The Aesthetics of Masculinity: Butch v. Tomboy Style

By Qwear and A.D. Hogan

Anonymous asked: What is tomboy style, and how is it similar to and different from butch style?

Since this question is so personal, I asked my trusted queer fashionistas to give their thoughts on the subject, long or short.- Sonny

Bing says: That is a very interesting question. The two would appear similar to outsiders based on their menswear appearance, but they differ quite significantly!

From my experiences with the tomboy style, the aesthetic is based on the relaxed fit, comfort, and mobility of casual mens clothing lines. In my area of study we discuss the differences in socialization of children based on gender: boys are raised to be rough & active, girls meant to be dainty & precious. These characteristics are reflected in the clothing styles provided for the gendered individual (girls clothing is often fragile and should be take care of whereas boys clothing is sturdy and durable). With this in mind, it makes sense that the sporty, active tomboys would also seek clothing that can keep up with their rough play

However, I’ve noticed that “butch style” tends to grasp the masculinity and tougher side of menswear. The “butch style” often includes sturdy leather shoes and/or belts mixed with the various “butch hair cuts” which create a more masculine look; whereas it is not unusual for long haired individuals to dress in a more “tomboy” style. The “butch style” varies from person to person based on interpretation of self but is overall more masculine and what one might say “tougher” than the tomboy style.

Both styles utilize menswear to add masculinity to an individual’s look. However, the amount of masculinity varies by clothing choices & individual identities.

Rae says: To me, butch style is when I wear a chambray shirt, jeans, boots, a ballcap. And tomboy style is when my girlfriend borrows that outfit from me on a Sunday.

Blake says: *Needless to say, the distinction is a difficult one to make. Style is such a personal statement and I’m not going to attempt to define it for someone else. What is below is simply my opinion. Based off of nothing except what is in my head at the present moment.*

I’ve always thought of tomboy style as a continuation of that phase that was supposed to end before high school; the refusal to conform to the looming beauty standards that are thrust on young girls. If you were a tomboy after a certain age — in my case high school — then you were considered to be butch. We are hesitant to label a young girl as butch. Instead, we use tomboy. Both tomboy style and butch style are subversions of gendered expectations. If I had to make a distinction, to me, tomboy style has a tinge more femininity than butch style. Tomboy style is more menswear inspired whereas butch style is just menswear. For example, Wildfang markets tomboy style whereas Marimacho and Fourteen market butch fashion.

A.D. says: The way I understand both tomboy and butch are tied up in whiteness and gendered expectations emanating from the white supremacist cis-gender heteropatriarchy. The way I understand dominant definitions of tomboi/y style are highly influenced by race; for me, “tomboy style” should be renamed “skinny white FAAB tumblr queer masculine of center fashion” AKA the cuties of tumblr AKA everyone who gets reblogged AKA not me. However, butch/stud style are less race-specific, at least in the way I understand the fashion specificities. Stud, in some communities, is a term that is used for black masculine lesbians and masculine lesbians of color. Butch, as I understand the term, originally described a masculine woman, and now describes a whole range of gender expressions, typically masculine of center.

I grew up being called a “tomboy” which was cute until I was 12. When straight cis-dudes call me “butch” it’s pejorative; when a queer says I’m “butch” I blush and immediately look like a small child. I would never call myself a tomboy or describe my style as tomboy; however, I love describing myself as butch.

Tomboy and butch are all about age and style. Tomboy style is all about playfulness. Being a tomboy is all about running around like a kid, getting dirty, and playing hard. It’s young, fresh, and carefree. Tomboy is loud and outgoing; it’s hoodies and ball caps, loose vests and crooked ties, sneakers and suit jackets. Tomboy is unapologetically itself. It’s like a hot summer day with Converse high tops, denim cut offs, and a hat shoved into its back pocket. Tomboi/ys can’t beat anyone up, though they like to think they can.

Butch is mature and reserved; we’re grown and sexy, ya know? It’s not the center of attention; it’s leaned against the wall, slowly sipping a beer, watching everything. Butch is straight up, no-games masculinity (but, of course, my butch identity is very much tied up in feminist masculinity). Butch is serious; it’s a perfectly tailored grey suit, with a monogrammed tie clip and polished shoes. Butch is dark washed jeans with room, boots, and black v-necks, and wallet chains. Butches will offer to light your cigarette, make you breakfast the next morning, and bring you flowers to work.

