How to disguise yourself as a man
May 2, 2015 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Hi there, I am a female who is in college studying to become a war correspondent, and this has been my unshakeable goal for many years. I would like to know how to successfully disguise myself as a man with the use of minimal makeup, masculine attire (etc.), and all the while keeping my hair shoulder or waist length. My main concern is that while I'm very thin, I have very, very feminine and delicate facial structure, so I feel like this could really really affect the success of my career as a future war zone journalist.
posted by nephilim. to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The method of disguise you'd use would depend on the situation: how close will you be to the people seeing you, how long will you have to wear the disguise (how stable will it have to be on you, will you perspire, etc.), how much time will you be spending with the individuals seeing you, etc.

Can you give an idea of the circumstances under which you would wear this? Videoconferencing, at school, over a 3-month road trip, or other circumstances?
posted by amtho at 9:26 PM on May 2, 2015

I'm not sure cross-dressing would be safer. Do other female war correspondents do this?
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:29 PM on May 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

You might find some tips in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again.
posted by clawsoon at 9:36 PM on May 2, 2015

A realistic silicone full face mask? You could probably just invest in a couple made to order with the features you want. I found this website but surely there are others doing this type of thing. I doubt the length of your hair would matter as plenty of guys have long hair too
posted by Under the Sea at 9:37 PM on May 2, 2015

Which war zones are you hoping to cover that would be more easily accessible were you to pose as a man? There may be some cultural/regional things to consider depending on where you're going.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:41 PM on May 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I understand your concerns, but this sounds like a pretty half baked idea to me, for a number of reasons, starting with undermining your credibility from the get go.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:47 PM on May 2, 2015 [79 favorites]

Have you talked to an actual war zone journalist about this? Does your school give you opportunities to actually talk to actual war zone journalists? I've talked to one or two (the VR lab's right next to the journo school, for some reason), they haven't brought anything like that up
posted by curuinor at 9:54 PM on May 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

From AJR, March 1994: Women on War by Sherry Ricchiardi:
Nobody noticed the red-haired woman slip onto the bus in Belgrade and blend in with the mothers and crying babies. The tools of her trade – a computer and satellite telex – were packed away with cartons of Marlboros and an extra pair of knickers.

The woman carried an Irish passport and one more essential item – a brightly colored flowered dress. She'd learned from experience that in a war zone, a touch of femininity could mean the difference between life and death.

Traffic thinned as the bus rambled across the Serbian border toward the killing fields of neighboring Bosnia. At one military checkpoint, the woman watched as a carload of foreign journalists, all men, was pulled over and searched. The passengers were interrogated at gunpoint then ordered to turn back.

The woman sighed with relief. Once again she had managed to slip past the "hack pack," as she calls war correspondents who travel in herds. She was headed for the forbidden back roads of Bosnia, where rape and torture have become routine, and where the outlaws, some labeled war criminals by U.S. State Department officials, make the rules.

Avoiding the pack – instead, cramming into a bus with the locals and "boxes of suffocating chickens," as she describes it, and entering the heart of Serbian-occupied territory – is part of Maggie O'Kane's reporting strategy. The reporter for the Guardian in London says it's based on a simple notion: "I am a woman. Nobody pays attention to me."
posted by Little Dawn at 10:02 PM on May 2, 2015 [85 favorites]

If your school has a theater department, I bet someone there could help you learn to disguise yourself.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:07 PM on May 2, 2015

Journalists aren't supposed to lie about who they are. Your unwillingness to cut your hair shows a lack of dedication and might be one of the more dangerous things about you. Latex masks aren't going to fool anyone. Your passport and other ID will show your true name. If you're somewhere where it's dangerous to be a woman, it's probably even more dangerous to be a woman caught trying to pass herself off as a man.

Have any of your college professors said this is a good idea?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:14 PM on May 2, 2015 [48 favorites]

I second other people's doubts about whether you'll really need to disguise yourself as a man in many circumstances (or whether you'd want to disguise yourself at all).

