Butchness Is Not The Opposite Of Beauty — It’s A Kind Of Its Own

Beauty is gendered — more specifically, who gets to be seen as beautiful is defined by how we perceive their gender. At one end of the gender spectrum, you have men, who get to be "handsome." At the other, you have women, who get to be "beautiful." But what happens if you don't follow society's traditional binary ideals?
We inherit this idea from a beauty industry that thrives on a stringent gender divide. Take the fact that products for "men" and "women" come in completely different packaging and different scents, with different prices and different claims, while essentially being the same item. It has led to the idea that for women to be "beautiful" they must embody a strict set of rules derived from the traditional aesthetics of "womanhood" — rules that embrace makeup, certain silhouettes, and specific hairstyles.
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For years, people have been fighting to challenge these expectations, attempting to broaden the narrow perimeters of mainstream beauty to include different races, genders, body types, and sexualities. It is an ongoing battle, but those perimeters have yet to widen enough to include those who renounce beauty standards entirely. 
To be butch, we are led to believe, is to be the antithesis to "traditional" beauty. By appearing deliberately gender-nonconforming, butch women and people are seen to be rejecting traditional forms of femininity. But rejection of femininity is not a rejection of beauty. Nor is it a bid to "look like" or embody masculinity. The beauty of butchness is that it creates its own category, one that stands apart from patriarchal standards and celebrates new versions of womanhood and non-binary identity. 
To learn more, we spoke to three butches about the beauty of being themselves in a world that "others" them. As these conversations show, solace comes with the freedom to feel comfortable presenting in the manner that women and assigned-female-at-birth non-binary people are taught not to. It's a beauty that embodies same-sex and queer desire, is inescapably dyke camp, and is largely missing from mainstream media. "Society isn't telling us that we're beautiful," said participant Xandice, "[so] we have to start telling each other."
"'Butch' was a dirty word for me for years, I'd feel sick if I said it out loud. Whereas now I relish it. It's synonymous with all of my favorite things: leather, denim, work boots, swagger, having an uncontrollable urge to wink. It's a very specific and nuanced energy.

I came out later than most, at 25. About six months after I came out to my mum, I felt free to pick up where I left off at 14 with my gender presentation. I have a very inherent butchness that I really repressed, so it felt like stepping into my own body as I'd always been. My first short haircut felt like my inner magnetic field flipping over 180 degrees. That was the moment in my coming out when I became myself.

My family have largely come to terms with my sexuality, or at least understand what they can and can’t say about it. On the other hand, they feel it's far more socially acceptable to critique my gender presentation than my sexuality itself. There’s far less pressure for people to pretend to be fine with you being butch. My uncle recently said to me, 'Why do you want to look like a man?' I don't look like a man! I look like a butch woman, it's not a choice — I'm butch because I can't be anything other than that.

When I was more neutrally presenting I didn't experience that much harassment, but now it’s basically daily. It's so acceptable to see butch women as 'other' and see them as wrong, gross, even dirty. I’m doing everything you're taught not to do as a woman, and the harassment seems like a more culturally acceptable homophobia. I appear very clearly as someone who is rejecting being sexualized by men and their gaze.

Butchness has a history tied to working-class women that’s very important to me. There's a bit in Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg about the revolution around gay identities that happened in the '70s and '80s, which saw far more middle-class lesbians taking over the community and rejecting the butches and femmes. It's part of the reason why I've leaned into the butch identity. Being from a working class background also compounds the homophobia and butchphobia you’re confronted with, and it felt like there was much more stigma and shame. I didn't know anyone who was a lesbian, I didn't think it was a thing you could be until I was at university. But that's why there's something so important about being butch and participating in that cultural history.

I have several older butch women in my life who are some of the most important people I think I've ever met. Coming out was a really difficult time for me and I was incredibly grateful to have those women in my life. While it certainly feels like there aren't many of us, out on the street you're quite visible to each other. A nod of recognition or a moment of eye contact can sustain me through a whole day of being called 'sir,' because I was seen for a second by somebody who understands what I am.