The differences between butch and tomboy are, to me, noticeable and significant, but only because I’m obsessed with masculinity & gender non-conformity more broadly.

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Tomboy Style Vs. Butch Style was originally published on Qwear. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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72 Comments

      • Thumb up 1

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        I identify as tomboy. maybe it does have something to do with my age, i’m 17, so i would say my style is pretty carefree. i’m all about hoodies, sneakers, t shirts and my tie is never straight. but at the same time i love nothing more than a nice tailored suit,I drool over Tom Ford’s designs.

        But honestly i think the difference between butch and tomboy comes down to femininity of one appearance.

        some clothes look more feminine on a tomboy then it would on a butch. when a close friend[who identifies as butch]and i went shopping for homecoming tux’s we tried on the same style of tux. when she had on the tux it looked more masculine on her because she wear her clothes a little baggier. However, when i tried it on, it looked more feminine on me because i like my clothing to be formfitting.

        i don’t know if that helped?

    • Thumb up 6

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      As someone who gets labelled as a tomboy more than butch but doesn’t really ID with one more than the other, I totally agree with this comment. Especially w/r/t A.D.’s definition, one dimension of labeling that I think is relevant but overlooked is the type of body underneath the clothes – as a slim Asian person, I feel like attitude and inner feelings aren’t counted as much as having a certain heavier physique.

    • Thumb up 8

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      I don’t necessarily identify as a tomboy (labels are scary), but this sentence sums me up pretty well: “Tomboy style is all about playfulness. Being a tomboy is all about running around like a kid, getting dirty, and playing hard. It’s young, fresh, and carefree.”

      Perhaps ‘butch’ is a more definitive label; maybe people who ID as such feel super strongly about it. Speaking for myself, the thought of tuxedos and bowties make me want to cry; mostly I just want to not worry about it too much, run around in the rain, ride my bike, and maybe climb some trees.

      • Thumb up 3

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        That line really encapsulates it for me as well probably because it was the only one not necessarily implying a hierarchical relationship between butch and tomboy. They’re just different ways of being masculine. I’d use tomboy far more because of that description. I’m in the same boat of really being too lazy to worry about it.

        I’d be interested to see an article from some tomboys not as a rebuttal to this one or anything, but rather to continue talking about the stuff.

    • Thumb up 28

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      yeah, i know butches who wear dresses and glitter and wouldn’t be caught dead in a button-up. and i don’t really wear suits and i don’t think i even know what a tie clip is, so does that make me a tomboy instead of a butch according to these terms, even though i identify as butch and not tomboy? sometimes i look like a redneck logger and sometimes i look like a schoolboy in his dad’s hawaiian shirt and sometimes i look like a woodland creature on saved by the bell but i never look like i belong in a suit and tie, so i don’t wear them? but i don’t ask myself, am i butch enough today? do i look the way a butch is supposed to look? i can wear heels and lipstick, and if i identify as butch, then i’m looking exactly the way a butch is supposed to look. if my femme girlfriend wears my clothes tomorrow and identifies as femme, then she looks the way a femme is supposed to look.

      i guess i’m always confused by conversations where we say “this is the style of butches” or “this is the style of tomboys” when to my knowledge, identities shouldn’t come with style guides when identities, like style, are so incredibly personal. how can we empower ourselves if we’re telling people how their personal identity is meant to be physically interpreted? one of the reasons i’m anxious about sartorial queer trends is because i don’t like systems where we say ‘how’ to look or dress or do something because that means someone is always going to do it ‘wrong’ or ‘not enough’ and so long as you can say ‘how to dress well’ you’re saying there’s someone out there who is doing it unwell.

      feelings, feelings, feelings.

      • Thumb up 1

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        hey, i totally hear what you’re saying. i don’t think anyone was trying to give a complete “this is what butches do” definition, but instead, this is how we personally understand tomboy v. butch *very generally* and defined by clothing,

        every one should get to decide and re-decide and perform however they choose, and their validity as a tomboy/i or butch or femmeboi or anything can absolutely not be determined by this article or any others.

        one thing i apologize for not doing was bringing up issues of class. i come from a working-class family that lived (and lives) paycheck to paycheck. my fashion is deeply impacted by being working class because i never want to look working class, because i want to look wealthy, because i attend an elite northern liberal arts school.

        anyway, i’m trying to say this: nothing we say is a hard and fast rule. people have freedom and agency, and those must always be respected.