That caveat aside, I would imagine that many of the issues you're concerned about in your actual question have been addressed by people in female-to-male (FTM) trans communities and/or in drag king circles. Maybe try searching relevant websites on how to "pass" with your particular set of physical characteristics.
posted by col_pogo at 10:17 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would imagine that dressing up in the style of the local women - or even just a local somebody - would be more effective than trying to dress as a man. Standards of masculinity differ slightly around the world, and people would peg you as a foreigner immediately regardless. (I've had people super confused about my gender even when wearing very gendered clothing simply because I didn't fit their schema.)
posted by divabat at 11:06 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Learn to braid and club your hair quickly. If possible, learn how to finish a braid without a tie (using a loop of you own hair, preferably dirty.)
posted by irisclara at 11:22 PM on May 2, 2015

If you really want to learn how to pass, you're going to get better advice in person than on the internet, if only because no one here can see your features or your body language and tell you the best way to modify those. Yes, start with your theater department. (You may have to cut your hair. It will grow back.)
posted by rtha at 11:36 PM on May 2, 2015

I have never heard of women posing as men to cover war zone conflicts. I'm not sure where you got the idea that this is necessary? Look at someone like Sara Sidner -- she wears helmets and bullet proof vests id necessary, but otherwise normal reporter clothes. A real reporter would never wear a disguise to cover anything -- it makes the situation look shady and disingenuous, which news reporting is not supposed to be, and if you were found-out as lying, your sources would never trust you and it would undermine your credibility.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:08 AM on May 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

There are many superb women conflict reporters, and none of them seem to do this that I've heard.

I have a relative who is an actual conflict zone (print) reporter whose byline appears regularly in the major papers of record. He is a big, fit male with military and wilderness survival experience.

As he describes it, being conspicuously a tough guy is not necessarily always to his advantage.

Also, Arwa Damon.

So I guess add me to the voices saying this seems silly as a strategy for self-preservation.

Along pragmatic lines, your "in college studying to be a journalist" is a long way from *being* a "war correspondent." Much of the necessary experience can't happen in school. For my relative, it was joining the military in addition to a degree and reporting experience that gave him the edge in a VERY competitive field. There are a surprising number of people eager for the rush. Only a few will make it into actual conflict coverage for a living.

Have you considered how you will get experience in war zones before you're on your own in one? Have you studied survival, security, counter-terrorism, and personal situational self-defense? Have you traveled on your own to dangerous places? Forget the disguise. Learn Krav Maga and three or four languages to oral fluency (another thing the Army did for my relative that college could not) including Arabic, Urdu, and/or Farsi.
posted by spitbull at 4:40 AM on May 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

Because seriously, throwing on a headscarf and speaking passable Urdu (adjust details as per context) is probably a safer disguise than looking like a wannabe tough guy dude with build of a slight woman.
posted by spitbull at 4:46 AM on May 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

Strengthen the muscles of your inner thighs. This will help stabilize your gait as you walk so that you don't have the swaying hips that are one of the things we associate with women.

Why do you want to be a male war correspondent? Is it a gender identity issue, a safety issue or a credibility issue?

Each of these situations is a different type of problem and might need to be approached differently.

Let's say you are planning on going into IS controlled areas and feel that the sexist males there will refuse to talk with pretty little you since you are only a female. Under those circumstances presenting as a matriarch might be more successful than presenting as a slim small beardless boy.

If your concern is for your safety you are marginally safer presenting as female than you are presenting as male because some people have a reflex that makes it harder to pull the trigger when their weapon sights are trained on a female. The US for example considers all adult males to be enemy combatants and legitimate targets but will hesitate in blowing up a convoy if they think there are women and kids among the travelers.

If your concern is to prevent rape, I think you may be over-estimating the danger to you as a female. Not that you are entirely unlikely to face sexual assault, but rather you are over-estimating the safety that gender provides to a male in the circumstances where you would be at risk of sexual assault. I am reminded of the report made by a woman where her unit was subjected to abuse; she was raped and described it as unpleasant; she thought she got off relatively well compared to one of the males in her party who had a tooth explode from being electro-shocked. If you get into a situation where you are at significant risk of rape you are doing the war correspondent thing wrong. That's the kind of circumstances that reduce your chances of bringing the story back.

I think you would be well served to research ways to enhance your power and credibility without attempting subterfuge in your external identity. Vocal training to gain vocal projection and authority and comfort speaking in a lower vocal range, role playing conflict situations, strength training -things like this will help you to present as dominant and give you some useful skills for any future situations you encounter -such as negotiating with a producer that he/she should finance your hotel bills and truck rental, translator and driver expenses for a sojourn Falloojah. Those skills would also be useful if the male identity is something you want to adopt for personal reasons, as they would make you feel more male.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:29 AM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Although just pragmatically, if you want to keep the long hair and pass as male, you'll need to accessorize as a masculine member of a patriarchal culture where men wear long hair. Sikh and Rastafarian are probably right out if you are of light skin tone (too bad, a turban is always appropriate and everyone in the developing world likes Rastas). Heavy metal rocker dude is a good look but probably challenging to maintain in the field and likely to alienate your more fundamentalist religious radicals, devil worship and prohibitions against pop music and all. Native American doesn't really translate abroad, never mind the appropriation issues. And "male model," I'm thinking, probably doesn't provide the kind of cover or intimidation factor you seek.