Even before I came out, 'beauty' was a term I hugely struggled with, but now I can see that of course I'm beautiful! I think women are beautiful, butch women are women, and therefore I am the most beautiful I've ever felt right now. I see my butchness as one kind of femininity on a three-dimensional spectrum of femininity. I don't like being referred to as 'masc-of-center' or having female masculinity — after years of trying to understand myself, I’m extremely comfortable identifying as a woman through understanding myself as a butch woman. I can't deal with it being this kind of line where I'm closer to the men than I am extremely femme women. I feel like I have far more in common with high femmes than I do any cis man."
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"Even though I never identified as lesbian (I came out as queer when I was 17), I've always felt aligned with butchness. When I see someone else who claims the word 'butch,' or presents in a way that you'd call a 'traditional' butch, I can relate to them immediately. Whether you’re a butch lesbian or masc-presenting woman, assigned-female-at-birth person or non-binary butch person, you're hyper-visible. Even when you try to assimilate, people seem to see through that and pick you out. When I was at school, I'd wear the 'girls' uniform, but people would still ask, 'Are you a boy or a girl?' There's something about the way you carry yourself, the way you act, that communicates that you're not fitting into these traditional gender roles.
People feel like they can abuse masculine-presenting people for doing gender 'wrong.' It’s the homophobic, queerphobic, transphobic phenomenon of not respecting people that you're not attracted to. Butches are not trying to fit into heteronormative societal ideals. We're not trying to be desirable for men, we're not trying to be anything; we're just living authentically and doing what makes us feel good. A dangerous way to live, but it's the only way I know how.
My gender and identity is a kind of soup: I identify as trans-masculine, masculine-of-center, masc, butch, and non-binary, which are all tied up together. I've always identified as genderqueer which manifests, for me, in being butch. It’s me pushing away who I was expected to be.
When I was a baby butch, 'beauty' was something that I never believed was for me, but my femme partner has really helped me to see the beauty in being butch. Instagram and Tumblr also helped me see people like me and see the inherent beauty we share. If I didn't have that, I could easily be beaten down. I’m a black, butch, non-binary, trans-masculine person — that’s a specific niche you really have to seek out to be affirmed. Society isn't telling us that we're beautiful — we have to start telling each other.
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We've come leaps and bounds in representation since I secretly watched Sugar Rush as a teenager, but people like me still aren’t included — largely because the creators and people with money are cis and straight. They're still going to be catering toward a largely cis and straight audience that is open to mainly seeing the non-threatening forms of queerness we’ve been socialized to accept, like feminine lesbians and white, cis gay men. Seeing the people that you would abuse on the street as beautiful in the media would completely be destabilizing.
It affects you, because you see queer people on screen but they're not like you, so you must not be desirable. We need to try to get more representation; we can't just be having Shane from The L Word. It’s why seeing Lena Waithe being a butch-presenting, masculine-presenting beautiful black woman is huge! Watching Orange is the New Black and seeing different kinds of queer people expressing gender is huge. I want to see more of that. Let those young butches know that we're out here and that you can live and be butch and be happy."
"I’ve never been able to hide the fact that I am queer — people would look at me and know straight away. I’ve tried to hide my butchness in the past but I just can't. Whenever I tried to be more feminine it felt… wrong. So I've always associated being butch with being comfortable and confident in myself. I've had to learn that confidence from a very early age, even if I didn't always feel it.
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It's only very recently I started using the word about myself. Before then, I’d always felt a bit nervous to identify in that way, even though I have many friends that do and they wear it with pride. I feel a lot of solidarity when I use the word 'butch' now.
I literally never saw anyone anywhere that looked like me when I was younger. Now you occasionally see representation, like on Orange Is The New Black you have Big Boo, but it wasn't always positive connotations. Her character was painted as sleazy, like it’s part of her butchness. It was only when I started working in Dr. Martens in 2014 that I seriously did change the way I present and felt way more comfortable. I go out of my way now to follow people on social media who look like me. It’s quite important to always remind myself that there are people out there that look like me who are surviving and thriving. (Though, to be honest, I still mainly follow animals.)
There are always so many expectations of how I’ll behave, and I'm not always as 'butch' as people think I am. I am sometimes quite feminine in my mannerisms — people act really confused when I giggle in a very high-pitched tone, which I don't really understand. Because at the end of the day, I still identify as a cis woman. I wish straight people could be a bit more flexible in how they see and categorize things, because I don’t get this from other LGBTQ+ people. They can’t compute me.
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Growing up, I wouldn't say I really ever considered myself beautiful. I struggled a lot with that. I've always known I'm not straight, but I also liked guys in school, though I never got attention from them. Even when I started presenting in a more masculine way and my partner would call me beautiful, I'd feel really uncomfortable with it and I'd ask her to use something like 'handsome' instead. I think it’s a gendered thing. You wouldn't typically call someone masculine of any gender 'beautiful,' you’d say handsome or something like that.
I also think [that] growing up, I have distanced myself from feeling beautiful. Sometimes I don't know if that's because I feel uncomfortable with the way I have presented in the past, or just because I have grown up quite insecure and I've never really been viewed in that way. It could also be a mix of both of those things. In school, I got no attention whatsoever, but when I started going out in queer spaces I was getting a lot of attention from people. At first I was really confused, I just wasn't used to it — I thought people were taking the piss out of me or something. When I did start presenting in a more masculine way and started accepting who I am, I suddenly became a lot more confident and felt actually comfortable with myself and thought, Yeah! I actually look quite good, I do feel beautiful, I do feel good."
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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