all the time about dresses and cosmetics and how well he looked. After some years living under that persona, he finally gave up, and went back to his male self, mostly because he learned that his gender dysphoria was linked to other causes (which in turn could be cured by psychology and psychiatry).
But what caught my attention was this enigmatic phrase, ‘being unhappy with the shallow feminine persona that had been created’.
Now, this is not really news for me, since I have heard similar claims from a lot of transgendered individuals, although they seem to be more frequent among crossdressers than transexuals. These people claimed that when they present as female, they ‘switch personalities’ — because now they were females, they could be ‘someone else’. So they construct this ‘female persona’ for themselves which they use when they present as females, and, in many ways, that experience is very pleasing and fulfilling.
Fetishist crossdressers, of course, claim that all the time. They play a role while indulging in their fetish: the role of a whore in heat 🙂 [Disclaimer: this is a generalisation; not all fetishists do that, but all that I have met over the years do — I’m sure there must be some exceptions somewhere]
Now, I’m not surprised that someone who is clever and who adopted a different personality after transition, and, more especially, a shallow personality — attached to the stereotypical and sexist idea that women have somehow to be more ‘shallow’ than men — would, after a while, be bored with that ‘role-playing’ and eventually give up and de-transition. While I don’t have that experience, I have ‘role-played’ the persona of a shallow woman on text-only chats for a while, in the late 1990s. It did quickly become boring after just a few hours. Having to play that role full-time for years and years would drive me to madness for sure; and I can definitely empathize with those who have de-transitioned because of that.
I mean, I can imagine that it might be fun for a while. But not full-time. After all, so many women, in order to catch their men, play roles for a while, until their relationship seems stable. Then they show their true colours. It’s not easy to do that all your life.
By contrast, when crossdressed, I’m not a ‘different person’. I cannot really claim to have a ‘female persona’ — a special identity that is somehow very different from my ‘male’ identity. Instead, as I have written before, there are just slightly different presentations of aspects of my personality. It’s the same when talking to my wife as opposed to talking with my best male friend. There are aspects of my personality that only my wife knows about. This is normal. We have ‘roles’ for each social circumstance, and switch among them according to context.
Nevertheless, if I’m dressed in front of my wife, I don’t present a different personality. With female clothes or male clothes, the way I talk to my wife is exactly the same. And obviously it applies to everybody I interact with. Very few people have seen me in my female and male presentations, but I can assure you that I’m not really ‘a different person’.
As such, just because I might be looking female some of the time, it doesn’t mean that I have to discard my convictions and ideals, and adopt different ones instead. Even though I’m aware of people who do that all the time, they are not that many. In my particular case, what I defend when I’m presenting as male and when I present as female, are exactly the same.
As a male, I’m attracted to beautiful women. I admire their looks, their style, their presentation. of course I might also feel attracted to their minds, if they are beautiful as well. I’m attracted to beauty in general — both in the physical sense, but also in the abstract sense. But I don’t discard the physical beauty as being ‘secondary’ or ‘less important’. It’s a different level of importance, if you wish, but it’s not ‘less important’.
For example, I might feel attracted to a physically beautiful woman even if she has a terrible sense of dress. But if she actually is fashion-conscious and also knows what kind of clothes flatter her physical beauty, my level of attraction deepens. If, on top of that, she also has a beautiful mind, then my attraction goes even higher. Beauty is something that, for me, only adds up. It’s not as if one kind is better than the other, or can replace another, etc.
Beauty is also a social construct, and depends a lot on the observer. What is fashionable today is not what was fashionable a hundred years ago; beauty standards change and evolve, but they change even more across individuals. So it’s something very intangible and very hard to define. There are formal methods to evaluate aesthetics, but beauty goes beyond simple aesthetics. However intangible it might be, it can still be measured. An interesting experiment which is often repeated is to find if there are ‘universal’ rules to find beauty in human beings. This is not done merely for the sake of writing popular articles on tabloids, but it is actually the subject of serious research in the area of cosmetic surgery — surgeons, after all, wish to give their patients the best-looking face they can afford, by slightly tweaking certain parameters and proportions in their faces, therefore retaining the individuality of each face but still making it slightly more attractive than before. Such research is ongoing, with better theoretical models of defining ‘attractive faces’ being proposed all the time, tested in the lab (these days, often with simulations and 3D reconstructions or image manipulation — no need to subject people to actual surgery!), and peer-reviewed. As a result, we’re much better at defining and measuring ‘attractiveness’ or ‘beauty’, even though obviously individual choice and preference remains. As in almost all studies regarding human subjects, we can only account for averages, not individual cases and individual preferences or choices.
