Androgynous fashion model and activist Rain Dove is challenging gender norms in an industry that is famous for defining them.
"When I model, I don't model as a man or a woman. I model as just me in this body. I'm just trying to fit an artistic aesthetic," Dove told NBC OUT.
The 6-foot-2-inch model has broad shoulders and handsome features typically associated with men. She also has a slender waistline and full breasts that give her a feminine appearance. It's a physique that allows her to walk the runway for men's and women's fashion. But gender isn't something she defines herself by.
"My body is not who I am. You could cut off my arm, you could take my genitals, you could take my organs, and I'd still be [me]," Dove said.
Dove never expected to work in fashion. She grew up on a farm in Vermont and supported herself through landscaping and briefly as a firefighter. She went to her first casting call after losing a bet to a friend and was cast in an all-male charity show. Her life hasn't been the same since.
The 26-year-old is making a career off her looks. But in a society segregated by gender, she acknowledges her androgynous appearance causes problems. Like many gender-nonconforming people, she is often mistaken for the wrong gender and has anxiety around using public restrooms. Dove said she's been pepper sprayed three times in the women's restroom. She said someone even attacked her with a taser once.
"You can't even be mad at [them], because in their minds they are protecting themselves from a 6-foot-2-inch tall frat boy. That's what a lot of them think," she said.
Dove organized protests in North Carolina over the state's controversial House Bill 2, which requires transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings. She believes restrooms would be safer for everyone if they were all gender neutral.
"I am not transgender, but at the same time I get treated like I am. I have a lot of the fear, but the thing I have that backs me up is my ID. I have my breasts. I have my vagina. I can prove [my gender]. I can't identify one 100 percent with [the transgender community's] struggle… But the violence [they face] really scares me," she said.
When Dove is not walking the runway, she is researching her next activism project. The model is excited to embark on her first college tour in the fall. She's going to speak about a theory called "gender capitalism." It's a concept that examines the disparity in the way people are treated based off their perceived sex, according to Dove. She believes gender norms are barriers that create limited experiences for men and women.
"If [your gender] wasn't an obstacle … if everybody got the respect of a man, but everybody got the delicacy and the patience and the courtesy given to a woman … If we just had all of the best of both worlds … we would see a lot more growth in the human spirit. But we have this amazing divide. And you grow up and you live not experiencing a whole half of human experience," Dove said.
Dove wasn't initially happy about losing the bet that launched her career. But now she's glad it happened. Modeling gives her a platform to create change.
"Every day is like scratching a lottery ticket. You just get closer and closer to creating something. It's not always easy, but they say in every story the character starts with some kind of adversity. And I just think maybe I'm in the beginning of a really good story…It's a lot of fear, [but] it's everything I want my life to be."