As a person who rocks a buzzcut and rarely wears garments as feminine as dresses, my flair for androgyny doesn't often go unnoticed. Numerous people comment on my appearance and gender identity on the regular, expressing both flattering and slightly insulting sentiments along the way. Regardless of whether a comment is well-intentioned, my cisgender friends often offend me through some of the things they deem appropriate to vocalize. Even when friends who strive to be more aware attempt to make comments that are gender-affirming, they can still be a little difficult to swallow.
In my never-ending journey to find myself — and in learning to navigate social situations in the hopes of making them less stressful and more affirming — it's become extra important to find the words that can help me communicate and facilitate my desires. With much contemplation, I've considered the few comments that I hear from folks about my gender presentation most often, and outlined the responses that I find to be appropriate when tackling each.
When it comes to these interactions, it's important for me to respond in a way that's validating of my identity but also welcoming of an educational dialogue about identities like my own. With this in mind, here are some of the responses I've come up with when folks feel the need to comment on my androgynous appearance.
1. "Maybe I want to look like a boy."
One of the most common responses I've gotten to my hair — which I've been cutting short for over a year — is "you look like a boy." On paper, this might sound friendly when regarding transmasculine identities. The amused and slightly judgmental way this statement is often delivered, however, makes it anything but. It's as though people are really saying, "Ha! I perceive that you're a woman, so I think it's funny that your 'masculine' haircut betrays your 'womanhood.'"
If you're comfortable doing so, consider turning the tables on them by confirming that yes, in fact, you do want to look like a boy. In my experience, this had made folks blush at the clumsy way they threw transphobic rhetoric into the face of a person they are just now realizing might very well be trans.
2. "Thank you!"
Another great response to questionable comments such as the above can simply be "thank you." It should help you positively reframe the comment as being validating of your gender presentation while subtly sending the message that it is your intention to look or be masculine or feminine.
3. "Yeah, I love looking this way."
I love going off into tangents based on a reframe of my own making when someone pokes fun at something I deeply value without knowing it. Think about replying to their misguided comment with, "Yeah, I love looking this way," and muse about your empowered identity and the store where you bought your affirming get-up.
4. "It's funny how we assign gender to objects and aesthetics, isn't it?"
Taking a more educational route, I also love casually pointing out transphobic and sexist micro aggressions in our society at large to people who casually reinforce them through their comments about my aesthetic. This reply doesn't attack the speaker directly, and allows for an honest conversation about gender. In this way, you'll seem friendly and soften the blow of your well-meaning cis friend's embarrassment to boot.
5. "Well, that's your opinion."
Another comment I often get is, "I think you'd look so much better in a dress/with long hair/more makeup." I've mostly heard this from older family members and a handful of pals who just don't get it. I like dismissing comments like this with a simple, "Well, that's your opinion," especially on days when I don't have the energy to take the conversation further.
6. "I like how I look best when I'm presenting masculinely/femininely."
Another way to go is with complete honesty, letting the commenter know that you simply feel better in your gender presentation as is. Usually, people's suggestions are meant to be harmless. But a response like this can help exemplify the person's mistake.
7. "Luckily, I dress based on what makes me most comfortable and empowered. And I'm glad you can do the same."
Flipping the conversation over to bring attention to your friend's own empowerment and presentation can help make it obvious that their comment was essentially an attack on your identity. Promoting the open acceptance of every person's presentation further helps smooth things over and comfort everyone's hurt ego.
8. "What is so brave about a buzzcut/dress/etc.?"
A particularly patronizing response to my aesthetic — like "you're so brave, not many can people pull that off" — sometimes pushes me to reply with something that reflects my irritation a bit more clearly. If the person is being particularly unsupportive of your identity or presentation, put them on the spot with this question. Perhaps their answer will open up a dialogue that can be refreshing and enlightening for the both of you.
9. "I'm not 'brave,' this is just who I am."
Again, there's a lot of loving and enlightening power to be found in pointing out the error in your pal's words. Rejecting the "brave" label exposes just how patronizing a comment like this can be, since the implication is that you're doing something you shouldn't be.
10. "And you're really brave for rocking a beard/high heels/etc."
On the other hand, turning the statement back on them in a compassionate way by applauding the upkeep of their beard or the balance required to wear a pair of heels dismisses the comment entirely while keeping the conversation positive.
11. "Forget 'pulling off.' You look great in any outfit or haircut that makes you feel confident!"
Taking a more educational route yet again, consider explaining that everyone looks good in anything that makes them feel confident, regardless of the gender binary. Responding to a negative remark with a positive one is powerful stuff.
Dealing with these comments can be hard. But knowing the right way to respond to them can help transform these awkward experiences into practices in self love and lessons in humanity for both parties.
Images: Meg Zulch