So it’s fair to say that on average, human beings prefer certain physical attributes over others when looking for potential mates. While much of this is biologically determined, obviously it’s also culturally determined. Our stereotypes emerge from such choices. Artists — and this obviously includes fashion artists, hairdressers, makeup artists — might push the boundaries on fashion shows and similar performances, but, in general, we still mostly see those ‘average stereotypes’ when people are in public on a regular event. They might pick some outrageous fashion design once in a while, but, on average, they will pick more stereotype-confirming choices in presentation. Those that stand out for breaking social norms and conventions are exceptions — usually making a statement of non-conformity — and they are very few.
The push to a genderless, stereotypeless society is a worthwhile endeavour, and it’s thanks to those who promote such a society that, little by little, we progress towards less discrimination, more equality of opportunities, and an increase in personal freedom of expression. Nevertheless, life is so much easier when you stick to stereotypes — they provide immediate acceptance.
In very tolerant places, like LGBT bars or restaurants, it’s acceptable to not conform to stereotyped roles and ‘go wild’ with one’s individual presentation. But my recent experience in the past months show that the prevailing presentation styles still conform to average stereotypes. My first reaction on the very first time I went to a LGBT bar was, ‘where is the LGBT crowd?’ I was expecting garish looks, wild presentations, unusual styles of clothing, outrageous behaviour with lots of fun.
Instead, you would be surprised that you were in one of Lisbon’s oldest gay bars (recently completing 25 years of existence). While there was certainly a majority of males, none of them stood out — they dressed conventionally according to the male stereotype, not to the ‘gay’ stereotype. There were certainly a few genetic women there as well — most of them with their boyfriends, not with their girlfriends! — and they would be completely at ease in any surrounding. A curious observer who wished to investigate how the ‘gay crowd’ had fun together and peeked inside would be utterly disappointed: none of the people there would stand out in a crowd. Well, except perhaps for the crossdressers — who, in spite of dressing just like any other woman (or perhaps even less daring than some of the genetic women in the place), naturally catch the attention because, well, they’re not genetic women.
The same happened to me in many LGBT-friendly spots. I’m always wondering if the people there actually know that this is a LGBT-friendly spot at all, because all I see are normal couples, dressed normally, sometimes with kids, from ages ranging 20 to 70 or more, who would not be out of place in any other environment. Perhaps this is a hallmark of LGBT culture in our country: LGBTers simply don’t stand out, but ‘mix in’ with the heteronormative audience and are absolutely indistinguishable from them.
It’s a social convention? Perhaps. But it also encourages me to adhere to the same convention, in order to get accepted. ‘Getting accepted’ — as opposed to standing out and affirming my right to be different — is important for me. Unlike many activists, both from the feminist crowd as well as from the LGBT crowd, who promote their views by ‘shock and terror’ strategies — pushing into people’s faces what they don’t want to see in order to promote their views — I’m a firm believer that the opposite strategy is far more successful. Therefore, the more we adhere to social conventions, the more we present ourselves according to established stereotypes, the better we are accepted. We might not be seen as ‘real women’ (no matter what we feel about it inside), but we will be tolerated and accepted because we present as ‘real women’ according to the location we go.
Thus, our group of crossdressers dress like women going out for a fancy dinner when they go out for a fancy dinner. They dress according to what is popular in nightclubs when going to clubs and bars. They dress casually when they go shopping in public. Yes, of course they will stand out most of the time, because it’s not so easy to discard our physical maleness. But in our female presentation, we stick to conventions, social norms, and accepted stereotypes of how genetic women are supposed to present themselves according to the context they’re in. If this is the correct strategy or not, I don’t know. But it seems to be largely successful, at least in the restricted environments where we are openly tolerated.
