Androgyny at the Borders

….of the human lifespan, that is.
Before puberty, say, up to maybe 8 or 9, children are all pretty. For some reason the romantic trope favors girls dressing as boys; I can’t think of a kid’s book or story —at least no classic ones; I’m not familiar with what they may be reading at Drag Queen Story Hour these days—where little Johnny changes his life by dressing up as Jenny and hiding out in ….idk, a nunnery or sump’n. (Wait, Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” comes close to being Huck Finn for trannys, but it ain’t no kid’s book).Heroes don’t go “down among the women” nor even among the girls, or if they have to, like Ulysses, the female name they took is veiled in darkest secrecy.
But my point is, boys easily COULD pass as girls, before sexual dimorphism kicks in.
And then again at the end, when sexual dimorphism kicks, or bows, OUT, the two sexes become indistinguishable again. Just like we only know what sex a baby is if he or she is dressed in gender specific clothing, so it is in the senior living facilities. Keep the old guy’s hair short, and the women’s fluffy and somewhat coiffed, let ‘em wear the age appropriate clothing for each—tan support hose and flowery fabrics ladies, dark sweaters and trousers, maybe suspenders, for the gents. And of course those sturdy slightly high-heeled oxfords for the ladies,
If they—we— are not dressed, lying disheveled in bed for instance, you really couldn’t tell the sex, less’n you peek under the covers. Oh the:men are sometimes still of slightly bigger frame, though not as tall as they were in their prime. But the soft, velvety loosely folded skin of the very old is unisex. I reckon the gents would still grow facial hair, but then, so would some of the ladies….gents may be bald, but it takes a skilled hairdresser to create the illusion of volume on some of the female pates as well.
Why’ nt we have any stories about an old woman escaping her nursing home or worse, by cutting her hair and passing as an old man?

Marilynne Robinson has one of her characters, in the process of being rapidly overcome by the weakness of age, remark:”Adulthood is a wonderful thing”. During both juvenescence and senescence, we are fungible and powerless, and an emblem of those conditions is the as-yet, or yet-again, diminishment of our secondary sexual characteristics. Those make us who we are, in the halcyon period when we possess the world.
Now, people seek to delay puberty at the beginning of life, but at the other end we still insist that the old wear some emblem of their former gender-specific status. Or we assume we all would/will want to do so.
If androgynous appearance in childhood is attractive, why do we find it ….repulsive? unseemly, at least—in the old?


Do we really find androgynous appearance in the elderly to be … repulsive?

First, in most encounters with the elderly, questions about their gender do not arise. We know the person – often have known the person from when he or she was merely middle-aged. Second, where we come across a random elderly person of unknown gender, are we more likely to be saddened (rather than repulsed) by the objective evidence of the future that awaits us all? – unless Covid gives us blessed early release from this mortal coil.

Is it fair to blame ourselves for “insist[ing] that the old wear some emblem of their former gender-specific status”? The elderly tend to choose their own form of dress and appearance – and tend to pay very little attention to suggestions from others about modifying their appearance.


Hello Gavin! (I know you’ve been here longer than I have, but this is our first convo since the Mischief, I think.)
About two of your points: yes of course it’s easier to find pre-puberty appearance delightful because these li’l tykes are, after all, on their way UP and OUT to glorious adulthood—at least unless their wel-intentioned parents maim them pre-puberty with surgery or drugs. Whereas, the androgynous lookin’ old are a reminder of the ignominy that awaits us all.

And yes I agree that the old probably choose to dress, and make up, and be coiffured the way they did in their sexual primes. But it is still interesting that they do so choose, when they are once again free NOT to. I wonder if many old men grow their grey hair out and visit the facility’s beauty shop to get it marcelled? (No, I really wonder, I mean I don’t know)
Do old people want to do this kinda thing and if they did would it be…tolerated, accepted?
And if they don’t want to, if, despite our very large agéd population we don’t have many or any octo-or non-agenarian transvestites or transsexuals—
doesn’t that give the lie to the present woke insistence that such aberrations are “normal” and very common?


Well, there was that time in Huckleberry Finn when Huck disguises himself as a girl but gets found out by Judith Loftus after she notices s/he can’t thread a needle.

Who is doing this insisting? Maybe old people just prefer dressing as they did while younger, and grew up in a time when men and women dressed differently rather than today when (at least in the U.S.) both look like indistinguishable slobs.


Thanks for this Huck episode: I had forgotten it!

As for “who is doing the insisting”, see my reply to Gavin. I don’t know who. It just seems to be the way it is.