  1. Thumb up 12

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    I go from maxi-dresses and cat-eye eyeliner one day to suspenders and bow ties with oxfords the next, so I duck labels because I don’t fall into one. But I have seen quite a few tumblrs trying to find an appropriate term for it, such as “tomboy femme” and “femme dandy.” But my girlfriend has commented several times that my “fashion forward-ness” (as she calls it) has inspired/liberated her to experiment and have fun with menswear details, specifically bow ties and menswear-inspired shoes, which I think is awesome (and, hello, SEXY)!

      • Thumb up 4

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        I hate trying to label myself. I’m just… Leigh. But if I’m feeling like I want a label, I also go with androgynous. It feels the most accurate for someone who likes to wear ties and lipstick and short hair and (rarely) heels and has trouble conceptualizing those things as gendered, they’re just what I like to wear. Also, I love the word androgyne.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I’m similar (though leaning to the more boyish end) and find tomboy femme works fine for me, but I know plenty of people who do the same and identify differently. Really, it all chalks up to terminology preference, I think.

  2. Thumb up 18

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    YOU KNOW WHAT I THINK IS REALLY INTERESTING is that when i was straight, everybody described my style as ‘tomboy.’ my boyfriends said i was a tomboy, my friends described me as a tomboy, my family called me a tomboy, that was what i was, riese the tomboy. and i have a boyish body so i often was read as male when i was younger and therefore tomboy tomboy tomboy. and it’s weird that now that i’m in the queer community, i don’t think any queer lady friends would describe me as a tomboy, because relative to masculine-of-center queer women, i don’t seem tomboyish at all. that’s my thought of the day.

  3. Thumb up 37

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    It seems to me that this commentary, particularly the part that says tomboy fashion is about age (youth) and calls it playful is somewhat pejorative. The difference seems like it may be one about gender presentations within the queer community. Butch, perhaps, is solidly about masculine presentation where tomboy may be somewhat androgynous in style with pieces of femininity or at least allowing femininity in parts. But I think it is unfair to suggest that tomboy can’t be sexy or adult or whatever else. Both can be and are sexy and are for grownups. Tomboy style might suggest greater flexibility in presentation than butch but I don’t agree with making that seem like a facet of immaturity. There also may be other things that are a part of this discussion like class and race or body size.

    • Thumb up 5

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      hey, thanks for bringing this up. i think one issue is that we live in a society that tells us not to value playfulness, children, femininity, etc., and so even when we talk about tomboy style as such, it’s seen as pejorative. to be totally honest, i think tomboy style is fucking fantastic and i wish for anything i could pull it off and rock it well. so, when i say that tomboy style is youthful, playful, etc., i mean those things as compliments, and pretty genderqueer, because playfulness (and playing hard) are both feminine and masculine, crooked ties with sneakers are both feminine and masculine. tomboys ARE absolutely grown and sexy, and butches are hella youthful.

      these descriptions aren’t binaries; it’s not tomboy is everything feminine and butch is everything masculine. gender is a many faceted thing; tomboy to one person is butch to another, etc.

      in any case, i apologize to anyone who understood my description of tomboy as misogynistic.

  4. Thumb up 9

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    “To me, butch style is when I wear a chambray shirt, jeans, boots, a ballcap. And tomboy style is when my girlfriend borrows that outfit from me on a Sunday.”

    This is my life. Also, is it just me or is this article HEAVILY butch-centric? Where are the tomboys? :(

  5. Thumb up 12

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    Honestly, this article is sort of feeding my fears about being seen as “tomboy” and anything that’s not wholly masculine (or feminine, for that matter), which is that you won’t really be taken seriously? Like it’s something I worry about especially when it comes to working. ‘Cause there definitely is that tendency to make “tomboy” a childlike thing you can tease women about all in good humor, but it still feels like you’re being read as juvenile and lazy, unwilling to embrace your femininity and adulthood, or even commit to something more masculine. Really, I just don’t feel comfortable in only women’s clothing or only men’s clothing and I’m still figuring out how to reconcile that, but the possibility of being read as young, potentially unprofessional, and not yet “matured” makes it very hard to navigate.

