Femboys – not to be confused with their slightly more sinister cyber-cousin, e-boys – are people who identify as male or non-binary but present themselves in more traditionally feminine ways, such as through their appearance, personality or general disposition.
Look through the #femboy hashtag and you’ll find hundreds of young men wearing nail varnish, twirling in skirts, crop-tops and dresses, and generally just being really wholesome, Non-Threatening Boys.
Although the term femboy has been circulating cyberspace for a couple decades – mainly found on Reddit forums – it’s been freshly adapted by young men on TikTok wanting to redefine what it means to be a man in today’s world.
Seventeen-year-old femboy Seth went viral on TikTok overnight after posting a video of himself wearing a tennis skirt and nail polish, with the hashtag #femboyfriday. The video now has over a million views and has arguably paved the way for other non-conforming boys to follow suit. “I wasn’t aware that there were tons of other boys like me, so the term [femboy] gave me a community,” Seth tells VICE.
The community that Seth mentions has been crucial in providing other femboys a sense of belonging. Jaydden, 16, says: “When I first started posting my femboy TikToks, the community was so accepting and kind and even loving. Everyone loved what I posted and loved what I wore, which boosted my confidence immensely and made me feel accepted.”
Although cross-dressing definitely isn’t new, the femboy trend on TikTok has brought it to a whole new generation.
Twenty-one-year-old Moy had been wearing skirts and dresses for a few years before seeing the femboy trend on TikTok, and has been ridiculed by his peers and family members in the past. “My parents wouldn’t let me wear skirts because they were scared people would think I was gay,” he says. “I know my sexuality – I’m straight – but I still want to wear skirts and crop-tops, go to nail salons and feel pretty.”
TikTok, says Moy, gave him a sense of validation: “Once I saw this femboy trend, I was like, ‘Oh, I bet the world is finally ready!’”
While Moy mentions that dressing more femininely doesn’t deter from his heterosexuality, Seth argues that his sexuality and femboy identity are not intrinsically linked: “Labels don’t really matter to me – I think I could be attracted to anyone.”
In such polarising times, it’s nothing short of heartwarming that TikTok has provided a safe haven for young people to experiment with their gender expression. It’s clear that many femboys have a lot of fun filming themselves dancing around to Kali Uchis songs in American Apparel-style skirts and crop-tops, and the trend’s millions of views and likes confirm that people are enjoying watching them, too.
But not everyone is as accepting. Many femboys have been subjected to online abuse and hatred. Comments range from homophobic slurs – even though not all femboys define as queer – to genuine threats of violence. Femboys like Jaydden blame this on TikTok’s algorithm, which filters popular trends to a wider audience.
“Over time, my videos reached the wrong side of TikTok and I received thousands of hateful and homophobic comments,” he says. “It made me feel horrible for just being me and expressing myself.”
Seth has received online abuse too, but tries not to let it deter him from being himself. “I’m able to recognise that people attack me for what I represent to them, not who I am as an individual, so it doesn’t really bother me anymore.”
Men and boys who feel threatened by those who challenge their rigid ideas of masculinity have a tendency to act out – it’s patriarchy 101. But femboys argue that this way of thinking is wildly outdated. Men have been wearing feminine dress for decades, from David Bowie on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World to Jaden Smith and Young Thug’s long-established love of dresses and skirts – with the latter saying: “When it comes to swag, there’s no gender involved.”
“The femboy trend on TikTok shows that more men nowadays are comfortable with their sexuality and masculinity, and that clothing does not define any of that,” argues Jaydden. “People can wear what they want without threatening their masculinity.”
Seth echoes the sentiment: “Men often conflate femininity with weakness, when that is not at all the case.” Dressing femininely makes him feel liberated from societal restraints, he explains, and “people need to see men disregard traditional norms to deconstruct the toxic beliefs they’ve been taught – visibility is the first step necessary for change”.
When I was growing up, gender non-conforming people were hugely ostracised, and it’s something that still happens now, but TikTok’s femboy trend is one of a few signs that suggest these oppressive gender norms are slowly breaking down, one cute dress at a time.