Sunday Morning Illusion

Which is the male and which the female? Can you choose correctly without hair and fashion? Answer after the break.

Well if my clever ploy caught you, they you have fallen victim to this clever illusion of lighting contrast. The two images are identical except for adjusted contrast levels. Somehow, though, the human mind picks out one as distinctly male and the other female.

Brains are wacky.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Wow! That’s awesome. 🙂

    It’s amazing how subtle the line can be between gendering someone male or female. Contrary to what one might think, there’s really not much gray area… we seem sort of hard wired to conceptually categorize each other one way or the other, and most people get VERY uncomfortable when confronted with anyone who fits in that very, very slim space between the two, to the point of staring and feeling compelled to play “she or he?” game, feeling they *need* some kind of definite answer to ease the cognitive dissonance. What’s also interesting is that there are very few traits that in and of themselves can cause someone to perceive you as one or the other. It’s always a “whole rather than the sum of the parts” thing… our brains will INSTANTLY weigh the “male” cues against the “female” cues and come up with some kind of answer.

    And even when the cues allow us to “clock” someone as gender variant, our brains will usually *still* mentally categorize them as one or the other… most people will either find it easy to think of them as the presented gender, or very difficult and constantly stumble over pronouns and stuff…which can create very real social consequences for people who have a harder time “passing”, even compared to people who don’t *quite* pass but still fit relatively well into physical expectations of gender. And also big problems for people who aren’t binary-identified at all.

    Many of my experiences have left me feeling like our perceptions of gender are just one big mass hallucination. 😛

    I had this one really inmteresting experience early in transition… I had been on hormones for about three months but was still presenting as male in most situations. One day, I was wearing a women’s sweater (though a very unisex one that wouldn’t come across as incongruent with “boymode”). It was monochrome olive-brown, not too heavy, had a low v-neck, and was also a bit form-fitting and so didn’t hide certain *ahem* developments very well. Other than that, I was wearing jeans, sneakers and a leather jacket that were all also pretty unisex. Anyway, over the course of that day, I was gendered female four times, including one guy calling me “cutie”. I’d experienced “male fail” before, but nothing that frequent in a single day. The following day, I wore the *exact* same outfit, but with a black t-shirt instead of the sweater. Nothing but “sir” and being gendered male all day. How I was gendered differed on the basis of a single article of clothing! Weird, yeah?

  2. Ahhhhh… Very tricksy.
    This one almost got me. I was looking at the pictures and thinking “Okay, the one on the right looks slightly more male to me”. But then I decided to take a closer look at the anatomy and compare the features to see why I thought that and as I did, it clicked!

    @natalie1984: As usual, great comment and insight 🙂

  3. Strange. I thought I posted a comment the other day…

    Very clever illusion. It, too, made me realize how much of gender traits are based on the contrast and accentuation of features based on societal expectations. Heck, as a cartoonist, I’m super familiar with the concept.

    Take, for example, a simple, cartoony drawing of a boy and a girl. If no body cues are given, how are the sexes distinguished? Easy, you make sure to draw the details of the girl’s lips and add eyelashes. Which makes me wonder, Natalie, if you were doing anything different with your face that day—as without body cues, that’s where people would go.

    That gets into the whole notion of “feminine” and “masculine” features. No amount of contrast will make Patrick Swayze look like anything other than a full-jawed, muscular, man in drag. But as the illusion shows, it gets a little trickier somewhere in the middle.

    Great post all around!
    (I almost forgot to hit “submit”…I think I solved the earlier mystery)

  4. Well…I think the whole thing about adding eyelashes, red lips and little hair-bows to distinguish “girl” cartoon characters actually has a LOT more to do with the way that male is treated as the “neutral”, default gender in our culture and female as “special”, other, distinct. Like how “he” is sort of the universal pronoun, and when we’re picturing a character in our heads, we’ll assume male unless otherwise specified. Mascara, lipstick and hair-bows are NOT secondary sexual characteristics. They’re accessories. Culturally gendered accessories.

    It’s interesting, for instance, that your answer to “how are the sexes distinguished?” involves making modifications to the female character, but not touching the male one at all. So the characters are male unless otherwise indicated? In other words: all characters are innocent of being female until proven guilty. 😉

    I wasn’t doing anything different with my face, as far as I can remember. I certainly wasn’t wearing make-up or anything. I’m pretty sure it was just the gender cues associated with the sweater and my chest. The point is just that which side of the “line” you fall on can be influenced by REALLY subtle differences.

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