    Or maybe the problem is trying to nail “professional tomboy” IDK.

  6. Thumb up 5

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    “Tomboy style is more menswear inspired whereas butch style is just menswear.”
    “Menswear inspired” is such a beautiful term though.

    The “boy” in tomboy does inflect a certain ambiguity, especially centered around age. It’s something that’s hard to shake, because tomboy is inherently used to describe children. But like a lot of words/terms out there, the meaning alters and branches out over time.
    I personally think of tomboy as a style that has flexibility and more room to explore.

  7. Thumb up 7

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    i don’t think that tomboy or butch styles should be competing for which is ‘more masculine’, particularly in the queer community as a ‘label’. i agree that butch style is pretty much grown up menswear but it doesn’t make tomboy style any less masculine just because it’s from the little boys’ or sports/casual section. if anything butch is probably the more specific definition and they are not entirely exclusive (just speaking fashionistically here and not as an identity, everyone identify as you like!)

    as for tomboy-femme and the mainstream view of tomboy as riese alluded to above, sure, there is perhaps more femininity inherent there. but actually i think this is separate from the distinction being discussed here and is therefore irrelevant. /harsh (not a fully formed thought, just throwing it out there)

    -spoken as someone on the tomboy-butch spectrum but who no longer identifies as a tomboy and neither as butch

  8. Thumb up 24

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    This butch vs. tomboy convo really reminds me of that scene on The L Word where Shane and Moira first meet, and Moira throws a suitcase at Shane and is like, “You ladies just let us butches unload the truck.” And then Shane is like, “Wait, whaaa?”

    I have nothing deeper to add, other than that I love both styles equally.

  9. Thumb up 3

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    So I understand there are many feelings about this topic but is it wrong that all I’m thinking about is…

    “As long as I’ve got my suit and tie I’mma leave it all on the floor tonight And you got fixed up to the nines let me show you a few things.”

    Damn it y’all sometimes I just want to steal Justin Timberlake’s wardrobe and go out looking dapper as fuck and feeling sexy as hell.

    I can’t say what my style is; it varies. I can say I own clothes from both the men’s and woman’s department and I enjoy fashion across the spectrum. I almost feel like this is saying that style is identity? I get that what we wear can be representative of who we are…but we are SO much more than the clothes.

    Personally, if I am comfortable in what I am wearing then I’m not worried about what my ____ (sweats, dress, vest, etc.)is signaling to people; the way I carry myself, my mannerisms, and my words are going to speak more for me than my clothes ever will.

    What is that we’re always saying around here? You do you? Yep. Keep on doing you.

  10. Thumb up 3

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    I’ve never pointed at anyone and been like, “Butch!” “Tomboy!” It’s always been, “Laura! Katie!” As much as I respect IDs, I’ve only seen it as part of the lovely human beings I’ve gotten to know. It always seemed to me that people dressed and identified as butch or femme or anything else because that was where they were most comfortable. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think that there flat out isn’t a distinction between any of the queer styles we popularly ascribe to- I think it is simply where you feel comfortable, and what makes you feel more than you than anything else.

  11. Thumb up 7

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    Hm this is interesting, but I think it failed to address the fluidity of a masculine style. Like, some days I wear my serious blue-collar jacket and workboots, or my dapper blazer and bowtie, and I’m a butch. Some days I wear skinny jeans and slouchy t-shirts and I’m a tomboi. I think most days I fall somewhere in between. I don’t think labels need to be as rigid as this implies.

    • Thumb up 5

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      Same here. I admire those of you who match your belt to your shoes and your bow ties to your pocket squares 7 days a week, because that takes dedication. But I’m pretty fluid (and lazy sometimes) and find myself trying to figure out how to dress tomboyish/casual without looking like a young teenager. Not that there is anything wrong with being young! But I don’t like people reading me as a high schooler when I haven’t been there in 10 years.

  12. Thumb up 3

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    First off, the previous comments are fantastic. Second, it’s important to remember that “tomboy” and “butch” are just words that can only do so much. I’m not suggesting that words do not carry weight, but that they can only carry so much (often not enough-I’m a sociology major so bear with me).

