Jung’s Anima Theory and How it Relates to Crossdressing

Source: Catherine L. Anderson


An idealized (but not universal) history of the crossdresser can be outlined as follows:

If the crossdressing urge is really adaptive – a response by the organism to remove barriers that have effectively repressed half of the man’s potentials – we can speculate that further developmental stages are possible:

It is consistent with the anima theory that the urge to crossdress may diminish during these later stages. The crossdresser now understands that it was not the clothing or being a woman that he sought – these merely symbolized the deeper aspects of his personality he sought to express. Once he experiences and expresses these aspects directly, female clothing itself has less meaning and importance.


Theories about crossdressing recall the story of the blind men and the elephant. One man feels the elephant’s leg and says “An elephant is like a tree.” Another feels the tail and says “No, an elephant is like a rope.” Another feels the body and says, “No, an elephant is like a house.”

The same is true with psychological theories of crossdressing. Any single theory explains, at best, only a part of what crossdressing is and what it means for a given person.

So any single theory is necessarily limited. But that having been said, the anima theory of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and how it may relate to crossdressing, nonetheless merits special attention.

The Anima Defined

Jung used the term “anima” to refer to the repressed, unconscious female aspects of a mans personality. The anima is a real thing – ideas, perceptions, impulses, patterns of brain neuron activity, etc. To understand the anima it helps to take a developmental perspective. Growing up, a little boy begins to experience the emergence of genetic potentials. Some emerge as spontaneous behaviors, others as instinctive responses to environmental events. Some manifest themselves as the urge to imitate. Some of these potentials are labeled “masculine” and some “feminine” by our society.

The boy soon finds that “feminine” behaviors and their associated impulses lead to trouble. If he shows undue interest in an article of female clothing – or worse, is inclined to try it on – he will, at the very least, encounter very concerned looks by his parents. In general, any behavior felt by his parents as contrary to male gender will meet with disapproval.

We can suppose that such expressions of disapproval powerfully shape a boy’s personality. A child is highly attuned to even slight signs of approval or disapproval. And when it comes to a boy’s showing signs of female feeling, thinking, or behavior – the disapproval may be especially strong – expressions of shock, fear, or disgust by a parent.

At this point most boys repress the impulses that led to the disapproved-of behavior. But the tendency to have the impulses remains. An interest in pretty clothing is a natural reaction. If it exists, the interest itself does not go away. But once the boy has learned that it is ‘inappropriate,’ he does not express the associated behavior (suppression). Further, the interest may be interrupted before it reaches consciousness and a mental level where it can produce behavior (repression).

This scenario happens repeatedly. Eventually, the boy has an assortment of impulses and feelings, labeled “female,” which are repressed. These, unfortunately, include some of his best characteristics: emotional vulnerability, compassion, sensitivity, aesthetics, bliss, and earth-groundedness, to name a few.

Jung used the word ‘anima’ to refer to the sum total of all these parts of the man’s psyche that are considered in some way female and which are therefore repressed.

Jung did not explicitly consider crossdressing behavior. However, once his theory – which is quite plausible – is understood, the implications for crossdressing follow fairly clearly.

Naturally, these impulses and potentials cannot be denied forever. They emerge partly, and in disguised form so as to elude the mechanisms of repression. For example, a boy may dream that he is a girl. And in dreams he may experience the totality of all these repressed thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps the repression of these tendencies produces a form of “arrested development.” These impulses linger in a state of continual half-activation, never fully on, but unable to be turned off until they are expressed. One African tribe makes boys spend a period of time dressing as girls. This happens just before their ‘rite of passage’ into manhood. After two weeks of living as a girl, the boys are fairly fed up with it. It is possible something similar would occur in our society of boys were allowed to explore their feminine impulses; they might simply learn what there is to learn from the experience, then move on to other things.

At this point, we should consider what happens with “normal” male development – which, perhaps is not so normal at all. The usual dynamic is that the male eventually projects his repressed female side onto women in his life. Part of his attraction to women is that they display (or he imagines they do) some of his own female traits which he cannot let himself express. He experiences his own anima vicariously through his female partners and other women.

But these women have their own identities. They are who they are, not the man’s projection. When a man projects his anima onto them, he is not seeing them as they really are, and he creates false expectations for them. That is bound to cause problems.

The Anima and the Soul

In Jung’s theories, the anima is closely connected with the soul. This idea is consistent with religious imagery, which often represents the soul as feminine.

Possibly it is not so much that the soul is feminine, as that it is decidedly not masculine. In his book “The Duality of Human Existence,” David Bakan suggested there are two basic categories of human experience, which he called Agency and Communion. These correspond in many ways to Maleness and Femaleness, Yang and Yin, and other such opposites. The essence of Communion is merging of the personal identity with others, with Nature and the Cosmos, and in accepting “what is.” The essence of Agency is individuality, independence, separation, and changing what is.

Spiritual traditions emphasize Communion. In these traditions, it is almost the precise aim for the soul to surrender the sense of isolated personal individuality in favor of greater recognition of connectedness to God and other souls.