Whenever you see ads on TV for such places. The inmates, or the geriatric models if such they be, are unmistakably spiffed up as cute lil old ladies or as still masculine gents.
Can you imagine an ad for such a place which showed the residents all in gender neutral track suits —and all with very short (or maybe very long, à la Game of Thrones) hair? Actually I love this idea.

This post was prompted by my musing, with trepidation, on my suspicion that ALL the features on which we pride ourselves as individuals are devalued with age, not just sexual,attractiveness or potency.
F’rinstance, I pride myself, as I’m sure many of our members do, on knowing a lot more history than most people. ( A low bar, I know, and a poor thing but my own.) But once “old” becomes the main thing I am, I doubt it will be very impressive (assuming memory holds out). I mean, nobody is going to marvel at someone knowing a lot about what happened long ago when it’s obvious that “long ago” is where she comes from! It’s like Max Beerbohm said, when you get really old, EVERYTHING a you do is “wonderful”—again, it’s like in childhood, where everything you do is funny or cute. People can be benignant about anything you do or say, because of the powerlessness of juvenescence or senescence. “ Wil’st undo this button?” That line could be spoken at age two, or age ninety-two. At two it’s endearing, at ninety two it’s— I was gonna say “sad”, but at this point in life, “scary” is more accurate.

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Well, staying away from any cross/trans topics, I think that what is reluctance to appear ‘old’ and therefore in our general society, irrelevant or, worse, useless.

This is not just in women beyond childbearing. Consider men who father children late in life ‘See? I still can!’. They may see dressing for comfort to be surrender.

Of course, there have always been those of us who mostly dressed for comfort/functionality…

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Why stay away from cross or trans? To me the intersection of that with the androgyny of aging is one of the few as yet unexplored frontiers. What do you think?

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John W: “men and women … both look like indistinguishable slobs.”

Men have always mostly looked like slobs. That is who we are! And those dandies who did dress well were always looked at slightly askance.

As for why so many women have abandoned smart dressing for jeans and shapeless sweat shirts? That may be part of the denigration of motherhood that will cost the human race so dearly in the next generation or two.

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I think a lot of the “shapeless” garments come from the prevalence of obesity.


Most men may not be much interested in clothes, but that doesn’t mean male vanity isn’t a thing. Consider gym rats and their obsession with “six-pack abs” or minoxodil, which is approaching a billion dollar a year market, more than half in North America.

I wonder if the beard pandemic of the last several years, particularly the dumbeard™ (grubby face fungus that resembles four-day stubble) might be driven by vanity among men wishing to express their masculinity now that women dress the same and work in the same jobs as they do.


There is a lot to unpack here, and much subjectivity involved. Maybe the generalizations you note in attitudes toward sexual appearances at the ‘borders’ of life are inordinately in our ken at this moment? In the past, I don’t recall them being much discussed or thought about. So, even noticing such matters nowadays may be simply because of the inordinate attention to sex/gender being perpetrated by society’s would-be destroyers. The underlying principle: “if sex is non-binary and a ‘social construct’, then everything else is relative and subject to political definition and fiat re-definition”. As I suggested, there is a lot to unpack.

Whatever the attempts to delay puberty (is it puberty which ‘they’ are trying to delay, or merely responsibility for one’s actions and moral agency?), the age of onset continues to decrease. As to pre-puberty physical appearance, I think it more partakes of the proximity to the physical ‘perfection’ of the very young (babies, puppies, kittens) to which we respond (other than for practitioners of sexual predation), rather than to binary sex. At the other end of the age spectrum, was there ever any equivalent to ‘dirty old man’ assigned to women? I imagine sexuality is strongly bound in the ‘public mind’, to youth/beauty, so the shriveled/shrunken/crooked need not apply; they just don’t matter, don’t count.

I don’t remember the line from Marilynne Robinson, but subscribe strongly to the sentiment now that I am 77. I much enjoyed Gilead . A beautiful book filled with pathos.

I could only touch the surface, as I think the issues you raise could fill a book.


CW, did you read Robinson’s “Home”, which I think is the next in the Gilead series? Then there’s another, told from the POV of John Ames’ morganatic wife. (His very young wife, à propos of our topic!) All SO good!

Along those same lines there’s Kent Haruf: “Plainsong” and “Our Souls at Night”. If you haven’t read those, get ‘em, I think you’ll love ‘em!

Your “dirty old man” comment is makin’ me think….first, I think all old men are “dirty” (just meaning sex is always on their minds) when they lose their inhibitions; I’ve had several friends horrified by the lewd remarks their barely compos dads made to the nurses in their retirement homes. But in the phrase, the “old” adjective usually refers to an age gap à la Roy Moore, doesn’t it?

Stay tuned for my post about the Grandmother of the World.

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