A Guide to Passing in a Cissexist Society
When cis people meet someone (also non cis people sometimes), they’ll peg them as a certain gender (almost always (cis) male or (cis) female) in a splitsecond in the vast majority of cases. Sometimes their impression gets revised when the person opens their mouth or they see them from a different angle, and sometimes they can’t figure out what category to put them in, and will inspect closely until they come to a conclusion.
This has to do with a number of traits that are “marked” as masculine or feminine. Certain things are associated with either the male or female gender or sex, which to most of society are the same thing (insert grumpy rant here). With the growing community of nonbinary people, there are even a few things associated with being genderqueer/nonbinary! There’s a lot of wiggle room here - most cis women will pass as women even if they’re wearing a suit, and trans women can get pinned as trans even if they’re doing everything they can to appear feminine. That’s because some traits are marked more strongly than others. People generally process highly marked traits first, and if those are not present or confusing, they’ll move on to looking for less strongly marked traits to gender someone. Below are lists of traits that are marked masculine, feminine, and nonbinary respectively, with the most strongly marked traits in bold.
- Facial hair
- Square hairline
- Very thick body hair
- Low voice
- Angular face/prominent jaw
- Very muscular
- Very tall
- “Manspreading,” masculine walk
- Long hair (with the exception of a few hairstyles)
- Rounded hairline
- No body hair
- High voice
- Painted nails
- Curves/wide hips
- Tighter clothes, v-necks, purse
- Certain kinds of jewelry
- Bright colors, pinks and purples
- Very small
- Feminine gestures/movements/walk
Nonbinary/genderqueer/outside the gender binary:
- Brightly colored hair
- Certain kinds of jewelry
- Bow ties and suspenders
- Bright colors
- Bold/brightly colored makeup
Note that this is just a list I’ve put together from my own observations/what I could read on the internet, and might not reflect reality as closely as I or you might wish.
As you can see, the traits most strongly marked as masculine are all to do with the body and the permanent effects of testosterone, which is why trans women and men have such a hard time passing without medical transition. Voice training can help with the voice (in either direction); shaving, makeup, and other hair removal techniques can help with the facial hair; and makeup/contouring can also help with face shape. Breastforms, binding, and compressive shorts-type deals can help with body shape. Fitted but not fitting clothes (like straight-legged men’s jeans and button downs) can also help people with estrogen-dominant hormone systems appear to have a more testosterone-dominant body shape. Also layers. Layers help everyone.
In general, the more marked traits of masculine and feminine presentations you have, the more likely you are to be read as trans or genderqueer/nonbinary. If you have a few strongly marked masculine/feminine traits, or many weakly marked masculine/feminine traits, but many strongly marked feminine/masculine traits, you’re likely to be read as gay or gender nonconforming. If you have few or no marked traits at all, you’re going to be read as androgynous, and confuse the hell out of people who see you. None of the “marked” nonbinary traits are very strongly marked, so they’re most likely make you read as nonbinary/genderqueer to people who are more aware of queer/lgbtqia+/mogai identities, and just young or progressive to everyone else. Also note that the nonbinary marked traits are all ones that nonbinary people incorporate into their style deliberately as opposed to ones that grew out of cissexism, which is why cis people are less likely to recognize them.
So for people who want to present masculinely or femininely, maximize the traits on one list and minimize the traits on the others. For people who want to appear androgynous, try to minimize the traits on the masculine and feminine lists. For people who want to be very clearly Not Cis, try add in strongly marked traits on both the masculine and feminine lists - more marked traits mean more attention drawn to your gender. For people who want to be very clearly nonbinary, try the nonbinary list, and go wild with your own style. Create your own “marked” traits.
And of course, always remember that none of these traits are actually are indicative of gender; this is just a guide I wrote up for people who want to “pass” as something in a cissexist society.