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Gender Theory in the Watch Industry

There is growing understanding that the watch industry has an opportunity to improve when it comes to the issue of gender. Cara Barrett recently published a piece for Hodinkee which sheds important light on this subject. Here, I'd like to offer some additional thoughts.

Fashion, and the watch industry, reminds me of myself, circa 2011. At that point, I'd worked for the US Navy for about a decade. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was still in place, which meant we existed in a vacuum when it came to certain issues, issues that many outside our sphere were actively discussing and advancing.
A photo shared online by Matt Radick the day DADT ended.
The policy meant the military wouldn't ask members about gender attraction and members wouldn't reveal their gender attraction in conversation (or otherwise). In practice, it silenced a lot of discussion about aspects of gender in society. "Don't ask, don't tell" officially ended in 2011, though, and I soon found myself in a presentation at work centered on gender theory. I'll be honest: I was completely lost.

My college years, in the early 90s, did provide me with an opportunity to learn about gender from the LGBTQIA community. My understanding was still very limited when I went to grad school, though. I'd chosen to study a subject which was biased towards heteronormative male perspectives. I distinctly remember a moment in which one of my professors stated there were only two options for gender: male and female. One of my classmates started to object and I was completely confused, I thought he was a fool. I now believe the professor, and I, were the fools.

Let's get back to that presentation on gender theory. We were offered an early version of what's known as the "Genderbread Person."
The Genderbread Person.
It is a visual representation of some things researchers have learned about the many facets of gender. For me, there are two main takeaways from the Genderbread Person. First, gender is not "binary" (ie only female and male) it is a spectrum. Second, gender can be associated with four aspects of individuals and it need not be the same for each of those aspects. The four aspects are: identity (who you think you are), attraction (gender(s) you love), expression (who you present to the world) and anatomy (body parts, essentially). There are literally an infinite combination of these aspects.

In my case, I am a heterosexual cis male (cis meaning I identify with my anatomical gender assigned at birth, I express myself that way).
A modern button celebrating 2-Spirit identity. credit: NY Historical Society
For someone with this identity (or perhaps any cis person), I think it is very important to acknowledge and embrace the fact that there are, and have long been, others in the world not living that life. For example, there are and were members of indigenous tribes who do not fit into historical European definitions of male or female genders. The modern English term for this gender variant is "two-spirit."

What does this information imply for the watch industry (really, the lessons here are applicable to many segments of the fashion market)? When a web page or a store presents consumers with two gender choices, it is perpetuating narrow notions of gender from only one perspective. The first limit to this framework is that it only acknowledges two expressions of gender: male and female. What about an indigenous person identifying as two-spirit? For that matter, what about someone somewhere else along the gender spectrum, outside the two points of male or female? They are marginalized.

The second issue is that it is completely unclear which aspect of gender a "male" or "female" watch is supposed to "match" with. Is it expression? Is it identity? Is it anatomical? I don't know for certain if this is a possibility, but what if a person who expresses their gender as male and identifies as female goes shopping, and, for some reason, would like to buy a "female" watch design? Why ask this person to visit the "female" portion of the store and potentially create awkwardness for the consumer (compromising their expression) and / or the sales person (questioning or wondering about their choice)? If watches were simply presented in cases with no associated gender, this would not be an issue.

I don't know how the watch and fashion industry, more broadly, should modernize their approach to gender in light of these observations. I know it is possible, though. Departments of motor vehicles in many states in the U. S. now allow drivers to choose options other than male or female on driver's licenses. If creaky old bureaucracies like those can figure it out, I know a community as creative as the luxury watch business can do likewise.

From personal experience, I know it is not an easy process to adjust behavior when it comes to gender. For more than a decade I had a close acquaintance who, as far as I knew, identified with their gender assigned at birth. They came out to me recently as non-binary, and told me they would like to go by a different name and use they / them pronouns (rather than she or he). I can't tell you how long it took for me to adjust. We even introduced a "jar of misgendering," where I would place $5 every time I messed up.

My acquaintance got all the money once I had fully changed my ways, although I still mess up. I recently asked them how they felt when they go into a store and there are only male and female options for clothing.
Bathroom door sign at a cheese shop on Long Island.
They said it creates anxiety, because they don't know where they'll try on clothes. It creates frustration, because they feel like their preference for clothing is forced into a category which they don't identify with.

For me, learning more about the truth of gender was totally worth it, although I have a lot more work to do. My non-binary acquaintance told me how much it meant to them that they were safe to come out and that I've embraced their truth. The exact same opportunity is there for the watch industry and the watch community. It will be very rewarding if we get this right.


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