The choice of beauty (even if it means conforming to stereotypes)
So while I was slightly hurt by my wife’s views — that I should abandon stereotypes and be happy to look ugly and sloppy as a female, because ‘beauty’ and ‘dress sense’ does not ‘make’ a woman — I’m not really agreeable to the idea that I ought to ‘push’ ugliness, to show that I’m an ‘enlightened woman’ in this age where stereotypes are to be destroyed in order to create a genderless society.
I’m not an activist. I’m not even sure that I really want a ‘genderless society’. I admit that I’m not ‘enlightened’ enough to go beyond the physical manifestation of bodies and just admire people’s minds instead. What I firmly believe in is in equality of opportunities and the end of discrimination, and I side with those feminists who believe that adhering to a stereotypical image of female beauty is a plausible and tolerated presentation according to one’s preferences and freedom of expression. I might have been traumatized by my teens, where women stopped being feminine just because they could. This backlashed in the 1990s, when women once again went back to stereotyped female beauty. They now have jobs as doctors, lawyers, judges, accountants, bankers, and all those formerly typical ‘male-only’ jobs, but they still dress like women, they still look beautiful, they still make an effort to adhere to the average fashion conventions, even if it means walking like stereotypes. And what they have achieved is the acceptance that you can be female, beautiful, look great in a dress, but have a higher education, do a men’s job, have your career with financial independence, and not be submissive to the ‘patriarchy’ but work within it and still be tolerated.
I find this ‘double standard’ actually a very successful blend of biology & mind. Women’s minds are much more independent, and this gets expressed in how they react to the patriarchal society and adapt to it, by establishing their own successful lives (as measured by what the patriarchy considers ‘success’ — a career, power, money, and so forth). But they also respond to the evolutionary urge to dress attractively, groom themselves as best as they can, and present them in a fashionable way according to the stereotypes of their gender roles. While I fully admit that there are a lot of exceptions in this case, and that there are uncountable millions of women who still suffer from domestic violence and all sorts of oppression due to their status as the ‘weaker sex’, I think that the coping strategy that the average woman has been employing (blending a stereotyped behaviour with an enlightened mind that refuses a traditional female role in society) has been quite successful. I only need to observe genetic women around me every day. While I’m sure many are still victims of oppression, and try very hard to hide it when in public, most are not. Most belong, on average, to this new generation of third-wave feminism, where they have their own independence but still present themselves according to stereotypes.
In other words: women these days can be both sexy and smart. They don’t ‘need’ to abandon their stereotyped presentation and roles to forge their own individuality as intelligent persons doing what would have been male-only jobs a few decades ago, and enjoying the same independence (both financially, but also sexually) as males do. I admire them most for being able to blend those two roles. It’s not either/or. You can have both the cake and eat it, too.
As such, I personally feel that we would lose more than gain in promoting a ‘genderless society’ where ugliness would be the norm — for all genders — and there would be no room for aesthetically pleasing persons, since every individual would redefine their own aesthetics. I can agree that many of those ‘aesthetics’ have been defined or imposed by the patriarchy — but not all. We can see from the many studies that women and men look at beauty in different ways — what women find attractive in women is not quite the same as what men consider attractive. There is a lot of overlap, but it’s not a 100% correspondence. Instead, women today seem to have defined their own standards of beauty and presentation, which are slightly different from those ‘imposed’ by the patriarchy.
A few TV shows actually expose such variance. One typical example is a show where boyfriends or husbands are given a budget to buy clothes for their girlfriends/wives. Invariably, males will start buying very sexy outfits, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and so forth, which their female partners will immediately reject (often laughing at the stereotyped image that their male partners have of ‘female beauty’). Fashion consultants will then aid the males in the show to understand what exactly women like to wear and how they like to present themselves. In all those shows, men will learn very quickly how to dress their female partners. Although it’s true that males have their stereotyped ideas of how a woman should look like, it’s even more true that they can learn what women’s own stereotypes are. And they also learn to appreciate them. This, for me, is a sign that women’s stereotypes are not entirely under the control of the patriarchy, but have deviated from it, and became slightly different. They are still conditioned by a gendered role in a society that was originally shaped by biological evolution. It’s just that the resulting stereotype is more ‘female-driven’ than ‘male-driven’.
