Years before I came out as transgender and nonbinary, I was on my high school’s robotics team. We all received t-shirts for competition season, and despite the claims that they were “unisex,” it was clear from how they fit the girls on the team that they were just men’s shirts misleadingly labeled. I was annoyed as heck about it, since I was 5’7” tall - two inches taller than the average height for an adult woman - but still swimming in the “small” shirt size.
But when I confronted one of the teachers about this matter, she said, “Men’s t-shirts are unisex.”
That sentiment stuck with me. It’s one that we’re all familiar with to some extent or another. For centuries, “men” has been used to refer to “people,” with the assumption that men are people and women… well that’s a bit more iffy. Default masculine language is still common. Even now, when we talk about a generic “person,” when we’re referring to that platonic ideal of a person, it’s usually a man. “Man” — specifically a cisgender man — is considered the default person.
Now that I don’t identify or live as a woman, my relationship with gender is quite different than it was in high school. That said, I’m just as angry as I was that day in robotics club that masculinity and maleness is considered to be “unisex” or “normal,” while femininity and femaleness are marked categories that are usually treated as an afterthought or secondary matter.
This subtle but ubiquitous sexism has affected my gender journey significantly. As someone who is nonbinary (not identifying as either male or female), it’s been hard to present myself in a way that feels authentically “androgynous” or “neutral” when those words usually mean “masculine.” Our culture puts women as secondary more often than not, and even I sometimes fall into that line of thinking in my efforts to solidify my gender.
Even in the year 2016, our society is still very male-centric. Everything from car safety features to medical studies to power tools is designed with men in mind.
This applies to fashion too. As someone who tries to dress in an androgynous manner, I so often think back to the struggles of “unisex” clothing labels. I don’t even know how I’d describe truly androgynous fashion given our current cultural context. Usually clothes that are labeled “unisex” are just men’s clothes.
Even t-shirts, as I mentioned earlier, are a perfect example of masculine as default. A few places, such as American Apparel, do actually make slightly fitted unisex shirts (which are still sold as “men/unisex”), but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Every time in my life I’ve gotten a free t-shirt, from clubs in high school to my dorm in college to a work event, it has been a men’s shirt labeled as “unisex.”
Unisex shirts fit cisgender men just fine, generally speaking. They’re square, not needing to account for breasts or waist-hips distinction. Meanwhile, you can buy specific ladies’ style t-shirts that are fitted, with more room in the bust and less around the waist. An actual unisex shirt would be slightly fitted around the waist. Not as much as men’s, but a little bit. It wouldn’t look awful on men; everyone has a little bit of a waist, even if it’s subtle.
At this point in my life, the small “unisex” size fits me decently. But I’m an anomaly among the female-assigned-at-birth crowd. I’m 5’7” and on testosterone. Most women are shorter than me, not to mention that transgender and cisgender women alike usually have the breasts and waist-hips distinction issues that I no longer deal with. But the average height of a person in the United States is 5’7”. Yet the shirt that fits people who are 5’7” (not just me, but my cisgender guy friends around that height) is size “small.”
Unisex shirts are the same as using “men” to mean “people” in writing. It’s the same as the 2000 calorie per day guidelines (which are problematic for other reasons) that are designed based on an average cisgender man’s calorie needs. It’s the same as how we say “actors” to refer to people who act; an “actor” is male or a vague, undetermined person, but “actress” specifies female. It’s the same as our idea of androgyny—literally a combination of male and female—being represented by a skinny, white, masculine person.
It’s taking men as the default, as the desired audience, and then saying, “Oh, but it applies to everyone, and you ladies would know that if you didn’t get so upset about everything!” There are special things designed for women, and marketed to women, as well as yes, some things specifically designed for men and marketed as such. But when so much that’s allegedly “unisex,” including the ubiquitous free t-shirt, is actually made for dudes, that says a lot about our society’s views of masculinity versus femininity.
This idea of “unisex” or “androgynous” being masculine plays into an idea explored in Julia Serrano’s excellent book on transgender (and specifically transfeminine) issues, Whipping Girl. Serrano discusses how our society views femininity as artificial and masculinity as natural. This negatively affects both transgender and cisgender people alike, especially women and anyone who presents as feminine.
As a nonbinary person, I’ve felt a lot of pressure to present as masculine to be taken seriously. Despite strongly not identifying as either male or female, masculinity still feels more “neutral” to me due to these biased cultural messages. I’m working to deconstruct this, but it’s a lot of conditioning to work through — conditioning still supported by our culture every day.
I almost exclusively wear clothing from the men’s department because it’s seen as neutral. Pants have gone from men’s clothing to clothing that’s acceptable for either gender, but skirts and dresses are still seen as female-exclusive. Particularly in a work setting, it’s much more likely to be acceptable for women to dress in a masculine clothes than for men to dress in feminine clothes.
Early in my transition, I realized that masculine clothing alone wasn’t enough to be read as not a woman. In my attempt to distance myself from being read and treated as a woman, I became more masculine. While I don’t regret where I ended up and I still feel most comfortable not being read as female, I do regret that I felt like I had to so sharply step away from femininity. I resent that when I think of a “person,” it’s a man that pops to mind first.
I want to see our society redefine androgyny, to define “neutral” as truly neither masculine nor feminine but somewhere in between or some of both. Neither masculinity nor being cisgender male should be seen as the default. Femininity is not less valuable than masculinity. Being male isn’t more “normal” than being female. Neither femininity nor being female should be viewed as artificial or extra or in any way less valid than masculinity or being male.
While I know most of my readers here are cisgender women, I am curious how societal ideas about gender have affected you. Do you also see our society hinting that male is default, or ever feel like things are centered around men or masculinity? What are your thoughts on androgynous clothing? Do “unisex” shirts drive you nuts, or do they work fine for you?
Image credit: jon collier/CC