Like many queer women my age, I got my first real unadulterated dose of what it meant to be androgynous through the character Shane from The L Word.
At the time, she affirmed my burgeoning queer aesthetic sensibilities. Not only did her style eschew gender norms, but so did her attitude. Shane wasn’t the ideal role model — she did prove that you didn’t have to be a cis hetero man to be a fuccboi, after all. But, despite that, I saw myself in Shane – or rather, I aspired to be as cool as her.
I became a tomboy around the same time that I discovered I was into girls. I was around five, and had the good fortune of having parents who let me dress like a boy in a Caribbean country where it was straight-up illegal to be gay.
I don’t know which came first — my crushes on girls or my affinity for menswear (like a gay version of the perennial chicken or egg problem) — but, in retrospect, they informed one another.
Tired of trading in adventure and play for the sake of looking pretty, dressing masculine was my way of pushing back against the constrained version of femininity that was forced onto me by society. And I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was also my small way of giving voice to a part of me that I swore I would keep hidden until the day I died: my sexuality.
I started being more open with it in college, and my style followed suit. I searched for inspiration any and everywhere — what I found was that there were a lot of Shanes, Kristen Stewarts and Ruby Roses, and they had a uniform: plain T-shirts and loose jeans ripped in the right places, the Haircut™ and an aversion to bras. They were portrayed as effusing cool and invoking desire in every woman that crossed their path, queer or not. They were shown to embody androgyny and masculinity and they were almost always white and thin.
Seriously, google “androgynous woman” and 99% of the photos will be of skinny white women.
I started to think that I couldn’t truly be considered androgynous unless I lost weight. I questioned whether I could wear the clothes I liked and be considered stylish and desirable.
Thankfully, I was able to find a few black, brown, and plus-size androgynous and masculine-presenting fashion bloggers through Instagram and Tumblr. But overall, the message was clear in mainstream media: fat androgynous people don’t exist.
There have been many thoughtful critiques about the narrow and high standards of beauty for fat women, and how only those that are under a size 14 with an hourglass figure make the cut.
And in addition to being “small fat” (a.k.a. under a size 14) and shaped like a vintage Coke bottle, a fat woman isn’t really considered desirable to the masses unless she is also engaged in hyper-femininity. God forbid she doesn’t have long hair, a face beat by the gods, and dresses like she’s on her way to a glamorous photoshoot.
Meanwhile, smaller women get to partake in a wide spectrum of looks and still be considered fashionable. If a fat woman wears a plain T-shirt, jeans, and has minimal makeup and hair, the perception is that she's not making an effort. But a skinny woman with the same look would be considered chic.
You can see this in “best celebrity style” slideshows. One from Who What Wear focuses on plus-size celebrities with the best style while the other from Stylecaster focuses on the most stylish celebrities on Instagram. The first slideshow showcases celebrities that are dressed in an extremely feminine way, save for Queen Latifah who is sporting high-end streetwear. The latter doesn’t say “The most stylish thin celebrities” but it’s implied, since not one fat woman can be found among 50 slides.
Additionally, it showcases a mix of casual and glamorous looks. For instance, wearing a plain white T-shirt and black leggings is all it takes for Kylie Jenner to be considered stylish for this slideshow. And in many of the photos, celebrities are wearing jean shorts and a casual top, which is in stark contrast to the red carpet-worthy looks of the Who What Wear slideshow.
The underlying message in these slideshows and media at large is that a fat woman subscribing to the minimalist/androgynous look doesn’t carry the same amount of cool as a thinner woman wearing the same clothes.
It took me a while, but I realised I didn’t need to look like Shane or a smaller version of me to be androgynous. Thanks to those aforementioned black, brown, and plus-size masculine-presenting Instagram and Tumblr fashion bloggers, I was able to see myself represented.
Representation is important and powerful. It brings visibility and validation to identities marginalised by society. We’ve come a long way when it comes to plus-size representation, but we still have a long way to go. While having a slideshow of plus-size celebrities with the best style is a step forward, showing that they’re only stylish when they’re red-carpet ready is regressive and grossly inaccurate.
We shouldn’t create narrower beauty standards in the name of body positivity. True body positivity means being inclusive of every size, whether a person presents as hyper-feminine, androgynous, or butch.