While absentmindedly scrolling through TikTok, I came across a video that prompted me to pause. A girl, who was “attempting to look feminine the way that boys do," had applied dark makeup, donned bulky rings and was wearing structured clothing. A quick hashtag check proved that this video concept was trending.
This aforementioned “feminine boy look” is a subset of TikTok fashion that includes men in feminine aesthetic choices, such as makeup, jewelry, skirts and nail polish. Typically, the style still maintains an element of masculinity, such as structured pants or boxy coats.
When heterosexual men embrace feminine styles, they are glorified and praised for “breaking boundaries." While many creators who embrace feminine styles still do receive hateful comments, the majority of interactions on these posts seem to be overwhelmingly positive and almost exclusively from women.
Something about the TikTok concept of women embracing “men’s version” of femininity didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t determine exactly why.
I firmly believe in creating safe spaces for boys to explore self-expression. Men and women should both be empowered to express themselves, and restrictive gender roles and norms are oppressive for men, women and non-binary or gender-fluid individuals.
The influx of feminine fashion worn by men has risen to notoriety alongside the narrative that men embracing these styles is unprecedented. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Young boys in the 1880s typically had long hair and wore dresses. Men were the first to wear heeled shoes, and eyeliner was initially worn by both men and women in ancient Egypt. Scottish men have been wearing skirts in the form of kilts since the 16th century. Our perception of gender expression is constantly evolving based on the current historical and cultural climate.
Despite these constant changes, three themes clearly emerge when examining gender norms and clothing. Dominant groups in society (such as white, wealthy, straight men) tend to control conditions that impact gender norms, and thereby feminine and masculine fashions. Capitalism has significantly impacted male and female fashion. And finally, there are particular expectations of what femininity really entails.
In the 1940s, women’s fashion was highlighted by boxy dresses with structured shoulder pads and patterned pantsuits. Just 10 years later, 1950s fashion magazines emphasized full skirts, pearls and heels. How does a fashion preference drastically change within a decade?
In the midst of World War II, women needed to fill the job market as their husbands went off to fight. They were encouraged by their communities to go to work and support the war effort, and they needed practical, durable clothes to do that.
When the war ended and men came home, men wanted those very jobs back. Women were then encouraged to leave their jobs and become housewives, and most importantly, look beautiful. Feminine fashion styles returned tenfold to satisfy that need.
The role of capitalism
Gender-neutral clothing for children was highly popular from the 1960s through the 1980s. Following that decade, we see the emergence of “pink for girls, blue for boys” as a cultural wave.
How and why did this happen?
Because of consumerism.
When all babies wear white onesies, there's not a lucrative market for baby clothing due to a lack of options. However, when girls need to wear pink and boys are expected to wear blue, there’s more opportunity for the production of goods, and therefore, consumption. In turn, this change results in more profit.
Profit can also come when men and women embrace fashions stereotypically opposite of their gender. However, the styles aren’t typically embraced in full — for example, when women began wearing t-shirts, the “women’s cut” was born. When men began wearing eyeliner, the phrase “guyliner” was created.
Men and women may experiment with feminine and masculine styles, insinuating gender defiance. But when the market and our popular culture interpret this to create “feminine versions” of masculine items and “masculine versions” of feminine items, is it really defiance?
Expectations for femininity
But does praising a “male version” of femininity genuinely validate femininity? Or does it contribute to the commoditization of femininity, thereby invalidating the females and female-identifying individuals who are its proud architects?
Femininity is valuable regardless of who embraces it, and it is no more valuable when performed by men.
Seeing men valuing feminine styles seems to insinuate that they value femininity, and therefore, women. This is particularly appealing to women, and perhaps part of the reason why these creators receive so much praise for doing so. However, when a man wears feminine clothing, it doesn’t automatically mean he respects women.
Heterosexual men need to bring a lot more to the table to help dismantle the oppressive systems of gender norms we operate within.
I am glad to see men embracing feminine styles. I hope they continue to defy gender norms and express themselves however they would like.
However, I hope to see them tackle the negative elements of hyper-masculinity, such as emotional blockage, excessive aggression and learned sexism. I hope to see the pursuit of sustainable approaches to resolving toxic gender norms, as well as genuine validation for the women who have evoked femininity all along.
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