By Amy Hernandez
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Socially we are expected to have straightforward answers to these questions, but as we have come to learn, gender is a social construct. To some people, what it means to be a man or a woman encompasses rigid lines that are not meant to be crossed. As more of us are becoming aware of, there isn't one way to be a man or a woman, or at least, we shouldn't have those intransigent perceptions on gender. Whether we like it or not, from the moment our parents know our sex, we are placed into one of two categories that are so difficult to escape. Boys are dressed in blue and pants. Girls are dressed in pink and dresses. Boys are told to be strong, protective, and not cry. Girls are told to be polite, gentle, and caring. Going further into adolescence, boys are discouraged from things perceived as feminine like having long hair, painting their nails, having ear piercings, and basically the right to express themselves however they want. Boys who break the norms are teased at best and bullied or physically harmed at worst. While girls face the same criticisms, researchers have found that judgments can be much harsher for boys and men.
It's hurtful when people question the sexual orientation of men who go against what is socially acceptable because people shouldn't feel pressured to disclose their sexual orientation in the first place. Labeling men who wear items perceived as feminine “gay” with an attitude of disgust has perpetuated the idea that being gay is wrong or offensive. Whether someone who identifies as a man wears feminine clothing is gay or not, their sexual orientation is no one's business. How we express gender has nothing to do with our sexual orientation, and it's inappropriate to assume or ask someone about their sexual orientation based on their clothes, haircut, or any other visible attributes.
Although it's taken us a long time to talk about these issues, I'm glad we're finally discussing how judgments on masculinity and femininity hurt all of us. I can't speak for all cultures and peoples, but it's disappointing that U.S. culture is still placing so much emphasis on the right and wrong ways of expressing gender. For many of us, this dialogue began on social media when Harry Styles was the cover star of the December Vogue issue and was then criticized for wearing a dress by someone who I won't mention by name because I don't think they deserve the free publicity. Although this was the first time conservatives of the media publicly criticized him and were all over social media, fans and interviewers have questioned his sexuality in the past due to how he expresses himself. Usually, men who wear masculine clothing aren't questioned about their sexuality, but as I said before, we should not question people's sexuality at all.
Despite the attacks on Styles' masculinity, fans and social media users quickly voiced their support for Styles and all men who are breaking gender norms. TikTok users, in particular, responded to the attacks by posting commentary on what being a man truly entails and how we need to deconstruct our understanding of gender expression. In general, Styles received a ton of support and love for his shoot with Vogue, which is a good sign that we are moving in the right direction. A few users who expressed their love, excitement, and support were @williamsheats, @ieucooke, and @spencewuah. Users who clapped back at the hate comments of conservatives included @unluckyp1ckle, @brialoveslouis, and @gianni.parello.
The conversation didn't stop here, @culted made a point of crediting black artists who have challenged gender norms in the past. @culted asked a critical question: do black male and nonbinary artists get the same praise for doing the same thing every day? Many black artists have broken gender norms such as Prince, Frank Ocean, Lil Nas X, Keiynan Lonsdale, Miss J. Alexander, Young Thug, Yves Tumor, Billy Porter, Jaden Smith, Ricky Thompson, Ashton Sanders, and Dennis Rodman. These are only a few black artists who have used fashion to reinvent our idea of masculinity but have not been in many conversations about gender expression. We must keep the same energy towards them and support and celebrate all artists who challenge gender norms, not just white men.
Since the Harry Style Vogue issue, many men have posted content on TikTok where they wear dresses, makeup, heels, and other "feminine" items. One user, @felipe_campano, posted a TikTok replying to a young girl who responded to a video of him in a dress by telling her followers, "Sorry if I offend anybody, but can we please NOT normalize guys wearing dresses?!" @felipe_campano was understanding and said that he wants to educate people and does not want people to send hate towards the girl. He explained how he has to endure stares and the threat of being beaten up when he wears a dress; challenges girls don't face. As @felipe_campano expressed in his TikTok, a man wearing a dress doesn't hurt us [women] in any way, so why are we quick to hate and judge?
Feminism is about fighting for everyone's equity, so it doesn't make sense for us to belittle, bully, or hate men who are trying to dismantle toxic masculinity. Maybe this topic seems insignificant to feminism because women have always been judged and attacked for how they either maintain or break gender norms. Still, I think reinventing masculinity matters a great deal because how men see themselves and their masculinity determines how they treat women, trans people, nonbinary people, etc.
Being comfortable with femininity doesn't automatically make someone a feminist, but I hope we are moving in the right direction by clarifying that masculinity is not erased when femininity is embraced. If men can embrace femininity and move away from thinking femininity is weak or ridiculous, this can serve as a form of empowerment. However, moving forward, we must not merely accept and celebrate gender fluidity for cis white men exclusively. All people deserve to be celebrated for expressing themselves freely. Fashion and social media are powerful tools, and we should be using them to elevate and educate ourselves.
Amy Hernandez is an editorial intern dedicated to researching and writing about all things skincare, film, and fashion.