What does the term “femininity” mean to you? The quality of being female is the concise definition but its interpretation is of course far from concise.
A femininity storm has erupted in our house on the back of an innocent comment to my youngest teen from a friend ahead of a joint shopping trip. The crux of it was the suggestion that my daughter might benefit from introducing an element of ”femininity” to her wardrobe.
There was no ill intent meant of course but unfortunately as we all know it is often the most casual and throw away remarks that will strike a nerve and provoke the loudest response.
So how did my daughter interpret this comment? Well not favourably. In short she felt insulted and perhaps not surprisingly, suddenly very self-conscious of her appearance.
Of course, as we are all too aware, a woman’s femininity is defined by much more than simply her looks and how she presents herself externally. It is about how she is as a person, how she interacts with others and what she brings to the world.
Ultimately, there is not a universal definition and as such we can’t stereotype so I am not going to either. Neither in this instance am I going to pursue the well-trodden path of considering the relationship between femininity and feminism – that is a debate for another day. This is a question born purely from a comment about looks and presentation and its impact upon the formative teenage brain.
So is it the case then that femininity from the perspective of external appearances is limited to such a simplistic view as the one my teenage daughter interpreted the comment to mean. Namely that to demonstrate her own femininity she must wear a skirt (not a dress!), make-up and god forbid forego her beloved trainers!
The short answer is no. My son was at pains to point out to my daughter that “clothes don’t make the (wo)man” and that her preference for individuality rather than conformity was something to be celebrated not concealed.
On the flip-side and at the risk of sounding “old-fashioned” I confess to falling into the camp that says yes to a good pair of heels and some lippy as a sure fire way to make me feel good about myself. Is that the same as feeling feminine? On a superficial level yes, but then again I am 50+, menopausal and having spent the last few weeks since my op dressed down in loungers and comfortable shoes, I would give anything for a chance to boost my sense of femininity right now, however, irrelevant the means of achieving that might seem to others.
For our teenagers, however, the landscape is different. That transition from awkward and doubtful, to confident and self-assured is a delicate one that needs to be navigated with care and at their own pace. As I have said before, appearance matters hugely to teenagers. Nobody wants to be made to feel like the odd one out, but if my daughter is going to feel like that I would rather it was for something as simplistic as her refusal to wear an outfit favoured by her peers, than her inability to inquire and challenge perceptions about the true definition and values of femininity.
I have heard it said that the exact definition of words is actually set by the listener rather than the speaker and that is probably why comments are so easily misconstrued. We all interpret situations and words differently and no doubt a straw poll of people’s opinions of “femininity” will elicit a range of responses rather than a universal one. In fact Teen magazine posed this question to a group of celebrities back in 1965. The answers were varied and illustrate not only a different mindset but a vastly removed society.
Jane Fonda: “Femininity is knowing how to listen — men love it!”
Sandra Dee: “You must be meticulous in your clothing, makeup, skin — to be clean, fresh, and nice all the time.”
Connie Stevens: “You work at being a good homemaker, making it fun and romantic.”
Is there any point in trying to define what femininity is or more importantly do we care? There is no doubt it will alter and be defined by its time. Fundamentally, however, it is a set of attributes and behaviour, which can take on many forms because it is unique to the individual and it is that sentiment we should be embracing more than any other when considering femininity.