Woman...ish

Sophia Cetina

Femininity (n.) is defined as such: “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of women.” To me, though, femininity does not just mean acting in a “womanish” way. Who decides what constitutes “womanish” anyway? Hell if I know, but if I had to guess, I’d say it wasn’t a woman. If you ask me, I’d shift this responsibility to a broad scope of individuals, individuals applying collected personalized norms. I maintain that generalizations of what constitutes femininity does a disservice to the people it addresses. The term “girly” should not have the limiting societal leash that it does, as when hot pink is limited to young girls or when any “feminine” type of clothing is customarily illicit for the opposite sex. This isn’t simple fodder, either. It comes down to what people think being a girl entails, which leads to implications and (often unconscious) pressures regarding how they should act (“don’t be too loud in class,” “no one likes a bossy girl”), how they should think (“remember to look out for your brothers, they’re all around your age but they’re boys, they need more time to grow up than you do”), and how they should look (“cover yourself”; your body is subject for the gaze of others from the moment you grow into yourself).

Most girls are raised with notions, whether expressed or repressed, on who they should want to be and who they are expected to become. Sadly, these wants and expectations can be mutually exclusive. Feminism can be an approach. It can’t be contextualized as adherence to feminine tendencies; if I told you that remembering my manners, spraying myself with perfume, and painting my nails some ungodly purple was how I expressed my femininity…well, then I would be lying. It’s just as important to recognize that this could be another woman’s version of womanhood and truth. Femininity is subjective. Internalized values (of others/society) are the enemy of modern femininity, and the idea that it can be constrained may be accepted (at least in the conventional sense of how society categorizes a “girly girl,” for example), but that doesn’t make it right. We all have roles to play. Some of them are chosen, and others are imposed upon us, often perpetuated by our own hesitation and uncertain commitment to changing ourselves in some uncanny way.

So, how do we contend with all of this? How can femininity be defined pragmatically,
yet without the stringency of expectations that put women, frankly, in boxes? I think the first step is mitigating the constraints of traditional gender roles on both fronts. Easier said than done, I know. These divides start when we are children. I myself remember an instance over ten years ago: the girls in class categorized themselves as “girly girls” (i.e. the more traditionally feminine, preferring “feminine” colors, clothing, and activities) or “tomboys” (a girl who behaves in a typically “boyish manner”). The memory resonates with me. It’s a small example of the ways in which girls are pressed—even among themselves—to choose which “side” they embrace. They can either choose pink or be less than a girl. This is dangerous. A girl can be pretty and smart. She can like shopping and video games. She can like wearing skirts and sweatpants. Not every choice has to be polar. The message women deal with is that they have to either embrace or conceal their femininity. This isn’t right, let alone viable, as women have differently structured desires and definitions of what it means to be a woman.

All of this to say, when I think about femininity, I first think about what society claims it is and isn’t. I then think about how fragile and misleading such assumptions are. I also think about the choices that women have to make, and how they often have to forego expressions of femininity in order to be taken seriously by others. I want women to live their most authentic lives. I want their own desires and habits to exist unrestrained: to be set as an intrinsic default for action. I want women to think about their wants and not have to compromise, reconsider, or change behaviors based on external implications. Female cooperation is imperative. Sincerity is only meaningful when practiced. Above all, there is no one means to a feminine end, if that’s what you decide you want. Construct the specifics for yourself and no other; disregard the rest.