I'm being silly to make a point. No one is going to be fooled if you have, as you describe, a slight build and very feminine features and long hair.

On the other hand, a standard issue flak jacket will bulk you up and a good Kevlar helmet can hide the hair (see again, Arwa Damon). So if you just want to look badass (are you headed for television? There your looks matter for reasons other than field situations!) I'd say learn how to rock the Very Brave TV Reporter look, and remember to practice your intense "I've seen so much" stare and self-deprecatingly modest tall tales of survival against all odds. I imagine the makeup and costume crew will have the stuff you need handy in the hotel suite just off the main square where the revolution is happening.

Seriously, can you imagine Brian Williams being taken more seriously than Christiane Amanpour because he is a man? If you catch my drift.
posted by spitbull at 6:17 AM on May 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have been to most of the shittiest places in the world, both under the color of authority and independently. I assure you, everywhere that is more dangerous for you as a woman is far more dangerous for you as a woman-dressed-as-a-man, and the chances of you going undetected while doing your job -- that is, speaking directly to people and hopefully forging a relationship so intimate (if brief) that they are willing to tell you about the horrors they have faced -- are essentially zero.

If you're concerned that you don't look sufficiently "tough" to come across as a serious war correspondent, I can assure you that you're wrong, and I don't even know what you look like. There are lots of female war correspondents who look "feminine" and are still tough as hell. Work on being tough as hell. It will serve you much better in war and in peace than looking tough as hell.
posted by Etrigan at 6:52 AM on May 3, 2015 [12 favorites]

During the 1990s a lot of my colleagues went from stringing the "fall of communism in East Europe" stories to make their reputations covering the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Two of them became successful war correspondants (one famous for his extremely cautious manner, one for his near suicidal bravado) two that I know of died, one joined a paramilitary group (also dead) and at least three that realized they had made a huge mistake by taking the assignment at all. None of them were women, which may have been a confirmation that women are far, far saner than the kind of men drawn to war zones. I was offered an assignment in the Balkans but turned it down, since I now had a new family to consider. I'm glad I did.

Seriously, say you are passing a checkpoint between two front lines: your best defense is honesty, preparedness, local connections, and wads of cash - or else you shouldn't be in that place at that time. It is about lot more than gender or how you look. How are you with languages? Can you fix cars? Can you fly a small plane (two of my war journalist buddies went on to take flying lessons) Consider the conflict zones we have today: Syria? Iraq? Libya? Nigeria? The Ukraine? Mexican gangs? Which border checkpoint would you like to be caught lying at?
posted by zaelic at 7:33 AM on May 3, 2015

I'm not sure where you got the idea that this is necessary?

Well, female war correspondent are regularly sexually assaulted; male correspondents generally are not.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:33 AM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 92% of the 61 journalists murdered (mostly in war zones) last year were male.

Obviously that reflects the fact that there are more men than women in such roles, but it's not 90 percent male reporters in the media I follow.

And as to DarlingBri's "regularly?" I don't know if anyone collects the data, and I am sure female journalists are sexually assaulted. The Lara Logan case comes immediately to mind, of course, but I'm struggling to think of other high profile examples. I'm all ears if you have a list of these "regular" sexual assaults on women war correspondents that surpasses the 92 percent odds that a murdered journalist will be male. However, apropos the question, an obviously female person trying to pass as a male is still a woman, still likely to be found out under wartime conditions, and is likely to face more trouble over the deception.
posted by spitbull at 9:41 AM on May 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

However, Columbia Journalism Review ran a serious article on the issue of sexual assault of female war journalists, by Ruth Matloff, in 2007. It's the latest and best source I've found that isn't about Lara Logan.