What is also clear in those shows is that none of the women want to abandon the stereotypes. They like their gender role. They want to present themselves as women, and be admired as women — not as ‘genderless individuals’. In those shows, women are given the choice to present them as they like, but invariably they prefer to present themselves according to established norms and conventions. Of course that in all cases there is always the special touch and mark of individuality. Unlike males, who start idealizing the stereotyped woman by adhering to an image that is very narrow in scope, women, by contrast, start from the stereotyped presentation and personalise it according to their preferences. The result still conforms with a stereotyped image, but it departs from it in significant ways.
So, instead of a ‘genderless society’, we have a gendered society where women are free to choose how to present themselves, within the vast range and spectrum of opportunities given to their gender to present. Such presentations would still be labeled by many feminist activists as ‘gender-conforming’ and never as ‘genderless’. But that’s what the average woman wants to look like.
When I present myself as a woman, I have no interest of looking ugly and out of place, just to make a political statement. I am the result of a society with its norms and conventions. I might not agree with many of those norms and conventions, but at least my aesthetic sense is forged according to the beauty standards of my society, culture, environment, age and location. I don’t want to discard those norms and conventions, because I definitely appreciate those aesthetic standards. Therefore, in my role as a woman, I wish to adopt the same standards as the average woman does. Of course I will add my personal touch, but, in general, I will still ‘fit’ within the stereotyped images that are appreciated by the majority of women in my society. Transgendered people struggle to ‘fit in’ their society, which rejects them for their ‘oddness’. But instead of increasing the oddness by presenting themselves as clearly outside the social conventions and norms for dressing and behaviour, a winning strategy seems to embrace conformity, and trying to ‘fit in’. LGBT members who are not activists and who just want to be accepted and tolerated in public present themselves as the average stereotype according to their gender role. They don’t stand out. They are invisible — because they blend in so well. In fact, what I have noticed this past decade is that the elements of ‘gay culture’ that made homosexuals stand out so much in the 1980s have mostly subsided. Male and female homosexuals that I meet every day are absolutely indistinguishable from their heteronormative peers. They have no outstanding traits that would ‘label’ them as members of a minority — except, of course, by what happens in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Therefore, as a crossdresser, and also member of a minority which is ‘odd’ compared to the average population, the best I can do is to follow in their steps — instead of being provocative and drawing attention to myself, I do my best to ‘fit in’ as well. If that means adhering to stereotypes of feminine beauty and presentation, so be it. We don’t have a genderless society, and very likely this will not happen in my lifetime. Instead, we have a gendered society with freedom of expression for each gender to express themselves as they wish. And the choice of the majority is to express themselves according to gendered stereotypes. I don’t feel any urge to be ‘different’ of them.
And, of course, adopting the standard female stereotype for my presentation as a woman also means that I can enjoy the pleasure of looking according to my own standards of aesthetics, which I admit to be biologically and socially conditioned, but I’m not an ‘enlightened person’. I just happen to admire and enjoy those aesthetic standards of beauty and don’t wish to reject them in order to make a political statement of some sort.
So while I might be ‘toning down’ some of my attire (according to the context I will be presenting myself), I’m not going to reject female stereotypes just because I ought to be contributing to establishing a genderless society. I’m sorry. I’m not a believer in a genderless society, even though I recognize its merits and advantages, and fully support the right of those to fight for the genderless society. But don’t count with me as an ally. I’m fine with a society with binary genders and binary gender roles. The only thing I ‘fight’ for — in the philosophical sense, not in the political one — is for a society with equal opportunities and no discrimination. But I still believe that conformity with established stereotypes is the best way to achieve that: it allows acceptance, empathy, and, as a result, it’s easier to push for more rights and less discrimination that way.
I might be completely wrong about the strategy to be employed, and I’m fine in being proven wrong.
But at the end of the day, in the mean time, I will continue to enjoy my adherence to a stereotyped female presentation when crossdressing, and continue to promote the contemporary aesthetics and standards of beauty that are endorsed by a majority of women everywhere.