How women and men react differently to my be-skirted husband
One thing I have noticed: when Alex goes out in a skirt and/or heels, he frequently gets compliments. And all of them, without exception, have so far come from women. Younger women, usually. This begs the question: Are all of them hitting on my husband? I’d say, good for him – I happen to agree that he is a very attractive man. Still, I can’t help but ask – where is this coming from? Especially considering that far less women visibly react to my husband when he is clothed “normally”.
Women’s compliments usually mention two aspects: my husband’s style and, more importantly, his courage to go out like this in public. Reactions seem to be especially strong when they come from women who are themselves dressed alternatively. When they ask questions about Alex’s reasons for wearing skirts and heels, their interest seems genuine. As a result, Alex is constantly drawn into conversation by attractive women who openly and unmistakably signal their admiration (that alone could be a pretty good reason to wear skirts and heels as a man, in case you need one). Should I be jealous, you think? Fortunately, I feel pretty secure in my relationship and, rather than wasting my time on getting upset, my mind quickly wanders in the direction of understanding better what exactly is happening, socially and culturally speaking.
Contrast these women’s reactions with most men’s I have seen: quick sideways glances in our direction, impassive, stony faces, silence, sometimes a barely noticeable shake of the head. Some stare but most quickly look away, pretending they have not seen us when they clearly have. Or, there is the other extreme: a few men have openly hit on my husband and made rather aggressive sexual advances. Although, admittedly, the latter happens less in actual social situations but rather in the virtual world where people can hide behind their supposed anonymity. In contrast, I don’t really feel like these women that strike up conversations with Alex in the street, in shops, at the hairdresser’s, etc. are necessarily always flirting with him or really trying to hook up. Their tone seems respectful and friendly, curious but polite. However, it also feels like they frequently give voice to a sudden surge of heartfelt connectedness.
What role does socialization play?
I realize that not all women and all men will react in the exact same ways I have just described. Nevertheless, what could be the explanation for such stark differences in the ways women and men tend to react to a man in skirts and heels? When I ponder this question the first thing that comes to mind is the ways women and men are socialized. As we all know, what girls and boys learn from an early age about social interactions is very different. While boys are taught to compete with their peers and try to assume the position of top dog, what girls learn – and I remember this very well from my own childhood – is all about being as socially compatible as possible. Boys are praised and gain social status for individualistic tendencies, physical as well as mental strength and superiority over others. In short, they learn to stand out, showing off what they can do. Girls, on the other hand, are valued more for skills such as interpreting social cues correctly and reacting in a manner that is considered appropriate, helpful, well-bred. Their lives are all about connecting and connectedness, as well as being pleasant, caring, likable, communicative, sociable, and (visually) appealing to others. And this sometimes to the point of self-denial.
I think that the gendered training we receive directly connects with my core question of why women and men react differently to Alex. The way I see it, women generally compliment others more than men, and their goals differ from men’s when they do. While women show appreciation e.g. of others’ styles in order to level the playing field and socially connect to each other in a platonic way, seeking dialogue and fostering their social integration, men tend to compliment the people they are sexually interested in. For many it is, I think, a way of establishing sexual prowess, chasing and conquering the object of interest.
Straight women will compliment other random, unknown women in the street for wearing nice clothes, having nice hair or make-up, for example – I have never seen a cis-het male doing this with a woman in a non-sexualized way, or with another man just to start a friendly conversation. The only exception to this I can think of is, maybe, band merchandise or other hobby-related apparel – men might comment to other men about wearing a cool t-shirt of a band or a soccer team they also like. It’s almost as if complimenting another guy is only acceptable if the comment focuses on something other than the man and his physical appearance themselves. And this brings me to my other point: cis-het men tend not to compliment other men for looking good or performing well because 1. they feel a need not to level the playing field but to compete and hopefully come across as superior to other men, which would mean a compliment might signal comparative weakness or submission; and 2. according to the social rules they were brought up with, this would signal sexual interest in the other man.
The main problem: deep-seated chauvinism
To this day, being mistaken for a homosexual is something most cis-het men will work hard at avoiding. From their point of view, I almost don’t blame them – after all, most will have grown up with others constantly pounding into their heads that being gay as a man is “not normal” and frequently means severe social consequences, such as ostracizing, aggression, insults (some examples I hear adolescents freely throw around are, e.g. “he is (behaving) so gay”, “he is a sissy”, “he throws like a girl”,…), and other forms of violence and degradation. We can see how the root of this way of thinking and talking is deep-seated homophobia, which connects with a very specific image or standard of maleness that most males more or less consciously hold each other to. Men are supposed to behave individualistically, yes – but only for as long as they stay within a specifically defined box of masculinity. This image portrays a “real” man as one who is strong, decisive, authoritative if not readily aggressive, socially, cognitively and physically competitive, and straight.
Most importantly, this image is not only reductive and does not allow for much diversity in masculinity, but it is also misogynistic and chauvinistic, as derisive comparisons with females are used for targeting and degrading males who are considered “abnormal”, no matter their actual sexual orientation. While I understand where this is coming from when I look at boy and man culture, which still contains many elements I would judge as toxic masculinity, I cannot defend such an attitude because I think that it harms men, women, and people with a different gender and/or sexual orientation, not to mention children. Also, I as a woman resent being used as a means of comparison illustrating stereotypical male weakness!
How fighting chauvinism helps us
And thus I reach my conclusion. I think that women who are complimenting Alex for wearing skirts and heels in public are not necessarily hitting on him, but are rather establishing social and idealistic connectedness with him. My guess is that this connectedness comes from the fact that Alex is signaling to them that he is a non-threatening male promoting diversity in masculinity rather than uncritically upholding toxic standards of what a “real” man has to look like and do. They probably feel instantly and instinctively closer to Alex even though they don’t know him because he seems to be fighting for their “cause”, taking on the stance of protest against rigid gender norms that, to this day, harm a lot of us. Somehow, a man in a skirt and heels vaguely seems less threatening, more oriented towards social connectedness and treating women well, and more approachable. Also, women who themselves dress alternatively probably appreciate meeting another person who is also overtly challenging social and cultural normativity. And, unlike men, they are ready to call it as they see it, verbally communicating their attention, heartfelt respect, and support.
Maybe cis-het males with preferences for “normal” clothing and “normal” masculinity should consider whether they do not want to work on changing their attitude in this direction, too. Rather than feeling shame when they see another man “degrading” himself by wearing traditionally feminine attire, and reacting by ghosting, insulting or otherwise attacking him, they could learn to see and openly appreciate how what this man is doing benefits them, too: by showing that there is not one way, but a multitude of ways of being female, male, feminine, masculine, or other that are also valid. If cis-het men learned to think more in this direction, we could work on dismantling repressive gender norms much more effectively and together as a society, fostering social connection, understanding, and acceptance of diversity.