    The English language is limiting in that every word leaves room for interpretation (this is both good and bad…indecisive much???). Moreover, it is not possible to make a catch all 100% comprehensive definition for “tomboy” and “butch”. However, for the sake of facilitating discourse, the attempt must be made. The above definitions for “tomboy” and “butch” do not cover the full spectrum of style of dress or identification. It is impossible fot them to do so.

    I don’t have a grand ending…so…yea…

  13. Thumb up 11

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    Seeing as the article itself seems pretty butch heavy, let’s bring some tomboy into the comments!

    I guess I would most closely identify as ‘tomboy femme’? But its more a rejection of ‘girly stuff’ and ‘guy stuff’ – as Eddie Izzard put it: “They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes. I bought them.”

    What I always disagree with is the idea that masculinity and femininity are two opposite ends of the spectrum, and to have more of one is to have less of the other. I wear waistcoats – some of them from the men’s department – and they don’t make my appearance or identity any less femme – if anything, they make it moreso, because it emphasises my waist and chest.

    I don’t do everyday makeup, either. It’s either none, or full out HD photoshoot style. And to be honest, I get told that the latter style isn’t feminine, because women are just supposed to glow radiantly and look like we’re perfect without wearing any makeup *eyeroll* And I keep my hair in a way that I can either style it up, or roll out of bed.

    But I guess the point I’m trying to make is that none of these clothing/style decisions feel inherently gendered for me – I’m aware of how -other- people would gender them? Mostly from the section of the shop I bought them in? But at the end of the day, it’s not women’s clothing or men’s clothing or butch style or femme style – it’s just mine. Femme would feel like a performance for me – when I have to dress ‘prettily’ for an event, I feel distinctly uncomfortable. But ‘typical butch’ would feel equally performative.

    (Perhaps that comes from a position of privilege in that I’m comfortably cis and am read as such by pretty much everyone?)

  14. Thumb up 8

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    “Butch is serious; it’s a perfectly tailored grey suit, with a monogrammed tie clip and polished shoes.”

    Is it? There are and have been plenty of blue collar butches for whom a tailored suit and monogrammed tie would not be something they could afford let alone relate to or feel comfortable in.

    Sweats, sneakers and hoodies can represent an affordable alternative to feminine modes of dressing. And they’re better suited than wingtip oxfords for running, walking, skateboarding, that sort of thing.

    I guess the upside of it is that classifying people’s identities based on the kind of clothing they can afford or that suits their lifestyles makes me uncomfortable.

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      hey, thanks for bringing class up. i want to apologize for NOT doing a good job bringing in class. i come from a working-class family that lived (and lives) paycheck to paycheck. my fashion is deeply impacted by being working class because i never want to look working class, because i want to look wealthy, because i attend an elite northern liberal arts school, and want to look like the rich kids here, etc. for me, class status has affected what i don’t want to look like, namely working class butch. thus, i try to look like high class/wealthy dapper-as-fuck butch, which doesn’t really make me feel better inside. dapper isn’t more affirming for me and i don’t feel more masculine; it just makes me feel like others aren’t seeing my as my southern working-class roots.

      butch style can also be jeans and a hoodie and sneakers and tomboy style can be the same outfit! for me, that’s the point: both of these styles are hella similar, and it’s about someone’s identity/swagger on any given day.

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        Thank YOU for sharing your experience on the intersection of butchness and class, I appreciate it. And I relate in a class sense if not a gender sense. I come from a dysfunctional family where poverty (if it never actually struck) has always been just around the next corner. When I got to law school I learned all the subtle ways to hide my background and blend in. Though I always felt different.

        I think maybe what is happening with this post is that in trying to speak of a difference between butch and tomboy, language forces speakers into drawing a line in the sand between them, when there is so much fluidity and subjectivity and overlap.

  15. Thumb up 5

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    And also, if a dude can get around in “loose vests” and “crooked ties” without being seen as departing from masculine style, why can’t a woman wear these clothes without being less masculine than a woman with a monogrammed tie clip?

