Androgynous. Sounds like something Vogue made up, or a word that you pretended to know when a college student spoke about it while reading a book in a coffee shop. Here’s something: go a computer and go to Google. Type in ‘androgynous’ and pull up Google’s ever-efficient image search. Take a good, long look at the images represented. For some of us, including myself, androgyny represents an ideal, an ideal that we are forever in search of. A quick image search presents one with starting point, but are there things we don’t see represented? I don’t think it’s unfair to say that those images reflect the standard by which we understand androgyny, by which we as a culture accept someone as androgynous, rather than gendered. Who do you see? What do you see?
In search of brown faces like my own, what I find are white people. Skinny people. And a standard of androgyny that entirely depends upon a binary concept of gender. Although it might sound simplistic to say, androgyny on the internet can be explained by a simple mathematical equation. Take femininity in one hand, and masculinity in the other. Add femininity to masculinity and you get androgyny. Add masculinity to femininity and you get androgyny. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventures, try subtracting both. The problem with this is that femininity within androgyny is like rain on a June afternoon in Delhi — almost unheard of. Anything more than a bit and… well, you’re not androgynous any more. And being a genderqueer person of color, I can speak personally to some of the hardships that otherwise go unnoticed for brown queer people within the genderqueer community.
This traces itself back to the Google search, and to how we, as a culture conceptualize gender presentation, or the lack thereof. The issue with so many clothing brands and humans alike is the automatic association of androgyny with some degree of perceived masculinity on feminine people. Google defines “androgynous” as “partly male and partly female in appearance; of indeterminate sex.” Among other fashion labels, Zara recently launched its first ‘Gender Neutral’ clothing line. To a genderqueer person, this sounds like heaven. In reality, this could just be a reinforcement of patriarchal ideas and a replacement of old binaries (women in dresses or skirts and men in pants) with new binaries (androgyny equals ‘boyfriend jeans’). What we see are exclusively skinny, cis-passing bodies wearing loose clothing. But what about women whose bodies don’t comfortably nestle into men’s blazers? What about transfeminine people? Where are the dresses and the bright colors for them? Why are androgynous clothes all grey? What about people with breasts, love handles and thick thighs who don’t want to be misgendered? This challenge continues in my traditional Indian household, where wearing a sari is coded feminine, where a bandhgala or kurta is coded masculine, and I struggle to find an in-between. Will the stores ever sell clothes I can wear to the Mandir or for my cousin’s wedding that align with my gender?
Of course, it could be said that clothing isn’t gendered at all—what makes a dress ‘feminine’? What makes a grey, loose sweater ‘masculine’? And what, then, makes us believe that the grey, loose sweater is more ‘androgynous’ than the dress? While I’m all for the concept of truly de-gendering clothing, this doesn’t seem like a viable solution. Realistically, we live in a gendered world where passing as cisgender is likely to prevent you from being attacked on the street or ridiculed in public. The survival and comfort of Trans and gender nonconforming people is a priority, as it always should be. Another issue is cost, and genderqueer people often need to be able to pay tailors to modify clothes — and since Trans people are as a demographic substantially less wealthy than the average cis person, that’s an expense that they frequently just can’t afford. And, of course, when I enter my traditional Indian house, I have no choice but to either perform femininity or receive nothing but backlash.
Bottom line: It is clear that gender neutral clothing lines and stores are crucial for the queer community for a number of reasons. But they need to be done right in order to affect any real change in how we perceive gender and how we treat trans people both in fashion and in public. We need real representation, representation that I can see while I scroll through my phone under the blankets while my parents are asleep and the dysphoria hits. We need feminine clothing that fits masculine bodies and masculine clothing that fits feminine bodies. We need to abolish the stigma of femininity and trans-ness. And, most importantly, we need to help gender nonconforming people feel safe in their homes, in clothing stores, and in their own skin.
Personally, I’ve found myself in an ironic catch-22 situation where I have to adhere to gendered looks and standards in the pursuit of attempting to be genderless. Where I demean and shun my fatness for what it adds to my already perceived ‘femaleness’. And, where all I have is an overwhelming amount of white individuals to look up to as ideals of androgyny and this only discourages from thinking that I can even attain a state by which I am accepted as genderless in this culture. My Google search’s idea of androgyny may be a cis woman with short hair and loose-fitting corduroy pants. And if that’s how you’re comfortable identifying, all the power to you! But when concerning gender neutral lines, we cannot ignore the fact that the prime audience should be non-binary and Trans individuals, individuals of all sizes and backgrounds, and individuals who should not have to break the bank to wear clothes that help them feel more like themselves.