The Gender Aesthetics of the Aelin
Long-time players may have noticed through recent mobs, god revisions, and included tips that we’re really trying to branch out in a lot of ways what various gender roles mean to the various cultures that we have in play. One of the most interesting things about designing a truly fantastic world is to look at things that in our world are taken for granted and then not accept them as given.
Since we generally (and somewhat problematically, but we must make do) consider culture as a function of race plus location, with elements from each combining, we often start by looking at the various playable species do within their own cultural enclaves, ie, when you limit outside influence as much as possible. There are things that are filtering through the playerbase fairly well by now, like srryn considering all caregiver roles to be that of ‘mother’ regardless of gender, the nefortean tendency towards mono-gendering, or presentation aspects like shuddeni and their love of literally textural cosmetics.
Since we currently have somewhat of a rennaissance of aelin characters in play, today we’re going to take a bit of a deeper dive into what gender is to aelin, how it relates to physical sex, and what that means for what’s considered attractive and fashionable.
Now, because we are discussing this from an out-of-character perspective, we’re going to be relating things to real-world references a little more than we like to for in-game material. We like analogy for helping to understand things, even as we actively avoid designing based on ‘like humans, but…’
This is also going to have some some very dry, clinical discussion of, you know, the bits. This is I think a true first in Avendarian history, so, uh, yay?
With the aelin, we start with gender, not with physical sex. That’s a correlative, not causative relationship with the aelin. So what is gender to the aelin people? A gender is a package of social roles and expectations. This is a little inconvenient to us as players, because the game is played in English, which while it doesn’t conjugate based on linguistic genders, does use a number of pronouns pretty adamantly to gender the person they apply to. So, for player and mechanical convenience we do a lot of bundling up into things like ‘male’ and ‘female’, and a broad nonbinary category, but we should acknowledge at least when discussing the concepts that there’s a lot more going on than that!
For example, when looking at gender from the aelin perspective, being a child, or an adolescent– those could in their way be considered genders, albeit temporary ones. One might be referred to by a neutral ‘they’ until reaching majority, or a child might choose a pronoun as soon as they are certain, or try out the different options until they learn what feels best. Like we do in the real world, one’s parents might choose for the child how they’ll be referred and (hopefully) respect if the child feels differently later on.
But again, we’re simplifying to make it easier for anyone to slip into characters. So we’re going to look at what’s considered masculine, what’s considered feminine, and what’s considered outside of those things.
So to get the elephant out of the room: yes, broadly speaking, having a penis is more commonly correlated with being a man, and having a vagina is broadly correlated with being a woman. Aelin are mammalian humanoids and have broadly similar primary sexual characteristics. (to address the other, smaller elephant: yes, they can, but the gametes are incompatible; fertilization is completely impossible.) Most men have external genitalia, and most women have internal. However, it is common enough among aelin for this to not be the case that it isn’t considered unusual to be what we would call a trans woman or a trans man. Aelin would just call them men and women.
So with primary sexual characteristics away, let’s look at sexual dimorphism in general. For this we’re going to start with humans. All told, human sexual dimorphism isn’t as variant as we might think and is largely governed by hormone balance. With sufficient hormone replacement therapy, a human’s secondary sexual characteristics can be almost entirely altered from one that of one sex to the other– so there’s really not much difference at all! The average body mass difference between sexes in humans is roughly only 15%.
For aelin, the variance is even less. Breasts and hips are on average noticeably smaller than that of a human, average upper and lower body strength is quite close across the sexes; average adult height and weight are closer together. This creates a broadly androgynous baseline– in general what looks feminine or masculine is going to be a little more muted or subtle than what we would consider as such.
Given all of this: most aelin are bisexual and don’t have a strong preference as to what sort of genitals their partner has. For one, this is a world of magic and wizards; rearranging body parts is not the most trivial thing in the world but it’s much more accessible than in our own reality.
