8 Sex and Gender

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will

  • MLO 8.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to sex and gender, fashion, identity, appearance, and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 8.2 Identify the numerous aspects of transition for individuals in the transgender and nonbinary communities in the United States. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 8.3 Identify different types of dress worn by the transgender and nonbinary communities in the United States to affirm their gender identities. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 8.4 Identify trans and nonbinary people’s experiences in the United States wearing different dress objects reflecting their trans and nonbinary identities. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 8.5 Identify different fashion brands that produce and sell dress objects for the transgender and non binary communities in the United States to affirm their gender identities. [CLO 3]
  • MLO 8.6 Identity how gender expressions and norms have shifted and changed over time and across different cultures. [CLO 2]
  • MLO 8.7 Explain the role of dress and appearance in the development of one’s sex assigned at birth and their gender. [CLO1]
  • MLO 8.8 Examine social justice issues related to dress and appearance of the transgender and nonbinary communities in the United States. [CLO 3]
  • MLO 8.9 Deconstruct your own perspectives and approach to understanding the dress and appearance of the transgender and nonbinary communities in the United States. [CLO 4]
  • MLO 8.10 Identify the driving forces of transformative social justice change in the fashion system related to transgender and nonbinary identities in the United States. [CLO 5]


Sex is a way of distinguishing individuals based on a collection of biological traits. These traits include:

  • reproductive organs
  • chromosomes
  • hormones
  • secondary sex characteristics, such as breast development.

Sex is often associated with the words male and female, and throughout much of Western culture it is presented as a binary. People who challenge the male/female binary sex system are grouped under the umbrella  term intersex. Often, someone is labeled as intersex when they have ambiguous genitalia, though this term can apply to a variety of situations in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t  fit the box of “female” or “male.” Intersex individuals are fairly common, and approximately 2% of the human population is intersex. Sometimes intersex individuals undergo surgical interventions during infancy, decisions made for them by their parents, caregivers, or medical practitioners, so they can more easily identify as one sex, but many intersex people view these interventions as cruel or unnecessary.

Tricky Terminology: The term hermaphrodite has been used to refer to intersex people in the past, but starting around the 2010s has been viewed as derogatory.
Required reading: Terms and Definitions for LGTBQIA+ topics [website]


In contrast to sex, gender is defined as the social construction of femininity and masculinity. While sex is defined by one’s biological and physical traits, gender is a performance of mannerisms, posture, movement, vocal tone, word choice, and dress that serves to present a specific identity to the rest of society. Although they often overlap, a person’s gender identity, their internal understanding of their own gender, might not reflect their gender expression, the behavior, actions, and style in which they express their gender. For example, a closeted trans woman might choose to present herself in more masculine clothing until she feels more comfortable presenting her gender identity to those around her. Alternatively, someone might choose to present themselves with a more intense expression of the gender they identify with (e.g., a woman might wear  makeup, high heels, and pencil skirts) due to social pressures to perform one’s gender within a certain environment (e.g., a business office).


When someone’s gender identity and expression align with the social expectations of the sex they were assigned at birth, that individual is considered cisgender. The term cis is a Latin prefix meaning “on or from the same side.” Most cisgender people wouldn’t consider identifying with a gender other than the one they were assigned with their sex at birth. This sense of belonging is not a bad thing, but it is important to recognize it as an unearned and unrecognized privilege. For  example, cisgender people are often catered to when it comes to the presentation of “gendered” body wash,  deodorant, and shampoo options at the convenience store. While these soaps and detergents are all gender neutral in function, their packaging and presentation give them a gendered presence that  could make  someone who is not cisgender feel uncomfortable or uncertain about which product to purchase. Cisgender privilege becomes particularly clear when one considers the stigmatization of people who are not cisgender, known as cisgenderism or simply genderism.

Transgender and Gender Nonconforming

Transgender is an umbrella term for someone whose gender identity or gender expression does not align with  social expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Sometimes, transgender individuals will call themselves trans, a shorthand version of the term. A related term is transexual, which more specifically identifies those individuals who often, but not always, undergo transition processes.

Required Reading

National Center for Transgender Equality. (2018, October 5). Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive. Retrieved from https://transequality.org/issues/resources/understanding-non-binary-people-how-to-be-respectful-and-supportive

National Center for Transgender Equality. (2016, July 9). Understanding Transgender People: The Basics. Retrieved from https://transequality.org/issues/resources/understanding-transgender-people-the-basics


Transitioning is the process of changing one’s gender expression to match one’s gender identity. MTF: A person transitioning from male to female, using she/her pronouns (sometimes called a transwoman or, simply, a woman). FTM: A person transitioning from female to male, using he/him pronouns (sometimes called a transman or, simply, a man). Nonbinary, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming describes a gender identity that is neither female/woman nor male/man, often comfortable blurring gender lines.

