Research

WHAT IS FEMININITY?

When we say that someone is feminine, what do we mean? Femininity is a cultural construct which means it varies historically and culturally. In our current social context, femininity is almost totally identified with appearance.

Historically, for example, Chinese women were considered feminine if they had small feet. In the upper classes Chinese women’s feet were bound from a young age making it difficult for them to walk. The smaller her feet the more desirable sexually she was considered to be. Increasingly, our current definition of femininity is identified as thin, muscular and very sexualized. The young women interviewed for this study rarely referred to aspects of femininity which were non-physical.

At the same time the young women expressed a yearning to be seen as unique individuals with important qualities which transcended the emphasis on appearance. The focus on appearance is exemplified by the fact that the participants did not find it acceptable to be satisfied with their appearance. Since our bodies are central to the self, attitudes like this are harmful to young woman’s self-esteem and self-confidence.

Prevention programs need to include strategies and activities which assist young women in valuing their femininity beyond the current largely unattainable ultra thin ideal. This must be done without undermining the value of feeling attractive which is so important during the adolescent years. One possibility is to have young women sit in a circle and have them point out what they perceive as attractive in their peers. This may facilitate breaking down the power of the homogenous standard which is currently dominant.

There is a dire need to expand the current notion of femininity to encompass the rich expressions of femininity which are non-physical. These may include: intuition, sensuality, taking care of relationships, nurturing, emotional awareness and emotional expressiveness, etc. They may also include traits which we have traditionally thought of as masculine. Traits such as discipline, control and mastery are the skills women use to control their body, however, they may also be used to master different skills which can contribute to higher self-esteem.

What else can we do? Although the power of the peer group is difficult to challenge during the adolescent years, parents still have a role to play. Mothers can model womanhood which is not obsessed with dieting and exercise. It may be especially important that fathers praise the non-physical aspects of their daughter’s accomplishments to undermine the notion expressed by some participants that “men are pigs.”

In addition, to whatever extent we can transform the social environment by eliminating body-based harassment. Some writers have suggested that school boards create policies which ban negative comments and objectification of young women’s bodies “including weight and shape-related teasing”.