“You look like a boy.”
I’ve heard this comment numerous times in my life – more frequently in recent years, when more of my peers have established their perceptions of gender and appearance. Maybe it is my cropped hair or my gangly way of meandering around the school, but apparently, I do not fit into society’s definition of a “girl”.
This topic falls under the broad umbrella of gender expression. It refers to the aspects of a person’s behaviour, mannerisms, interests, and appearance that are associated with gender, that determine one’s femininity or masculinity. It may not always match one’s sex, which is the gender assigned at birth, determined by biological make-up. Rather, it is based on one’s personal preferences, and what he or she identify with as an individual.
Yet in present day, the majority of society still subscribes to and reinforces gender norms. A 2017 study by Pew Research Center found that society most values physical attractiveness (35%) and nurturing and empathy (30%) in women, in contrast to financial success (23%), ambition or leadership (19%), and strength or toughness (19%) in men. In Singapore, a recent survey by gender equality group Aware showed that 9 in 10 boys experienced some form of gender policing when they were in secondary school, the most common being pressures to “man-up” and to “take it like a man”. And just as boys are expected to be tough, women are expected to be demure; a YouGov global report found that 28% of Singaporeans find it unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public.
We believe a girl is one who likes pink, frolics around in flowy dresses, with a long, voluminous hair. We catch glimpses of her in beauty pageants, or the front page of the newspaper, exemplified by pop stars like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. A typical boy is one typically who casually flaunts his strength by offering to do the heavy lifting, often creates a ruckus with his equally boyish friends, and never wears clothes that fit too tightly for fear of being called a “sissy”. He is one who talks about sports, cars, and makes sexual innuendos out of almost anything. We see him as A-list Hollywood actors or even the President of the United States.
Those who subscribe to such gender expressions are able to fit into society well because they are considered the norm, while those who choose to express themselves differently tend to face discrimination and judgement, just as I had, that stem from narrow mindsets that thrive in convention. In men and boys, atypical gender expression is often described as effeminate. In women and girls, atypical expression is known as tomboyish or butch.
But limiting our gender expression limits our appreciation of our personal identity and sense of self. Restricting the spectrum of acceptable gender expression oversimplifies the complexity of humanity; it suppresses the fact that all of us are amazing, contradictory, mysterious, hopeful, sad, and independent individuals.
Most of us have already deemed several other stereotypes obsolete; for instance, we know that not all Asians are good at Mathematics, nor do all of them speak English poorly. We know that productivity at work is not associated with age nor ethnicity and that women can be just as capable as men. It is rather ironic that despite all these progress, we are still narrow-minded and judgmental about the issue of gender expression – something that is not really so difficult to accept.
For instance, women started wearing pants in the 1800s, and it eventually gained traction since the 1900s. We do not call women in pants men or judge them for doing so in modern society. Why, then, do we mock men who choose to wear skirts, dresses, makeup, earrings, or stilettos? Why do we limit the fashion choices of men simply because of our preconceived notions that only women put on makeup, and men who do as well are ostracised as gay? Why do we have to categorise parts of our appearance as feminine or masculine? These are questions that have no definite answer. Our society is so complex and filled with so many unique individuals that it is difficult to put a finger on the exact reasons for the perpetuation of this mindset. It is ironic, therefore, that such diversity has not encouraged us to be more open and accepting of the ways different people would want to express themselves.
I understand that it might, of course, be slightly disturbing for some to observe others who are not so firmly anchored to the gender they were born into. It might be intimidating to have to accept that one is at heart and in the mind always going to be something far more diverse and multifaceted than a mere ‘man’ or ‘woman’. But we should not be scared; perhaps this would inspire us to change our mindsets and perspectives about how we see the world. As humans, it is part of our nature to push boundaries and resist restrictions, even ones that we have created for ourselves.
We must not forget that a civilised society respects all kinds of people. We must continue to build our communities on strong foundations of freedom for unique thought. Beauty is only skin deep; people are all more than their appearances. Recognizing both the commonalities and uniqueness of each person is essential in allowing us to expand our thought and action, be it in our personal or professional settings. Only through opening our hearts and minds will we be able to tap on our potential as a society and unlock new possibilities.
I believe that we are, innately, not against the idea of freedom in gender expression. Rather, it is that we are often unaware of the concept and rarely think about it. Be it in schools or in the media, gender expression is a topic that is often swept under the rug because it is deemed unimportant, in comparison to gender identity, or too controversial to talk about. I only learnt about the concept of gender expression through stumbling across several social media posts and exploring it by myself. As a society, without stimulus, we lack the motivation to push boundaries and challenge conventions we have accepted since we were young. It is, then, important for those who are aware of and intrigued by the idea of gender expression to speak up, and become springboards that generate greater awareness such that this topic is more widely acknowledged, thought about, and discussed by the rest of society.
These people are the ones who would venture into the section of the retail shop filled with clothes meant for the opposite gender. They are the ones who would wear whatever makes them look good as a person, not only as a feminine woman or a masculine man. Perhaps one day, men sporting the perfect skater skirt will be as accepted as women donning power suits. And the best part of this future is that no one would bat an eyelid upon seeing these people who have crossed lines we set for ourselves.
Maybe one day, I would no longer have to hear people tell me, ‘You look like a boy’.
Xin Yi, 18A15