Does wearing a dress make you a girl?

5 min readMar 20


One of the rubrics of trans childhoods is that young children drawn towards clothing and toys of the opposite gender to the one they were assigned at birth makes that child deviant, possibly trans. If gender, and the social construction of gendered identity, is a manifestation of the societies we live in, then how do we square trans children without also dismantling this constructed notion of gender? This notion of constructed identity, that to be a boy you must do boy things, to be a girl you must do girl things, is inherently flawed, as many cis folk will automatically fall foul of it when they deviate. Thus, it is reasonable to argue that wearing a dress does not inherently make you a girl.

However, if you take the argument that gender identity is innate to us all and is an expression of self-understanding, then if you perceive yourself as a girl you become drawn to what the society around you states in feminine. There is a fine line between projecting a gender identity onto a person and critiquing the societal normativity for a particular gender. If you wish to be feminine that does not automatically make you female, for girlhood and womanhood are as wrapped up in your own expression of self as they are in what society projects onto you. To be a girl is an innate understanding of self, to be woman is more than the chromosomal biology you were born with. The wrapper you put around that is a matter of taste and available options.

Plato’s cave imagined humans staring at the shadows cast from a great fire behind them, imagining that the shadows were reality. It was only those who turned, saw the fire, and then walked out the cave who got to experience reality in its fullest. Societally constructed gender is much like the shadows cast in the cave, flickering, always changing. What is masculine or feminine in 2023 is not the same as masc or femme in 1923. Time, fashion, societal evolution, and many other facts have shifted our perceptions of gendered identity, so to define yourself as male, female or non-binary is in part to either co-opt an understanding of this construction or to reject it.

That children have a gendered identity from an early age is rarely deconstructed outside of the example of trans children because societally we accept children who conform to our understanding of gender roles. A child in Malaysia will have a different conception of gender to one raised in Sweden. That each language has its own nuance on gender speaks to the historic threads binding the linguistics. When I write of girlhood in English that semantic difference will be harder to reflect fully in the German madchen or the French fille. To wear a dress in English freights meaning drawn on centuries of cultural nuance and framing. To have a woman’s junge years is hard to quantify beyond saying that I am a woman with a boyhood.

To assume that children cannot know a gender identity speaks volumes for how society automatically expects gender roles to flow from assigned sex at birth. This river of gendered selves flows with little critique outside of pushing back on the excesses of those gender roles. In bridging across, or walking away from, a gendered expression you inherently insert yourself into the conversation, forcing those around you to question or reaffirm the societal version of gender. Hence the reason why there is significant pushback against children asserting a gender identity other than the on they were assigned at birth, because it is hard for the adults around them to acknowledge.

Often a child affirming a gender other than the one assigned at birth does not subvert gender expectations, rather they embrace the social norms for their internal gender identity because it is all they have to latch onto. Society says girls should wear pink and purple dresses, act like princesses, and be treated in a certain way a trans girl will pick up on this and expect to be treated thus. Radical feminists critique this as a pastiche of girlhood, yet in such a rigidly gendered world what else can a trans girl do to assert herself? An obvious example would to be a tom boy, but even then there is a messy understanding of gender that fails to articulate fully a gendered self beyond an embracing of hard wearing and rough and tumble.

Wearing a dress only makes you femme or a girl if society has been constructed to say thus. If society made femme black and white formless clothing then would trans girls embrace that construct? This is the critique trans children hold to the world around them, not that they are inherently the gender they state they are, but that to externalise that gender identity they embrace the societal norms for that gender. This is a mirror that works both ways, for if society had broader conceptions of masculine and feminine then gender expression would be more of a spectrum for trans kids.

This is as much an issue for older transitioners who also face the central issue of embracing their gender identity while also finding a sweet spot in their gender expression. To embrace certain aspects of womanhood becomes perceptually problematic because it plays in the worst excesses of gender oppression; yet, if the only version of womanhood or manhood is glamourous and dialled up to ten, then it is society that is the central problem. The same plays out for masculine identities, for those that are embraced by wider society are the ones which will sell products and project an air of superiority, all hard lines and plaid. Neither of these constructs serve those who they are pushed onto, as the majority of folk fall into their own gender expressions.

Being a teenager gives you five years to explore your gendered self, make mistakes, and find your own gendered place in the world. Trans folk rarely have the time to fully explore their gendered self if they transition later in life without everyone else chiming in on their self-expression. Thus, when we talk of pastiche or pushing identity to a gendered extreme it is likely we all did at some point in our lives, it just so happens most of us did it at a point when it socially acceptable to experiment. What maketh man is more than simply manners, it is that is expected by society around him, and how he then choses to co-opt that into his own expression. Gender expression is more than a trans thing, it is an us thing, and for a person to wear a dress it becomes a matter of personal choice, not about any particular label ascribed to it.




Writer, researcher, and generally curious