Of course, lack of preference isn’t universal; there are homo- and heterosexual aelin, asexual aelin (though in general, due to sheer lack of persecution creating specific subcultures aelin would be less inclined to make much of such divisions in general), and so on down the rainbow. There are aelin who very much want to have a specific set of genitals in a partner, or to be in possession of a specific set of genitals at all times. This is, socially, not all that much of a problem– if one does have a firm preference, one might discreetly ask before finding oneself in a compromising situation. Or they could take a chance on finding something they don’t care for when the clothes come off. In the real world there are people who, upon almost getting there with a partner find that their pubic hair is shaved in some way that’s a complete turn-off.
So! With all of that out of the way, we can finally start getting into what aelin consider masculine, what they consider feminine, and what they consider outside that. This isn’t just a ‘male, female, and other’ sort of categorization that marginalizes the nonbinary– aelin culturally run to dichotomies a lot, so something that cannot be so divided has a value of its own. And, of course, it is the ultimate dichotomy– that which can be split into two, and that which cannot.
In modern North American society, the masculine/feminine divide is pretty nonsensical in a lot of ways. Pink is associated with girls, blue with boys. A fruit-flavoured drink with four ounces of alcohol is girly; a single shot of whisky, neat, is manly. Woodworking, masculine, knitting, feminine. Eyeliner, despite looking good on every single human being, is for women. Soap and, if some corners of the internet are to be believed, toilet paper are for girls, whereas sporting goods and machine oil are for boys. Sometimes there’s a discernible logic, but by and large, a lot of it is pointlessly arbitrary.
Then, let this be a partial list of arbitrary things aelin consider to be of one or the other. The following things are considered masculine: asymmetric haircuts; spiced tea (incl ‘chai’ and pumpkin spice); sharp-winged eyeliner; acute angles; the biceps, forearms, wrists, and hands; citrus fruits; pol’ana fruit; the colours brown through orange up to yellow; copper and vermeil jewelry; velvet and velveteen; bizarre silk; asymmetry in general; and the gemstones agate, citrine, topaz, opaque gemstones in general, but also grey, smoky, colourless, and tourmalinated quartz.
Feminine things include: hair between chin and shoulder length; smoked tea (eg, lapsang souchong); smudgy or smoky eyeliner; curlicues; obtuse angles; the leg, knee, foot, and toes; stone fruit, asjiena in particular; pol’ana juice; the colour white tending to magenta down to violet; platinum and electrum jewelry; charmeuse, satin, and sateen; damask and paisley patterns; pinstripes; symmetry; and the gemstones amethyst, diamond, iolite, opal and opalescence, cat’s-eye effects, and especially gems with asterism.
The following things are of no particular gender: very short or very long hair; every other kind of tea; cosmetics and make-up in general; straight lines; the torso, stomach, chest, back, and throat; body, ear, and facial piercings; both berries and melons; pol’ana preserves; the colours red, green, blue, and black; wooden, stone, gold, and silver jewelry; linen, lace, jersey, crêpe in all its myriad forms, wool, and silk in general; shot silk, polka dots, batiking, moire, and floral prints in general; and lastly rubies, sapphires, emeralds, aquamarine and most other beryls, obsidian, jade, tourmaline, sodalite, spectrolite, and garnet.
Note that aelin do have androgynous aesthetic appreciation, so careful use of crossover as well as ungendered properties can create a very classically elegant overall impression. We can also take some basic extrapolations from these lists as well– just to start, that earth, water, and spirit are feminine elements whereas Void, earth, and fire are masculine, that the physical property of internal reflection is feminine and diffusion of light is masculine, that the aelin consider primary colours on the basis of the light spectrum and not pigment, and that shuddeni are oddly alluring to them. None of these lists are comprehensive, either; you can use this as a starting point to feel out how your character looks and reacts to things from a diegetic perspective!
Lastly, with all of this knowledge in hand, we can start designing looks for our characters. Again, remember that aelin prize androgyny, so there’s no real stigma associated with cross-dressing, though given that aelin gender is about expectation, someone of one gender whose entire look is of a different one is probably making a statement of some kind.
