Femininity and Feminism

I have been thinking a lot about femininity. What it means. Who defines it. How we express it. I’ll be writing on some related topics over the next few weeks.

But today, I want to talk about femininity in general. What does it mean? What ideas did you get about femininity when you were growing up? When I think of my childhood, these are the women who seemed feminine to me:

Daryl Hannah in Splash

Wonder Woman

Briar Rose / Princess Aurora

Jennifer Beals in Flashdance

Notice a theme here? They are are super beautiful, super skinny, and in most cases, super sexualized.

I was lucky to have a brief period of time during which I was immune to the cultural ideal of femininity. Mostly in preschool, LOL. In fact, I remember that at that time, I equated femininity with physical strength. I wanted to be the most feminine girl at my preschool, and to achieve that, I would do just about anything to prove my strength.

We had a bike track at my preschool (perhaps that’s where I learned to love bicycling?). Yes, an entire track built into the playground, designed for the tricycles – we had a whole fleet of those. My favorite tricycle was the rickshaw trike – a saddle for the “driver” and a two-person seat over the back two wheels. Every recess, I would run to the rickshaw trike and yell for my friends to get on. Two kids often weren’t enough. More, more! I’d try to get three or four on the back seat just to see if I could make it all the way around the track, pedaling their weight. That’s what made me feel feminine.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t more than a year or two later that my sister and I were running around in our California bikinis with washcloths stuffed into the bras, pretending we were Wonder Woman. We still equated femininity with strength, but strength wasn’t enough anymore. We had to have “breasts,” too.

Later, we learned another lesson about “femininity” – one that is, from my current perspective, horrifying. One of our favorite movies, being rabid Hayley Mills fans, was the 1963 Disney film, Summer Magic. What was the message about femininity from that film? “Be radiant, but delicate. Memorize the rules of etiquette. Be demure, sweet and pure. Hide the real you!” Thankfully, Hayley’s character, Nancy, is such an independent, strong, tomboyish character that her actions offset this one awful moment in the film. We admired hardy Nancy far more than the more “feminine” characters in this film, Lallie Joy and Julia.

These days, I contemplate the issue of femininity a lot. Since I ride around on my bike most of the time (instead of driving), I tend to opt for comfort. There are a lot of people out there who love biking in stylish dresses and even high heels, but I’m not one of them! However, I can’t help but notice that when I’m out on my bike in my workout pants and fleece jackets (or whatever other ugly-but-functional clothing I tend to wear), I don’t always feel that good about my appearance. I don’t usually think about my appearance in the first place, since biking is truly fun for me, and I just enjoy being in the moment. But when I arrive at my destination, I always feel a bit…dowdy.

I was thinking that maybe I should put more effort into wearing nicer, or even more feminine clothing while biking, which is ultimately what got me thinking about this subject in the first place. Soon after this thought appeared in my head, I read an article about herbalist Susun Weed – someone I admire greatly. I looked at the picture of her (in her classic headwrap, jeans and T shirt) and thought: This is a woman, too, and therefore, this is another expression of femininity. So what am I worried about?

Picture source: HerbTV Online

Granted, I can imagine that our backwards culture would reject the notion of Susun Weed as “feminine,” or “sexy,” or any other such rigid categorization of the female appearance. Which only leads me to wonder: Is our culture’s notion of femininity anti-feminist? 

Stay tuned because I have lots to say on this subject…and I have the feeling that some of it will inspire some heated conversations!