The Term “Gender-Neutral” May Not Be as Positive as you Think

A colleague mentioned this idea to me recently and it caused me to really think. I thought I’d share it with you.

By calling some lines of clothing “gender-neutral”, we are implying that clothing isn’t normally these things.

This might seem pretty obvious at first but read it again and think about it a bit more deeply. For me, this idea got me evaluating whether labelling clothes as “for everyone” is maybe not as positive as it seems on the surface because clothing is inherently for everyone.  

I guess the point of gender-neutral clothes is to bypass gender and highlight clothes. However, my colleague made me realise that this term only emphasises gender. ‘Gender-neutral’ implies that the clothes are ok for someone of any gender to wear, not that they are genderless. There’s a subtle but notable difference there. Of course, gender-neutral or unisex clothing lines theoretically suit non-binary and intersex people nicely as they are not forced to shop in either the men’s or women’s section. However, anyone who is browsing this area is still shopping in a gendered part of the shop. ‘Gender-neutral’ won’t be neutral for much longer if we give it its own identity, associations and expectations.  

I believe that people often forget that gender is a socially constructed concept. It is our choice as to whether we continue to reinforce it or whether we rebel against it. Sex is biological and will always exist, but gender is malleable and non-existent in other species. Traditionally, the argument would be that an hourglass-shaped dress would far more likely fit a woman over a man…but a dress in general? There’s nothing apart from our own history and perceptions that tells us this is reserved for women. Whether or not this is reserved for women in the future is down to us right now in the present. 

On the biological front, I see why some might argue for male- and female-specific clothing, and the term “unisex” complements this. Males and females have different body shapes and builds – fitted clothes are often designed differently to complement these two standard body types. Ironically, by only having these two categories, we imply that being either male or female guarantees you to fit in your respective category and we all know that there aren’t just two body shapes. There are women whose bodies better suit “men’s clothing” and vice versa. So, we could argue that it is important to have men- and women-specific clothing lines for the reason of biological fit, or we could argue that it is important to have a range of clothing lines that fit a range of body types and sizes and that the description of gender/sex is technically irrelevant.

On the gender front, having men’s and women’s clothing could cause anyone to have an identity crisis, cisgender or not (when your gender corresponds to your birth sex). I believe that anyone can wear a skirt and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but by shops only putting them in the women’s section and by gender-neutral brands excluding skirts from their clothing lines, they are responsible for a man questioning whether he should be buying them, or a non-binary person questioning whether this deviates from their identity. 

I could wear men’s, women’s or gender-neutral jogging bottoms and feel just as comfortable in each pair. I know that it is ok for me to wear any of the above: I’m not the one gendering these clothes, the brands are. Regardless of whether we are the target audiences or not, we are all valid customers for men’s, women’s and gender-neutral clothes. 

Whilst we go through periods of social change, words like ‘androgynous’ can be useful to describe what we are trying to achieve if we are purposefully aiming to break the barriers of heavily gendered clothing. I worry that a problem will arise if we continue to call a man wearing a crop top ‘androgynous’ when this becomes common or disassociates itself with women. I recognise that a couple of hundred years ago, I would have spent every day of my life in dresses: trousers were not gender-neutral and now they are. I appreciate that there is marked progress here and, especially, that this is a cultural privilege. But we need to keep pushing for change and not stunt our progress by falling at the toxic-masculinity hurdle. Ideally, in the not-so-far future, dresses, skirts and tights will lose their femininity (whatever that means) and everyone will feel free to pick whatever they feel drawn to off the unlabelled, genderless rail. 


For deeper insight into critical evaluation…

The Wellbeing Collective has launched an online Equity, Diversity and Inclusion course which you may be interested in. This course has three topics: Assumptions and Perceptions; Privilege, and Allyship. During this course, you will discover the difference between assumptions and perceptions, why implicit biases are harmful and how we can combat them; what privilege really means and the types of discrimination and conflict people face; the qualities that make up an active ally and how you can gain self-confidence and adapt your communication to fit different scenarios. Click here to find out more information and check out our course. You can purchase it by contacting info@thewellbeingcollective.co.uk.


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