What Does It Mean To ‘Look’ Non-Binary?

When I tell people I’m non-binary, I often get the same response: "But you don’t look non-binary!" It’s a frustrating comment but I understand where it comes from; after all, we live in a society that chuckles when Piers Morgan sarcastically self-identifies as a penguin. I know people aren’t trying to be rude, hurtful or dismissive, and that usually they just haven’t been exposed to conversations around gender nonconformity. Yet it’s hard to ignore the underlying implication: that my identity is invalid.
The reality is that there’s no one way to be non-binary. Some of us look androgynous; others don’t. Some of us – but not all – also identify as trans. The only commonality between non-binary people are that we see gender as a spectrum, and we fall somewhere in the middle.
Even in 2021, these conversations aren’t getting easier. Last year, Apple was criticised for a series of 'non-binary emoji' which seemed to reinforce the myth that gender identity (who you are) is the same as gender presentation (what you look like). The truth is more complicated: the two are different but interlinked. For many non-binary people, playing around with your appearance can be a way to explore and communicate your gender identity – but not always.
"I used to feel the need to dress cautiously or be 'safe', but now I dress for pleasure," style blogger Ben Pechey tells me. Their wardrobe is filled to the brim with bright colours and bold silhouettes, but gender generally doesn’t cross their mind when deciding what to wear. "It’s more about how the shape of a dress makes me feel, or how heels change my mood. For me, dressing is an emotional exchange."
According to Ben, the media plays a damaging role in shaping perceptions of non-binary people: "They run with half the facts, spreading myths and dangerous misconceptions." In Ben’s eyes, the truth is simple. "My gender identity and the pronouns that go with it are not defined by the way I dress, and to think that you need to look a certain way to be non-binary is so harmful.
"Despite this fact, it can be hard not to internalise pressure to look androgynous. I used makeup as a safety blanket after I came out as non-binary; I thought that by visually communicating my gender nonconformity, I would stop the questions before they came."
For 23-year-old Charlie (who uses she/they pronouns), this period of experimentation happened before she came out. "I would occasionally try to dress more masculine and while it didn’t feel bad, it didn’t feel right either. I just knew that I didn’t feel feminine all the time; I felt this was the only way to express that. But this was all prior to coming out – now I feel comfortable dressing femininely on occasion, because I know that throwing on a dress doesn’t make me a woman!"
Part of this experimentation also stemmed from a lack of desire to be perceived as a woman: "I felt that if I dressed femininely, I would be perceived more strongly as a woman." Non-binary people understand that presenting as androgynous lowers the risk of them being misgendered. In this sense, presentation can feel like a tool to navigate the world with as little frustration as possible.
But looking androgynous isn’t always an option – especially if your body deviates from the super slim norm that fashion often taps for 'androgynous' editorials. "I’ve always wanted to dress more masculine," says 27-year-old Devin, "but as a plus-size person with 'feminine' curves, it’s hard. It took me years to find masculine clothes that made me feel good – ones which didn’t fall off in certain places while tightly hugging others!" It was only in January this year that Devin found a shop they could "trust", although they admit they "no longer feel the need to wear masculine clothing to feel valid as a non-binary person."
This relationship with clothing gets more complicated when other factors come into play. For New York-based musician CHAV, settling on a visual identity has been difficult: "At times I’m thinking about what it means for me to capture a straight audience and dilute my personal expression as a means for entry… [But] I’ve also thought my work is to benefit and aid the lives of queer PoC and femme people, so I have an obligation to be authentically myself in a big way."
CHAV admits that it’s a challenging, ongoing conversation – especially when art comes into it. "I was in the middle of a campaign recently and I had a beard, which was very much the story for the single. But I had a feeling I wanted to cut it off – that made me anxious, because all my press photos show me with a beard. I feared it was too soon to look different while people are still getting to know me, but it led to a moment of reflection: I’m a person. As a non-binary person, I absolutely have the right to release from these dated ideas of what it means to be a pop artist and to be successful in this space."
While researching this piece, I spoke to dozens of non-binary people – all with different experiences. Tom Pashby works across various sectors and each one affects their confidence in presenting as gender nonconforming: "When I’m not at work I feel more at ease wearing clothes and makeup which signal that I’m non-binary; work culture is still fairly conservative, but when I have meetings in parliament I feel less self-conscious if I subtly hint that I’m queer with bleached hair or painted nails."
Photo by Ayla Carli
For activist, speaker and trainer Jules Guaitamacchi, educating anyone unfamiliar with non-binary identities is part of their work: "I’m constantly seeking to remove this notion that gender identity is related to gender expression, biology or sexual orientation." They are currently transitioning but underline that this doesn’t change anything. "The common assumption is that I’m male because my gender presentation is masculine, but there are many non-binary people who often pass as binary but still stand strongly by their gender identity."
Statements like these shouldn’t need questioning. Every non-binary person I spoke to told me that, at some point, they had felt confused, misunderstood or pressured to look a certain way in order to somehow 'prove' their identity. Being non-binary is already exhausting; it might not seem this way, but small statements that imply we’re invalid only add to the frustration of moving through a world that is reluctant to acknowledge we exist.
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