Thoughts on Femininity and Feminism

On Facebook today, “Muslim Feminists” asked the question, “What makes you feel feminine?” Apparently there was a discussion about this on a radio show and the women who called in said everything from dangling earrings to being on their periods.

I commented that I feel feminine when I get dressed up to go somewhere. And I feel maternal (which I suppose is a  subset of femininity) when I’m around children (including my own, who are grown). But the rest of the time I feel androgynous. I happen to believe that gender behavior is largely socialized and that somehow I missed out on the training.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that while I don’t feel particularly “girlie,” I do feel like a woman. And I feel more like one the older I get. It’s as if I feel like I’ve earned the designation by all that I’ve been through: puberty, menstruation, PMS, sex, relationships, marriage, birth control, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, mothering and menopause.

But I don’t think I really started to feel like a woman until I became a feminist. There’s something about being aware of the injustices done to women that makes you begin to identify with them. And that’s not even counting the sense of pride you feel when you realize what women are capable of and have been able to accomplish, despite forces that try to keep them down.

Gender identity is a double-edged sword. If your entire being is wrapped up in your gender identity, it’s easy to feel discouraged when you don’t live up to society’s expectations. But if you don’t identify with your gender at all, you lose a significant part of what makes you feel both unique and part of a group.

(And that’s not even taking into account how you feel if you don’t fit into the gender construct assigned to you at birth.)

Another thing that occurred to me is that no matter what your gender identity is, there are times when you feel like the opposite gender. What if the radio host had asked men what makes them feel feminine? Or women what makes them feel masculine? How many of us embrace the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into our assigned gender?

I can see why some women don’t like to identify as feminists. They think that doing so sends the message that they care too much about their gender identity. They would rather feel free to express both masculine and feminine traits. Or, more typically, they prefer to call themselves “humanists.” (The author Alice Walker is a case in point.)

There’s something to that argument. But it also misses the point of feminism. Feminists are not saying that women are best. It’s not a form of female chauvinism. What they are saying is that we need to collectively support and assist our gender to achieve its highest potential as human beings. So in a sense all feminists are humanists. And all humanists should be feminists.

When do I feel feminine? When I take pride in being a woman, in doing things only a woman can do. But I also feel feminine when I exhibit the gender behaviors that society approves of. The real question is: how much of my sense of femininity is determined by positive forces and how much by negative ones?  Do I only feel feminine when I’m weak and submissive? Or do I feel feminine from a position of strength and self-actualization?

The High Cost of Being a Woman

I’ve been trying to write this post for a month and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m having so much trouble with it. I’m not trying to explain rocket science here. All I want to say is that it’s expensive being a woman. But every time I try to explain what I mean, my mind starts running in several different directions at once, such as:

Being a woman means maintaining an illusion of femininity. It’s not enough to just be a woman, you also have to build up this whole persona that “proves” that you’re one. And you have to make it seem effortless when it’s anything but.

It’s much harder for women to maintain their gender identity than it is for men. I know that being a guy can be expensive, too, what with all the sports equipment and fancy new cars. But those things are associated with what men do. Women are required to spend ridiculous amount of time, money and energy just to emphasize what they already are.

Feminists in the ’60s tried to release women from the tyranny of society’s expectations. One of the things that attracted me to feminism was its message that a woman shouldn’t be judged by her appearance. Feminists in the ’60s, who were after all part of the whole back-to-nature, anti-establishment movement, rejected the notion that women had to “dress up” in order to be considered feminine.

That was just fine with me.  The idea that I had to work at being feminine just didn’t make sense to me. I thought it was complicated enough just being a person. I didn’t mind getting prettied up every once in a while,  but I just didn’t think I should have to do it all the time.

Society’s expectations of what makes a woman feminine have become more demanding. For instance, it’s much more expensive to be a woman than it was, say forty years ago, when I was a young woman. I think part of this has to do with Baby Boomers being obsessed about aging. But younger women are buying into those concerns as well. Youth-preserving Botox injections,  facial treatments and plastic surgery are more common than ever. Dazzling white teeth are mandatory. You can’t just be thin, you also have to be buff. And God forbid that you would go au naturel where your body hair is concerned.

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