Masculinity is the great agitator: it upsets tranquility with images of aggression, conquest and achievement. It is natural for men to long for a state freed from these disturbances.

As women are typically more free of such things, men associate serene mental states with being a woman. When a man wishes to be “a woman” – he may partly be wishing to experience these more spiritual states of mind.

The crossdresser may not realize this. But often he does notice some uncanny sense of mystery or “other worldliness” associated with his attempts to become a woman. The picture at the beginning of this essay captures this sense of mystery associated with the anima.

The Midlife Crisis

The crossdresser is apparently different than other men. He is willing to consciously experience parts of his repressed female psyche. How and why these men differ is not clear. Perhaps some men are genetically endowed with more of the traits that are considered female. Perhaps some had an early experience with crossdressing (a sister or mother who dressed them). Perhaps they are more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with gender. Or perhaps they are more introspective or intellectually different in some other way, such that they have greater awareness of repressed mental content.

But in all men, sooner or later, the anima starts to ‘make noise.’ When a person represses basically half of their self, they’re bound to be unhappy. It is no accident that the urge to crossdress often emerges strongly in the mid-thirties, coincident with the “midlife identity crisis.” At that stage a man begins to realize, consciously or not, that the overly idealized self he has constructed does not bring happiness. Various forms of self-examination and experimentation result.

Men respond to this midlife crisis in various ways. Some have affairs. Some get divorced. Some abandon their families. And – some start getting into crossdressing in a big way.

Jung’s theories suggest that in order to be fully self-actualized, a man needs to ‘integrate’ his anima. He needs to get back in touch with his positive feminine characteristics. Crossdressing seems like a step to this.

The anima theory implies that a crossdresser can, once he allows his female traits back into awareness, proceed to the step of complete personality integration. Then he is fully equipped to live life. His various potentials are harmonized and able to work together. Such a person can accomplish great things. On the other hand, if integration does not occur, the man lives divided. A simple analogy would be that of like trying to drive a car with the brakes on. But perhaps a better analogy would be like trying to drive a car with two engines, each pulling the car in a different direction.

The idea then, is that the crossdresser does not literally wish to be a woman. He is trying to become himself fully. Crossdressing is, in a certain sense, a positive victory for the natural urge to integrate the personality, and to activate all potentials.

But one can easily see examples of how crossdressing leads to excess, or, at the least, fails to bring the crossdresser to a more balanced, happy, and effective way of life. How does the process go awry?

One answer that perhaps the crossdressing behavior becomes autonomous of the original goal: crossdressing becomes a habit, rather than a spontaneous response to the impulse for personal completion. The analytic mind says “I enjoy crossdressing. Let me plan and arrange my life to facilitate this.” When it becomes merely a habit, perhaps crossdressing loses its power as a tool of the unconscious to effect growth.

In any case, crossdressing has secondary gains. For example, it is a way to escape reality. All people are prone to escapism, but the crossdresser is especially vulnerable. Crossdressing is secretive and therefore less likely to benefit from corrective support and feedback from friends, family, and society in general. Inasmuch as the crossdressing remains a detached and isolated part of the ego, there is nothing to say “This much is enough.”

Personality Integration

The poem Invictus expresses epitomizes maleness untempered by the anima. It begins,

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit, from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

The poem, filled with images of defiance and struggle, was recited by Timothy McVeigh at his execution. McVeigh is a case in point: acting strictly from “male” logic, he concluded militant action was justified to redress certain actions of the United States government. Missing was the anima’s input, and a realization that the taking of innocent life is unacceptable.

The male personality possesses drive, courage, endurance, and ambition. The male is a doer – a bold changer and shaper of the world. But without the anima’s traits of love, compassion, intuition and patience, the male attributes are prone to misdirection.

Ideally, then, a man allows the anima into awareness. The combination of male and female exceeds the sum of the parts. The female has a transforming effect on the male. The traits of male agency remain. But they now achieve a true sense of purpose through guidance of the anima.

Beyond Crossdressing?

Crossdressing, then, may partly result from the man’s instinctive effort to experience his anima, and integrate it into his personality. The crossdresser does not just wear women’s clothes. He creates a new persona. This new persona allows him to realize his anima traits. For example, in crossdresser support groups one sees men hugging, chatting, complimenting one another, etc. The crossdressing gives an opportunity to express these behaviors, and the feelings associated with them.

If the crossdressing urge is really adaptive – a response by the organism to remove barriers that have effectively repressed half of the man’s potentials – we can speculate that further developmental stages are possible:

It is consistent with the anima theory that the urge to crossdress may diminish as the anima is integrated into the personality: once anima integration is accomplished, the crossdressing has less purpose. Perhaps some residual level of crossdressing will remain. But if so, the important thing is that the crossdresser has the behavior in perspective now. He can choose to crossdress or not. He is the final arbiter, and is not influenced by guilt, shame, or arbitrary social opinion. Rather, he chooses what is consistent with higher life goals.

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