What Is Gender Expression?

An individual with a non-conforming gender expression.

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What Is Gender Expression?

Gender expression refers to the way that a person presents their gender to the world. How a person dresses can be a form of gender expression, but it can also encompass other aspects of appearance and behavior including hairstyles, body features, interests, body language, voice, pronouns, and mannerisms. 

While many people express themselves in ways that are aligned with social stereotypes related to sex and gender, other people may choose expressions that are different than what people may expect of their gender identity.

For many years, there has been an assumption that sex and gender were inextricably entwined and fixed. Today, people increasingly understand that this is not the case and that gender expression does not necessarily align with a person's biological sex.

However, in many cultures, social expectations and stereotypes for how people are expected to behave, dress, and express themselves based on their assigned sex are still quite rigid. People who express their gender in ways that do not conform to social or cultural expectations about gender may be subjected to bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

Gender Expression vs. Gender Identity

Gender is often described as having three dimensions. First is the biological or physical dimension, which refers to a person's anatomy and assigned sex at birth. Second is a person's identity, which refers to their own internal sense of gender. Finally, is expression, or how a person outwardly presents themselves and how that presentation represents and interacts with societal and cultural stereotypes about gender. 

Gender expression can be influenced by a person's gender identity, but it is important to remember that these two things are not the same.

A person's gender identity is their internal experience of gender. Sometimes people have a gender identity that matches their birth sex (which is known as cisgender), but this is not always the case. A person's assigned-at-birth sex does not always align with their deeply held sense of gender identity, in which case they may be transgender. 

Gender identity cannot be assumed based on a person's anatomy or appearance. Sex and gender are not the same things. While sex refers to a person's biological characteristics, gender refers to the social and cultural characteristics that are associated with aspects of masculinity, femininity, and nonbinary identities.

It is also important to distinguish between gender expression and sexual identity, which refers to who a person is sexually attracted to. How a person expresses their identity does not indicate their sexual identity. Some people with a gender expression that does not match stereotypes or expectations may identify as LGBTQ+, but others may not.

Types of Gender Expression

Gender expression often refers to how a person experiences and expresses various aspects of the male and female gender binary. Gender expression may also encompass characteristics that may be described as:

It is important to also note that these expressions are influenced by societal roles and cultural stereotypes, which means that they are not static and can shift and change over time. 

Behaviors, clothing, and even body language are all social constructs that are labeled as being masculine or feminine. This binary can restrict people from expressing themselves in the way that they want for fear of negative feedback.

Some people may identify strongly with a particular gender, while others may have more neutral or mixed feelings. A person's internal sense of gender identity may also not match their external gender expression. A person who was assigned female at birth may identify as male but continue to express their gender through what are stereotypically considered feminine traits, behaviors, and roles.

One study found that gay men and bisexual cisgender women were more likely to have a gender expression different than what many people would expect based on their gender identity.

Impact of Gender Expression

People who have a gender expression that is different from what people expect based on that person’s sex or gender identity may be more likely to experience bullying or other forms of intolerance and prejudice. Research suggests that people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming are more likely to face high levels of discrimination.

The expression of gender through appearance, dress, and behavior can play an important role in your identity and sense of self. However, due to discrimination, negative responses, and even the threat of violence, many people are not able to express themselves according to their gender identity. This can affect not only a person's sense of self but also their mental health and well-being.

Research has also shown that gender expression can play a role in the healthcare that people receive. Individuals whose expression of gender does not match their assigned birth sex experience more discrimination from healthcare providers, which can affect both access to and quality of care.

Tips That Can Help

If you are struggling with issues related to gender expression, there are some things you can do that may help. 

  • Talk to a professional: Speaking to a gender-affirming mental health professional can help you explore different aspects of your identity and gender expression. 
  • Care for yourself: Taking care of your health is important for your well-being. Find time to do things that you enjoy and work on taking small steps to ensure that you're taking care of your physical and mental health.
  • Look for ways to express yourself: Even if you are not ready to express your gender in the way that you would like, there are things that you can do. Experiment with different forms of gender expression in whatever way makes you feel comfortable or happy. Changing your hairstyles and wearing different clothes, for example, are ways that you can begin expressing yourself.
  • Find support: Having friends, family members, and mentors who understand your feelings about your gender expression can help. If the people in your life are not supportive, look for a group in your area or online.

What You Can Do

If someone you know has a gender expression that doesn’t match stereotypical ideas of how men and women should appear, dress, or behave, there are things that you can do to help be a supportive friend.

  • Support people's gender expressions: People go through many changes in life, and that can include their sense of gender and their self-expression. You don't have to feel or experience the same things as them to be a supportive person in their life.
  • Be an ally: Don't be afraid to say something if you see or hear someone being treated unkindly because of their gender expression. Learning how to be an ally and an advocate can help others feel supported and understood.
  • Ask people what pronouns they prefer: Don't make assumptions based on how someone looks or acts. If you call someone by the wrong name or pronouns, apologize and then correct yourself going forward.

Remember that societal roles, expectations, and stereotypes about what is masculine or feminine are not static and can change across time and cultures. 

A Word From Verywell

Gender expression is something that everyone has, but not everyone's expression matches what society might expect based on their assigned sex or their gender identity. This gender expression may be masculine, feminine, or androgynous, or it may even change depending on how a person is feeling at that point. 

Society continues to hold stereotyped, gendered expectations for how people should express themselves, but some places, including Ontario, Canada and New York, have passed legislation designed to protect people from discrimination based upon their gender expression.

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Article Sources
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