For members of the trans and nonbinary communities, process of transition includes many elements:

  • awareness
  • psychological evaluations
  • legal identification
  • coming out or sharing
  • hormone therapy
  • surgeries,

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: Coming Out as Nonbinary, Genderqueer, or Gender Non-Conforming Video Transcript [DOC]

Nonbinary genders

In cultures outside of the United States, there are numerous examples of gender identities outside of the man/woman binary:

  • Five genders of Sulawesi, Indonesia
  • Kocek of the Ottoman Empire
  • Muxes of Mexico
  • Kathoeys of Thailand
  • Warias of Indonesia
  • Hijra of India

Two-Spirit of North America

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: Two Spirit Video Transcript [DOC]

Mānūs of Hawaii


Trans, Genderqueer, and Nonbinary Identities and Dress

Trans and nonbinary (TNB) individuals can conform to cisgender dress stereotypes in an effort to pass and/or challenge notions of femininity and masculinity to appear visibly TNB. Appearances that challenge binary gender constructions by combining or negating feminine and masculine aesthetics are often interchangeably referred to as genderqueer, genderfuck, genderless, nonbinary, or unisex (Beemyn, 2015). Some people may want to appear more cisgender (or “passing”), and some may want to appear more TNB (Allen, 2010); however, TNB expression is less binary. Furthermore, TNB individuals continually negotiate their gender performance (Butler, 1990) and may engage in “shape shifting,” or altering their appearance depending on the situation (McGuire et al., 2016). Numerous factors influence gender presentation. For example, some individuals may wish to appear cisgender because it can lead to correct gender identification by others or help them avoid dangerous situations (Garfinkel, 1967; Schrock et al., 2009; Snorton, 2009). Being visibly TNB can also allow individuals to promote visibility and challenge cultural assumptions about gender. Additionally, individuals use dress to camouflage body parts they may believe do not align with their gender identity or to highlight and reveal body parts that align with their gender identity (Corwin 2009; McGuire et al., 2016; Reilly et al., 2019).

McGuire and Reilly (2020) have developed an aesthetic identity framework using a combination of aesthetic, gender, and human development theories to study TNB clothing choices. Their model incorporates performativity and safety aspects of presentation; sensory, cognitive, and emotional aspects of clothing; exploration and commitment; scaffolding and feedback; and role-making and role-taking. They argue:

As individuals mature in their sense of transforming gender identity, they will consolidate their aesthetic identity and begin to take on gendered social roles (role taking) that they will adapt (role making). The gendered aesthetic identity will be a way of claiming and shaping an individual’s placement within a gender role, as well as making meaning of that gender role for themselves and others. (n.p.)

Rahilly (2015) suggested that TNB people are often forced to wear clothing that is physically or psychologically uncomfortable. However, the majority of participants in Rahilly’s study were White, so these feelings may not apply to all racial and cultural backgrounds. Still, regardless of one’s background, apparel designed for cisgender bodies may not fit TNB bodies appropriately. Mass-produced (ready-to-wear) clothing  often does not meet TNB individuals’ functional and aesthetic needs. Reilly et al. (2019) identified three themes some TNB people associate with searching for clothing: fit, cut, and sizing issues with mainstream ready-to-wear clothing; desire to use clothing to hide body parts that reveal a TNB identity; and desire to reveal body parts “to celebrate or show pride in one’s body and a design to highlight bodily changes post gender confirmation treatment” (p. 12). The study’s participants were diverse in racial and ethnic identities, suggesting these themes reflect experiences of TNB people regardless of race. Some TNB individuals may employ tailoring services to make mass-produced apparel fit their bodies. Additionally, with the growing visibility of TNB individuals, some clothing brands are responding to consumers’ needs by offering apparel designed specifically for the TNB market (e.g., FtM Detroit, Official Rebrand, Saint Harridan, and Transguy Supply).

Catalpa and McGuire (2020) found dress contributes to Serano’s (2007) “mirror epiphany,” or the first encounter with one’s authentic self: “Dress helps transpersons make a conscious connection between how they imagined themselves and the material reality of their physical presence” (Catalpa & McGuire, 2020, p. 57). Moreover, TNB individuals may employ tattoos as a sign of self-acceptance, to connect with their body, to mark their identity, or to celebrate physical changes to the body (McGuire et al., 2016; McGuire & Chrisler, 2016).

Trans Gear

Trans gear, or objects worn by trans people to affirm their gender identity, is a major part trans dress.

Chest Binding

One common piece of gear among transgender men is a chest binder. Chest binding involves the compression of chest tissue for masculine gender expression among people assigned a female sex at birth.

