When I was a young girl, my mother taught me to wear dresses, be perfectly groomed, never curse and always have good manners. My dad, on the other hand, taught me to like sports and action movies – I watched so many action movies that I joined karate as an impulse and practiced it for five years. In my dad’s words, I had to learn “how to defend myself.” And like many women in America, who make up 43 percent of the NFL’s audience, I enjoy watching football games.
Both my parents encouraged me always to do my best, to reach higher education, to act independently and to follow my dreams. Both also helped me learn and develop attributes that society preconceived as either feminine or masculine. By raising me the way they did, my parents helped erode the notion of how “feminine” I, as a girl, was supposed to be.
I’m not alone in this – my friends, classmates and colleagues can tell similar stories. So with more and more females openly participating in what are considered masculine activities and taking on supposedly masculine characteristics, are American women losing their femininity?
In nearly every culture, femininity and masculinity are viewed as opposites. They exist on a scale of different patterns of sexuality and behaviors imposed by cultural and social norms. For years, the predominant stereotypes have claimed that no straight man wants to be perceived as effeminate, or “do things like a girl,” and no straight woman can bear the thought of coming across as manly. Nature may play a role, but the hallmarks of femininity are often cultivated to reflect the values and priorities of a particular society at that time.
For example: In 1965, a teen magazine asked the most popular American actresses of the time to describe what it means to be feminine. The answers given then – being a good homemaker, wearing dresses and makeup – do not represent the full scope of femininity today. I like sports, know self-defense and still wear dresses and makeup everyday. As American society has evolved, so too have its views on the female role.
So has femininity died? I don’t think so. I think women are redefining what it means to be feminine in today’s world. As women become more self-reliant and self-sufficient, we have more choices outside of those historically offered to us. We are free to discover our passions and to contribute to society in a variety of meaningful ways, whether they represent traditional roles or not. The previously heralded, socially constructed characteristics now seem outdated to women leaders who hold CEO positions orwomen who hold political power.
The problem arises when people refuse to include such capacities in their definition of femininity. It may seem harmless to continue to expect all women to hold certain traits as decades before – sweetness, modesty, nurturing – but it oppresses women who do not want to fit those characteristics, or who want to be more than just that.
Part of the problem is that for so long, femininity has been defined by how masculinity is defined, and inherently as its opposite. For many women, those older stereotypes mean feeling or seeming weak and dependent.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Today, being feminine should mean embracing your identity as a woman, whatever that form may take.