The Body Project
Bradley Hall 354
(309) 677-2469

Transvestism & Body Image

From the very day we are born, our clothes announce to others our gender identity: girls are dressed in pink, boys are dressed in blue. Clothing offers cues that guide adult interactions with children. Just as significantly, the ways caregivers dress boys and girls actually teaches children lessons about their gender roles. When boys are dressed in rugged denim and sneakers, and girls in frilly dresses and patent leather dress shoes, this reinforces the notion that boys should be active, get messy and explore the world, while girls should sit quietly, smile sweetly and enjoy being looked at. Clearly clothing is an important factor in the ways we experience and express our gender identities.

For some people, dressing as the “opposite” sex is a way of subverting oppressive gender roles, expressing both their feminine and masculine sides more completely, and feeling more comfortable in their own bodies. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a society that expects people to be either clearly feminine women or clearly masculine men, there is still significant stigma attached to the practices of transvestism (cross-dressing) and drag.

Cross-Dressing and Drag

Historically, the practice known now as "Cross-Dressing" was known as "tranvestism."  It is useful to make a distinction here between “” and “drag.”  Cross dressers are mostly heterosexual men who are sexually stimulated from wearing women’s clothing (Gilbert, 2014).  While female cross-dressers do exist, they are less visible because of the social acceptability of women dressing in more masculine clothing. Because we live in a patriarchal society, women who dress like men are, in a sense, empowering themselves by dressing like a higher status group, while men who dress as women are seen to be demeaning or humiliating themselves by dressing like a lower status group.

According to one study, the vast majority of male cross-dressers are heterosexual, and most marry at some point in their lives; most were raised exclusively as boys, and most report having typically masculine fathers and male role models in their lives (Docter and Prince 1997). Most do not permanently dress and “pass” as women; rather they continue to live their public lives as men, while at times dressing as women in their private lives (Bloom, 2002).

“Drag” artists, by contrast, are those people who publicly perform as the opposite sex to entertain an audience. The most common drag performers are “drag queens,” typically gay men performing femininity for an audience who knows that they are men (Schacht and Underwood, 2004). Generally the term “female impersonator” is preferred to “drag queen,” but the two are often used interchangeably (Hopkins, 2004). Much less common are “drag kings,” mainly lesbians who perform masculinity for an audience (Shapiro, 2007; Schacht, 2002). Most drag performers choose not to undergo sex reassignment surgery, preferring instead to embrace a theatrical representation of the opposite sex through performance, rather than by permanently altering their bodies (Bloom, 2002).  It is not safe to assume that drag artists are transgender or vice versa. 

Cross-Dressing, Drag and the Body

Many drag queens report enjoying the experience of gender transgression, which includes dressing up, wearing make up, masquerading in flamboyant dress, and flaunting their sexuality (O'Brien 2018). In addition, some men use drag to theatrically explore their feminine side, a side they are otherwise not comfortable expressing in our patriarchal and homophobic society. Because they feel disqualified from straight male identity, performing in drag allows them to express female characteristics that they would normally have to downplay (Jacob & Cerny, 2004). Oftentimes these men would like to be “pretty”, but social standards dictate that real men are not supposed to value feminine standards of the beauty (Brown, 2001). Through their personae, they are able to safely portray their own feminine beauty. From this follows a new found acceptance of their own bodies.

Likewise, Bloom (2002) suggests that the majority of male transvestites regard their feminine side as a “gift” that they have decided to explore through cross-dressing. Cross-dressing allows men embrace their feminine traits (both physical and emotional traits) without running the risk of destroying their sense of masculinity (Garber, 1992). Cross-dressing helps them feel more comfortable in their own bodies and balance the masculine and feminine aspects of their identity (Docter and Prince 1997).

Cross-Dressing, Drag and Society

Both cross-dressing and drag are stigmatized in American society today, especially for men. Men who dress as women, whether in public or in private, are often viewed as failed men. There is some evidence, however, that drag is slightly less stigmatized than cross-dressing. After all, drag performers don women’s clothing with the self-conscious intent of entertaining an audience. Cross-dressers, on the other hand, are often assumed to suffer from a mental pathology if their daily lives are significantly impaired by the practice. Understandably, then, many cross-dressers hide their cross-dressing even from those closest to them (Bloom, 2002).

This is not the case in all societies around the world, however. In Samoa, for example, men who dress as women and fulfill many of the same social roles as women are known as Fa’fa’fine. The Fa’fa’fine are well integrated into the social structure, serving not only as entertainers in “drag” shows, but as businesspeople, librarians, politicians, and Sunday school teachers, among many other roles. According to the documentary Paradise Best: Boys Will Be Girls in Samoa, most Samoans are proud to have Fa’fa’fine in their families; and some families even encourage boys to start dressing as girls from a young age.

Ask Yourself

Why does our society have such negative views of cross-dressing, when it is socially acceptable in other cultures?

When society tells us that the way we look (and dress) is abnormal, unattractive, even laughable, how does this affect the way we feel about and experience our bodies?

last update:  30 April 2021