What Does Femininity Mean to Me?

Hannnah Duke

The definition of femininity, according to Google, is: qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of women. 


So, you may ask, what does femininity mean to me?


When I was in elementary school, femininity equated to dresses and makeup and pink. I would slip on my pink ballet shoes and twirl around in my all-female ballet classes feeling like a princess. I’m not exactly sure when I stopped wanting to feel that way – probably around the same time my mom looked me in the eye when I was twelve and reiterated for the seemingly hundredth time how important it was that I never go anywhere alone. 


That was when femininity began to equate to weakness in my mind. Being naturally independent, I would grit my teeth when she made those comments and feel a flame of indignant rebellion light within me – I did not want to be limited. I aspired to be a fierce, strong, independent young woman. 


As I progressed into middle school, femininity became something I continued to ponder. I attempted to make myself the opposite of any stereotype that was cast upon me because of my gender. I didn’t mind identifying as female, but I was annoyed by some of the connotations that came along with it.


As a result, I challenged myself to do push-ups every day. I entered into our school-wide pi memorization contest, and felt the amazing thrill that only comes with being the only girl on the stage and winning. I became determined to get a STEM degree, not just because I enjoyed math and science, but because I wanted to become a part of balancing the scales in STEM fields. 


Until recently, my frustration has mounted around the way femininity affects me, and the way that gender stereotypes affect women. Two years into college, I have been awakened to the fact that femininity does not just affect women – characteristics that are geared towards one gender or another affect every single person in our society, whether they choose to conform to them or not. 


So now, when you ask me what femininity means to me, one of the first things that comes to mind is a six-year-old boy I used to babysit in my neighborhood. He was very sweet and very hyper, so I would always ask: what do you want to do? He would look up at me with bright blue eyes and run excitedly over to his twin sister’s gigantic doll house. I want to play with the dolls! He would exclaim with pure joy, but then his eyes turned sad. My mom doesn’t like it when I play with dolls. She wants me to go outside and play basketball with my older brother. 


My heart ached for this innocent six-year-old boy who simply wanted to explore his creative mind. When I played with him, I had the privilege of seeing his young mind come alive. He could transport us into another universe where the only worries were which doll stole another doll’s outfit. We would climb mountains and explore the depths of the ocean. He would guide us through a rainforest and solve mysteries that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money. And then his mom would come home, and he would snap back to reality and suppress his creativity while running to go pick up a basketball. 


Gender stereotypes affected him as much as they affected me. What I tended to question as a child, what was deemed the appropriate activity for a young female, was exactly what he longed for and yet could not pursue freely. The same suffocations of femininity that I tried so desperately to escape, he longed for from afar.


The word femininity – the act of defining characteristics of a certain gender – used to bother me because I saw the predominant characteristics associated with women as weakness, fragility, and docility. I am realizing now that characteristics associated with a certain gender do not have to be set in stone. Just as that six-year-old boy can help start to redefine masculinity, I too, can help in redefining femininity. 


I see this reshaping of femininity everywhere I look now. I see it in a conference for undergraduate women passionate about studying and researching physics. I see it in non-profits across the country that are dedicated to ending period poverty and period stigma. I see this reshaping occurring in numerous places on Duke’s campus as well.


My hope for the future would be that the qualities associated with femininity and masculinity would not be attached to their respective genders anymore. My hope would be that the qualities can simply be qualities – no attachments, no expectations, no pressure to conform. I suppose we have come a long way in some regards, but the race isn’t over yet. It will take effort from every person in order for us to reshape these definitions. 


Every day that I stand up a little taller, own what I enjoy doing, and fearlessly challenge the stereotypes trying to define me, is a day spent reshaping the notion of femininity.