I want to preface this with the disclaimer that being ‘hot’, or sexually desirable, is not the barometer of liberation, and it is not the centre of my political project as a non-binary person. However, I think that it would be disingenuous for most of us to claim that what society calls desirable, its assessment of our ‘sexiness’, does not affect our self-image.
I am non-binary, and I present ‘androgynously’. I know that this is right for me, but, alongside my dysphoria, I struggle with a feeling of being undesirable. This might be a personal problem, but I think it is broader, too: the message I receive from culture is that my transness, my masculinity, and perhaps most of all my ambiguity, exclude me from ‘hotness’. I suspect this is a distinct experience of being a transmasculine non-binary person; transfeminine people of all genders are more often treated as hyper-sexual, and viewed through a polarised lens of fear or fetishisation. However, I cannot speak to others’ experience, so this is simply an interrogation of my specific feelings about androgyny, desirability, and being non-binary.
Culturally I feel as though there can be no truly ‘gender neutral’ sexiness, and that elements of masculine and feminine sexiness are seen to cancel each other out; embodying both at once is impossible. Desirability is often by intense sexual dimorphism: large breasts on soft-faced, hairless women, or heavy musculature on stubbly men with chiseled jaws. In fashion, androgyny remains the domain of casual and utilitarian clothing, it is almost non existent in lingerie or formalwear: gender non-conformity or neutrality is not allowed to exist in situations where we are supposed to ‘look our best’.
Androgyny is often defined in the negative, in an absence of secondary sex characteristics such as breasts or facial hair, and I fear that the more I embody this the more I will appear prepubescent, sexless and disgusting. A sort of ‘sexy androgyny’ has begun to emerge, epitomised by someone like Ruby Rose – but it almost always involves thin, white people assigned female at birth with soft features and breasts, and exists largely to cater to an edgy, liberal male gaze. I do not want to fit my non-binary body into this mould, but it is hard to find an alternative.
I feel as though I am failing to ‘do’ my body right; cisgender women have complained of how lucky I am to have some of the most female-coded aspects of my body – large breasts and near hairlessness – but I go out of my way to hide these aspects: I hate them. According to patriarchy, the right response would be to buy a push-up bra and a little black dress, it is a terrible waste to put on a binder and button a men’s shirt up to my throat. When I do these things, I am rejecting any chance at desirability. I can never be desirable because my body can never fulfil the ‘promise’ of my presentation, while my presentation will never fulfil the ‘potential’ of my body.
So what do we do with this feeling? Well, truthfully I have little advice for individual non-binary people. As I think is the case for many trans people, my self-loathing runs deep, and unpicking it will probably be the work of a lifetime. I think I have benefitted from choosing friends and partners who respect and understand my identity. I have also sought to hone my presentation to be as comfortable as I can, down to tiny details like underwear or deodorant, which can genuinely increase my confidence. I try to surround myself with affirming images of non-binary people, but these can often be difficult to find.
Relatedly, I think cultural representation of transmasculine people is a huge contributor: in both fiction and news media, we are almost always seen as figures of pity, or at best novelty. Transphobic ‘feminists’ especially often seek to present us as lost, manipulated young girls, and treat us, even in adulthood, as children to be protected. This infantilisation contributes to much of my insecurity, and the desexualisation of our bodies. I think there is also a wider problem, in the view that all female bodies are essentially objects to be aesthetically appreciated by men, and the dominance of the male heterosexual perspective in determining cultural standards of desirability.
Finally, and perhaps underlying all this, culture needs to stop teaching people, especially those of us who are not cisgender men, that our worth and our hotness are inextricably tied together. Admittedly, this is a big ask, and not even a fraction of the project of trans liberation. I hope we’ll get there, and in the meantime, be nice to your non-binary pals – and tell them they’re hot.
This week HuffPost UK is running Being Non-Binary, a series of first-person perspectives exploring what it means to be non-binary, looking at how non-binary gender identity relates to different people’s personal, professional and romantic lives. If you would like to share your experience, please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org