For fashion then, we turn back briefly to anatomy. Aelin weigh roughly the same as a human of the same height and build, but this means their bodies are comparatively lighter-framed– a lot of extra weight goes out into the wings. This does give aelin somewhat less body diversity than I would really like– a fat aelin will typically be more to the smaller end of RL human plus sizes (see human, ethron, chaja, alatharya, and srryn for a lot more variance. Hopefully we’ll get similar articles out for them too!). They concentrate most of their strength in the upper body, particularly the back. Breasts run smaller than in humans– a C-cup would be considered large– and hips narrower. This can cause aelin to look a shade underdeveloped to humans; a human who finds individual aelin attractive is probably fine, but someone who really focuses on them is likely suspect. Conversely, humans tend to look gross and lumpy to aelin, ethron even moreso. There is no accounting for taste.
So in general, aelin favour a long, straight silhouette– something that plays into their overall shape of the body. For a RL example, consider the silhouette of 1920s fashion. The hourglass shape is not something that’s particularly fetishized among aelin people as a whole, though it’s going to be more popular among human-influenced populations (Earendam especially, but also Gaald, and spreading back west via trade). By and large, aelin shapewear is going to be more about elongating lines rather than pinching in parts of the anatomy– consider a hybrid of traditional corsetry and modern compression binders used by AFAB trans people to flatten out the chest. Femme-presenting people will have a goal of emphasizing the leg, raising the hipline some, and shortening the torso; a more masculine look will go for a more triangular narrow waist, emphasizing the shoulders and lowering the apparent hip. By the same token, one abandoning both the masc and the femme will want to create more of a balance between the three primary regions of the body. Consider also usage of waist cinchers– there’s far less need for clothing with a high-low front-back cut.
This also raises the important notion of cutting to fit the aelin form: their wings are quite large, and simply cutting slits in the back of clothing cut for humans would be both impractical and tacky. Aelin clothing is far more inclined to have an open upper third of the back (at least!) to provide more natural space and movement. Cold-weather gear might have flaps from above to snug close to the wings on either side– these could possibly be buttoned down if need be but you’d need help doing so unless they were quite long!
Feminine cuts are going to emphasize the shape of the leg; exposing them via slits would be an easy ‘sexy’ look. Pants, especially fitted ones, would be traditionally women’s clothing, but the practicalities of flying mean that they’ve long since become unisex. Shoes and boots would typically be fully covering. Anklets, sandals, peep-toes, or an exposed arch on the upper are a little racy. Especially in the aelin homelands to the west, where cities would be designed vertically, shoes with extremely high, fragile, or unbalanced heels would be the height of fashion– walking is an affectation of the land-bound.
For a more masculine look, you’d want to emphasize the shape of the arms. Again, the preferred aesthetic is going to call more for sleek, wiry lines than large, bodybuilder-esque musculature. Close-fitted gloves are a timeless look that never goes out of style, though eye-catching finger rings or long, painted nails are quite popular. Armbands or bracelets can draw the eye for emphasis, and contouring makeup is commonly used to create a more ideal shape of the arm. Rolled-up sleeves on a well-muscled arm, much like in real life, are highly attractive. Sleeve garters are a popular accessory.
Signalling a more ungendered look calls for drawing emphasis to the torso. A low-cut chest has no particular gender to it; exposing the nipples is not considered obscene and they can be an ideal platform for jewelry. This is more of a summer fashion than winter for obvious reasons. Emphasizing the stomach or the back is ideal. Long necklaces or pendants can help emphasize the preferred lines. Here too is where you might want to use the waist cincher I mentioned earlier, to create the smooth shape.
In general, aelin like really form-fitting fashion; where fabric is loose, slinky, drapey fabric is popular. Their look overall is going to be relatively modern. It’s been about ten thousand years since the founding of the first aelin cities– we should feel no obligation to restrict ourselves to some faux pop culture imagination of fantasy medievalism. In general, we know enough about history to be really annoyed by that sort of thing. We’re creating a fantasy world and want to take advantage of the fantastic, rather than recreate a historicity that was never real.
With this, I hope you have some helpful insights not only into what your aelin character might consider aesthetically appealing, but also a clearer grasp into the cultures your character could have come from. Again, ideally, we hope to discuss this further with the other playable races so that you can better approach other character types, too.