Required Reading

Sarah Peitzmeier, Ivy Gardner, Jamie Weinand, Alexandra Corbet & Kimberlynn Acevedo (2017) Health impact of chest binding among transgender adults: A community-engaged, cross-sectional study, Culture, Health & Sexuality, 19:1, 64–75. Retrieved from https://queerdoc.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Binding-Health-Project-Results.pdf

The first study to review chest binding in depth, conducted in 2016, included a sample of 1,800 adults. 97.2% of the participants in the study reported at least one negative outcome they attributed to chest binding, including

  • back pain (53.8%)
  • overheating (53.5%)
  • chest pain (48.8%)
  • shortness of breath (46.6%)
  • itching (44.9%)•bad posture (40.3%)
  • shoulder pain (38.9%).

Despite discomfort, though, the participants also stated that binding made them feel less anxious, reduced dysphoria-related depression and suicidality, improved overall emotional well-being, and enabled them to safely go out in public with confidence. One participant said, “Binding allowed me to present my gender as I felt it to be by flattening my chest and causing it to look more male. It helped to affirm my gender by appearance.”

Watch this video to learn more about how to safely use a chest binder:

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: How to use a binder safely Video Transcript [DOC]


Another type of trans gear is a packer, padding or a phallic object placed in the pants to give the appearance of a bulge. Like chest binding, this implement of dress is used by those who prefer to present as masculine. Packing can be done in many ways: for example, people create DIY packers by bundling socks or purchase packers and packing accessories, such as packing shorts and straps made for safely securing packers.

Example Video

Watch this short video on packers and STP devices to learn more: “Show and Tell of Packers and STP Devices for Transmen.”


Finally, a trans person might choose to use tucking to feel more comfortable about their gender expression. Tucking is the practice of arranging the external genitals between the legs with clothing. Since only about 12% of transgender women might obtain a vaginoplasty (a surgical procedure that results in the construction of reconstruction of a vagina), tucking, like chest binding, can help prevent dysphoria-related depression. Trans individuals might tuck with tape or with of a gaff, a garment used to tuck the genitals inward.

You can watch the video below to learn more about DIY gaffs:

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: How to make a Gaff for Tucking Video Transcript [DOC]


Allen, M. P. (2010). Connecting body and mind: How transgender people changed their self-image. Women & Performance, 20(3), 267–283. https://doi.org/10.1080/0740770X.2010.529248

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Catalpa, J. M., & McGuire, J. K. (2020). Mirror epiphany: Transpersons’ use of dress to create and sustain their affirmed gender identities. In A. Reilly & B. Barry (Eds.), Crossing boundaries: Fashion to deconstruct and reimagine gender (pp. 47–59). Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Geczy, A. & Karaminas, V. (2013). Queer style. London: Bloomsbury.

McGuire, J. K., & Chrisler, A. (2016). Body art among transgender youth: Marking social support, reclaiming the body, an creating a narrative identity. In Y. Kiuchi & F. A. Villarruel (Eds.), The young are making their world: Essays on the power of youth culture (pp. 97–118). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

McGuire, J. K., Doty, J. L., Catalpla, J. M., & Ola, C. (2016). Body image in transgender young people: Findings from a qualitative, community based study. Body Image, 18, 96–107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.06.004

McGuire, J., & Reilly, A. (online first in 2020). Aesthetic identity development among trans adolescents and young adults. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. https://doi.org/10.1177/0887302X20975382

Rahilly, E. P. (2015). The gender binary meets the gender-variant child: Parents’ negotiations with childhood gender variance. Gender & Society, 29(3), 338–361. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243214563069h

Reilly, A., Catalpa, J., & McGuire, J. (2019). Clothing fit issues of trans people. Fashion Studies, 2(1), https://doi.org/10.38055/FS010201.

Schrock, D. P., Boyd, E. M., & Leaf, M. (2009). Emotion work in the public performances of male-to-female transsexuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 702–712. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-007-9280-2

Serano, J. (2007). Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Snorton, C. R. (2009). “A new hope”: The psychic life of passing. Hypatia, 24(3), 77–92. https://www.jstor.org/ stable/20618165

Worsley, H. (2011). 100 ideas that changed fashion. London: Laurence King.


Representation of thinking and ideas being generated. Two black heads face eachother. One has question marks above the head. The other has yellow light bulbs above their head.

Sex and Gender Case Study

Step One: Become familiar with the case study.

  1. The case study attached below is a Word document and can be downloaded. It includes the task, evaluation, and template for the case study:

Sex and Gender Case Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas.

  1. Format your document.
  2. Remember to check the submission against the rubric.


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.