It's a dangerous job. I'm close to someone who does it.
posted by spitbull at 10:35 AM on May 3, 2015

Any reputable news outlet, either print or electronic, has local fixers who work with the reporters and their crews, so that person's advice will be more important than you knowing how to apply some fake stubble in a public bathroom. If you're planning on going undercover as an independent journalist, learning the local languages will be more useful than disguising yourself. And read about Amanda Lindhout's ordeal.
You might also think about how to configure how you look so you fit in in a wide number of different cultures. Looking much younger than you are could be as useful as looking like a man, depending on your story. Your hair should be the least of your worries if you really want to be an undercover investigative reporter. If you want to be on-camera, then your hair will matter.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2015

Disregarding the wisdom of this plan and answering the question of "how to pass as male":

Hudson's FTM Guide is kind of the gold standard for FTM resources. Look at the sections "Presenting as Male" and "Grooming."

This is a very long, very useful guide to passing as male. The main point is that it's your body shape and not just your clothes that makes you read as male. (I personally have found that a good haircut is of supreme importance.)

Here's another long guide. Its conclusion (which I agree with): Finally, a very large part of passing is sheer confidence and bravado. If you really believe you're a man (which you are) and project this belief to the rest of the world, it will go a long way towards also convincing others. Any difficult feature you might have (high voice, smooth face, small shoulders, wide hips, lack of height, etc.) is one that some non-trans men have also – there are even non-trans men with enlarged chests (male gynecomastia).

You're absolutely going to have to lose the hair. Yes, there are plenty of men with long hair, but you need all the help you can get. Absolutely do not wear makeup. Almost no man wears makeup in daily life. Honestly, if you're not 1) a trans man; or 2) a professional actor, I think this is going to be very difficult to pull off.
posted by desjardins at 12:48 PM on May 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Well, female war correspondent are regularly sexually assaulted; male correspondents generally are not.

That is not true, or at a minimum there is no way to even know if that is true. There is a risk in being a woman that is not present for men, but to say female correspondents are "regularly" sexually assaulted is not anything I've ever read or heard. There are precautions women can and do take that do not involve pretending to be men. I repeat what I said earlier: journalists do not wear disguises and lie about who they are as a general standard of practice. And being "found out" as a woman pretending to be a man is probably more dangerous than just being a woman.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:54 PM on May 3, 2015

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 92% of the 61 journalists murdered (mostly in war zones) last year were male.

The OP isn't asking about disgusing her gender to diminish the risk of being murdered, so I don't see where this statistic comes into play.

The Lara Logan case comes immediately to mind, of course, but I'm struggling to think of other high profile examples. I'm all ears if you have a list of these "regular" sexual assaults on women war correspondents that surpasses the 92 percent odds that a murdered journalist will be male.

Lara Logan
Sabrina Tavernise
Angella Johnson
Sara Sidner
An unnamed Dutch journalist
An unnamed Mumbai journalist

Those are from the first page of Google results for a search, so I can only assume that if you can only name Lara Logan, you're not looking. As to why there are not more easily named journalists:

AlterNet: Female War Reporters Hide Sexual Abuse To Continue Getting Assignments
Forbes: Female War Reporters Under Sexual Attack Overseas? All The Time
posted by DarlingBri at 1:43 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your unwillingness to cut your hair shows a lack of dedication ... Have any of your college professors said this is a good idea?

It's one thing (not necessarily a bad thing) to fantasize yourself in a role. It's another thing to talk strategy with your mentors, gatekeepers, and allies. At this stage of the game, you need to switch to Track 2.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:59 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

[Couple of comments deleted. AskMe is not a debate space, and in any case the 'this is a bad idea' angle is well-covered. From here on out, please keep it to answers to the "how to" part of the question. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:44 PM on May 3, 2015

Please speak to other women journalists who do conflict reporting.

I have worked in foreign news at a major news organization. There are incredible advantages to being a woman and there are all kinds of stories you'll have access to that men will not — because of your gender.

The best way to prepare for doing this work is to:

1) Study the work of your heroes, of both genders. Try to backtrack how they got the story and learn that often the best stories come not from dodging shit on the frontlines, but careful reporting of the stories of people that no one else is covering. You don't have to be a gonzo man to do this work well. Your question makes me think you have some room to grow in studying the work you admire more thoroughly.

2) Language training.

3) Some military training can help, but is not necessary. You will tend to do more work embedded with soldiers and closer to frontline reporting (But not necessarily the most impactful reporting) if you have this.

4) Conflict zone training, like RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) Training.

5) Having a good network, including peers, mentors and fixers in-country who can show you the ropes.
posted by amoeba at 3:27 PM on May 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

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