  16. Thumb up 7

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    I don’t know what’s up with the last quote’s issue with tomboyness is; I REALLY don’t understand it at all. When I was little, I was firmly a tomboy, to the point that it was almost a gender identity for me. And now, it remains my style. Lots of jean, t-shirts, lazy button-downs, flannel, boots, etc.
    I’m not white, I didn’t really grow up upper class at all, and actually, I think tomboy has nothing to do with class at all. It’s not a wealthy style of dress in any way, in my opinion. Dapper, absolutely, but not tomboy. And to call it immature, classed, almost uppity, is itself pretty darn uppity.
    It’s calloused hands and bruised knees, dirt and braids. It transcends class and race and body type in so many ways.
    And honestly, I’ve read your blog, A.D., and you tend toward a dapper look that IS classed, raced, body typed. It’s pretty hypocritical to call another style all of those things when yours is even more so.
    I don’t know, I’m just pretty offended.

    • Thumb up 3

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      In addition, I reject the notion that there’s something inherently masculine about the tomboy archetype. I mean, my body can birth a baby, so if rough and tumble is going to be associated with anything, it should be femininity. Pants and boots aren’t inherently masculine, either.
      Idk.

  17. Thumb up 0

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    I think these are all interesting takes on masculine of center style. As a femme who occasionally will butch it up, I think for me, butch is an overarching style, and tomboy is more an appearance–it reminds me of my roots as a baby queer playing in the sand with zero regards for how boys would perceive me.

    bee tee dubs, the picture of the hottie with the dreads was originally taken by tumblr user breegant, although unfeminine-female did repost it from them.

  18. Thumb up 0

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    Since I’m out I don’t really care anymore if I’m dressed too masculine, that my hair is a boy cut or my tattooed arm is visible. There are days I’ll be sitting like a proper lady in the train looking like a tomboy/butch and people will do a double take trying to figure me out. I don’t really care anymore. I embrace queerness for the fact that we care less what others think about how we act and dress.

    I don’t believe there is one hard and fast rule about what defines a butch and what defines a tomboy. Every individual is so multifaceted and clothes don’t define all 100% of us. If we want to strive to a gender neutral society we should stop trying to define differences and just be.

  19. Thumb up 5

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    I’m not entirely convinced that tomboy and butch are specifically race-related terms, which seems like a backwards colonialist attitude: “Well, I’m not a tomboy because that’s for white privileged queers and I’m totally not racist or white privileged, therefore I have to be butch because anyone can be butch.”

    Rejection of the tomboy-label doesn’t automatically make you butch. Being aware of your white privilege doesn’t negate you from wanting to conform to the epitome of white privileged style. (And yes, I read AD’s comments about the intersection of class and style, which actually seems to argue in favour that “tomboy = poor white queer” rather than the opposite.)

    I’d like some more insight on where exactly race comes into play for the term tomboy. I acknowledge and understand the distinction with butch vs. stud/AG, but have never heard of the tomboy = whites-only notion.

  20. Thumb up 2

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    Tomboy = androgynous

    Butch = masculine

    After taking in all the comments that is my conclusion. Tomboy fits my identity perfectly, as someone slightly genderqueer who loves feminizing menswear like the skinny white tumblr beezies. The butch label has never connected with me because it feels way too masculine.

  21. Thumb up 1

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    why is it that when we free ourselves from the closet were faced with this labels? most butches look like 12 yr old kids so get over the maturity look and tomboys can be really hot and just not caring. I’ve gone through both looks and liked experimenting on both fashion. I’ve even gone through being femme, but at the end of the day im just jois the lesbian deep inside me even when others would put me in a category of a what a butch/ tomboy/ femme/ boi etc.. should do.

  22. Thumb up 0

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    I think a major distinction between tomboy style and butch style is the level of intention.
    I think dressing butch is more about self-expression and representation. Whereas tomboys just throw on a t-shirt and a pair of pants and go. I don’t think there is really much consideration into how they are presenting.

    ‘Feminine’ is not a word that would be used to describe me by feminine friends. Well, my mother, but that’s because she desperately hangs on to any feminine qualities I have. But within the gay community I am definitely on the more feminine side of a butch-femme spectrum. So while I would never consider myself ‘a butch’ and would be shocked to here that word used to describe me–I woudn’t be surprised if people considered me a tomboy–and that has nothing to do with being child-like or not fully reaching gender maturity.

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