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  • Alisha Grech

Revisiting Femininity: We're All Doing it Wrong!

In the middle of putting my reading list together for school, I realized that I had a giant collection of books on femininity. I knew what all these experts, scholars and theorists were saying about femininity. I felt organized. But I also felt a little weird—like the knowledge I had and the opinions I had learned from were exclusive.

Sure, what the books said about femininity were important. But I had no idea what people outside of them—the people in my life—thought about femininity.

Art by Lori Mehta

So, I posted a few Instagram stories.

If you follow me on social media, you'll know that this isn't out of the norm (at all). If anything, sometimes I wonder if I post too much. By now - I think - people must be tired of hearing from me. Femininity this, feminism that, gender - blah blah blah.

In the middle of wincing as I hit the post button, I caught myself. Why do I think this? Why do I first feel shame, embarrassment, or even (sometimes) self-loathing when I choose to share my writing? It's like my default setting is at: I have nothing of value to share. It sounds very insecure or silly of me to say considering I grew up in a household that was largely supportive of my opinions.

So where did this anxiety come from?

I can't remember when it started, but I remember growing up with a considerably set-in-stone opinion that to be successfully feminine, appealing and attractive (sidenote really quick - how nuts is it that I was worried about being attractive as a child) I had to be quiet and polite. A lot of times, being "polite" came at the expense of sharing my opinions. After all, it was one of the biggest blows to be called "loud" or "dramatic" or "sensitive" back then. As if showing emotion and behaving as myself held a direct correlation to a lack of intelligence or objectivity.

For a long time, femininity felt like an uncomfortable subject. I didn't like addressing the fact that I'd adhered to a standard of being feminine that was designed to make me appear as worthy of male attention AND unworthy at the same time.

Anyone who looks at me would assume that I am someone who is very comfortable with their femininity. I can't blame them. Based on how I look, dress and behave, it could be said that I am someone who has found a magical sort of acceptance and enjoyment of my own feminine self.

But no.

It's laughable to even try and pretend that I am.

No matter how I try to frame it, I will always feel like I am doing femininity wrong. There is this sort of line that is associated with femininity — a boundary. If you stay inside it, you are doing femininity right. But, if you choose to cross it? Well, then you're doing femininity wrong. Cut and dry. Case closed. You're doing it wrong.

In order to do femininity the right way, you have to be white, thin, sexually appealing to the male gaze, young, heterosexual and cis-female. By being literally anybody else, you are doing femininity wrong.

When I asked people on Instagram whether they have been made to feel uncomfortable about their femininity, these were some of the answers I received:

  • "Because I am trans, I sometimes feel like I'm not feminine enough."

  • "Absolutely."

  • "In certain societal settings, yes"

  • "As a more masculine-presenting woman now, the lack of respect from the public is astounding. Without the compassion and fragility sewn into femininity, people offer less care to me. Likewise, as I leave the conventions of 'attractive' femininity, men have become increasingly rude."

  • "Yes, femininity is equated to other traits like such as being submissive, vapid, etc."

  • "Never because of my femininity but definitely because of my lack of it."

  • "Yup. Constantly exotified and sexualized."

  • "100% at work, in sports or even by peers for having different opinions on femininity."

The answers above predominantly came from persons who are (either): cis female-identifying, queer, transgender or BIPOC.

Out of the thirty people who responded to this question, only ONE responded with:

  • "No." They have not been made to feel uncomfortable about their femininity.

The individual who answered this way is white, cis and female-identifying. Much like me, (personally knowing this individual) she grew up in a household where her gender expressions were largely accepted. Throughout her life, she may have traversed western society unaware of the feminine expectations being pressed down on her shoulders. Since, for the most part, she was doing things right simply by going about her day.

But, even doing femininity "right" day after day isn't a guarantee that you always will.

After all, as time rolls on the unwritten rules for femininity grow, becoming more confusing.

  1. Don't dress too provocative — men may think you're a slut

  2. But also, don't dress too modest — men may find you boring and unattractive

  3. No tattoos! That isn't very ladylike

  4. Real femininity comes from tiny waistlines

  5. Wait, no, femininity comes from curves

And about a million other contradictions to follow

And, even IF you manage to be all of these things at the same time, you are still subject to misogynistic behaviours surrounding femininity. Behaviours that could impede experiences in the workplace, in personal life or elsewhere — all at the flip of a switch.

So, adhering to femininity perfectly could still result in waking up one morning just to be dragged across that line with the rest of us—seen as unacceptable, unattractive, unworthy etc.

If that's true, then what was the point of all this?

"Alisha, you just wanted to cry about your insecurities."

Yes. But also no. There is something here.

If there is a right way and a wrong way to be feminine or to exude femininity, who organized it? While, yes, how we perform femininity is connected to our individuality, we cannot deny that there are expectations placed upon them. But who created these expectations? Who enforces them? Our culprit starts with an M and ends with an N. Fill in the blanks.

All persons who are/choose to be/want to be (etc.)seen as feminine are affected by these patriarchal standards of existence that can change on a dime.

If there is a patriarchally determined right and wrong way to be feminine — maybe we've all been doing it wrong by actually paying attention to these societal standards. And I don't mean us as in those who are feminine-performing, I mean us as in human beings. Everybody. Because, as much as this is a feminine centred issue, it's also an issue for those who prefer to be associated with as masculine.

There is no right or wrong way to be.

And if there is, maybe I should be glad that we're all f**king it up together.

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