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Jewesses with Attitude

Androgyny: progressive or exclusionary?

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

The New York Times recently identified androgyny as the "it" fashion trend.  It seemed to begin with "skinny jeans" -- skin-tight pants quickly adopted by fashion-forward men and women.  Unisex hoodies, coats, footwear, t-shirts, and hairstyles were soon to follow.  While women dressing in masculine clothing is old hat (the tomboy), the idea of heterosexual men dressing in feminine clothing is new, edgy, and raising eyebrows as well as questions about traditional gender norms.  The New York Times writes:

During the 1970s, arguably the last time sartorial gender blending was as pervasive in the culture, it grew in part from the kind of feminist thinking that suggested girls play with Lego sets and boys play with dolls. “Now we have something new,” said Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist in Oakland, who writes about gender. That something is not necessarily about one’s politics or sexual orientation or, she added pointedly, “about one’s core identity as a male or female.”

What Dr. Ehrensaft has dubbed “gender fluidity” remains in her view a form of rebellion. It suggests, she said, that “younger people no longer accept the standard boxes. They won’t be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. I think there is a peer culture in which that kind of gender blurring is not only acceptable but cool.”

As a participant in this somewhat generational trend, I have thought a great deal about fashion and gender.  On one level, I love that we are headed in a unisex, gender-free direction.  Now, both men, women, and everyone in between, have more freedom to dress as they please.  It has been particularly fun to watch androgynous teens challenge school dress codes -- a tool often used to police gender in the name of reducing "distractions" in the classroom. As more and more teens sport skinny jeans, hoodies, and unisex hairstyles, a dress code that differentiates between boys and girls will become increasingly irrelevant.  Marlo Thomas and Letty Cottin Pogrebin would be so proud. 

This type of gender fluidity has the potential to revolutionize common understandings of gender.  The majority of heterosexual, gender-conforming people have no reason to seek knowledge of gender theory, and as a result, the traditional binary perpetuates.  The idea of a gender-bending, heterosexual, mainstream forces people to confront their own, internalized prejudices about masculinity and femininity, a process which could increase awareness and acceptance of trans and gender queer communities.  But unfortunately, some aspects of androgyny in fashion are problematic.

For many, androgynous fashion is inaccessible.  Simply put, not all bodies can participate in this trend.  In order to pull off the androgynous look, you need to be fairly flat-chested and very thin.  For many Jewish women (stereotypically seen as full-bodied and big-breasted) androgyny can be hard to achieve. Of course I do not wish to generalize (Molly Picon and Barbra Streisand prove that Jewish women can look convincing as an adolescent boy), but the reality is that lots of Jewish and non-Jewish women have breasts and hips, and need clothing that accommodates their curves.  Can curvy women still participate in the gender revolution, or do our genetics exclude us?  Androgyny is exciting and progressive when it comes to gender, but can be oppressive for women facing weight and body image issues.

An gender-blurring American Apparel ad via The New York Times

American Apparel, an iconic brand featuring unisex clothing, exemplifies how the thinness required of androgyny can lead to discrimination.  As the crew from Jezebel demonstrates in this video, most American Apparel clothes are not meant to be worn by average-sized bodies.  According to a letter from a disgruntled employee, CEO and skeezeball Dov Charney requires photographs of employees so he can weed out those who are overweight and therefore unfit to promote the company's aesthetic.  American Apparel, infamous for it's sexist and objectifying ads, is obviously an extreme case. Most unisex clothing lines have not committed these atrocious crimes against women, but the general aesthetic still promotes a level of thinness that is unhealthy for many women.  In effect, androgyny is the new "heroin chic." 

This is problematic for all women, and perhaps even more so for Jewish women.  As we have explored in previous posts, eating disorders are a serious issue in the Jewish community.  As I discussed in an earlier post, Jewish women have traditionally confronted pressure to achieve the "American" standard of beauty (tall, thin, and blonde).  A hot fashion trend that requires women to look like adolescent boys is not going to help.  It is also important to recognize that it is equally difficult for men who are not tall, thin, or "boyish," to achieve androgyny.

So what can we conclude about androgyny?  That it is good for challenging traditional ideas about gender, but bad for women?  Personally, I am too excited about its potential to explode gender norms to want to condemn it outright. (Has any high fashion trend ever been friendly to "real" women?)  As someone who wore men's cargo pants for years, I am excited that androgyny now affords men the freedom to transcend gender conventions in a similar manner. 

What do you think?  Is androgyny progressive or exclusionary?

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Androgyny: progressive or exclusionary?." 24 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2017) <>.


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