Toxic femininity

I am cheered by the work many men are doing to expose and deconstruct toxic masculinity. I’m also starting to see women talking about the need to do the same thing. It’s not like being female makes you naturally non-patriarchal, non-feudal, non-hierarchical, not into power over. There are a great many ways in which women actively contribute to toxic social constructs of femininity, and a lot of things women do to keep women powerless. It’s worth remembering that not all women were suffragettes back in the day – there were plenty who were very keen that women should not get the vote.

One of the things that bothers me particularly is how we define what constitutes a ‘real woman’ and thus who is excluded. While this can be an issue for trans women, it often also means a subset of women who were born women. If ‘real’ women have wombs, where does that leave a women who has been medically obliged to have hers removed? Where does that leave a woman who was born without a womb? I’ve heard a lot of really toxic things from radical feminists in the last few months that narrow the definition of women to something far too womb-centric.

Women who are anti-trans are currently doing a massive disservice to cis women who don’t fit their ideas of ‘real’ womanhood. Those of us who are taller, broader, have more facial hair, larger hands and feet – those of us who look like we could have started out as men, will also be subject to the suspicions, and worse, whipped up against trans women. I’m no fan of transphobia, and I wonder if the radical feminists out there realise how much they are trying to make femininity about being able to pass, and looking certain ways. Toxic notions of femininity that define us as small, weak, without muscle, delicate and so forth. ‘Biologically’ based feminism will exclude a significant number of ‘biological’ women. I don’t think much of a strand of feminism that rejects so much of the breadth of female appearance and experience.

I’ve seen the ‘real women have curves’ meme go past on social media plenty of times. There are plenty of women who do not have curves – not because of diets or surgery or being born male, but because they have a body shape that isn’t curvy. There should be no shame in the accident of your body shape. There should be no de-feminising of women who aren’t the currently fashionable shape. It bothers me immensely that we still encourage women to be thin, not to be fit or healthy. That’s a really toxic notion. Thin and curvy is difficult to achieve without surgery, which is also incredibly toxic as a way to define what we should aspire to.

We’re still too quick to make motherhood the definition of womanhood. Again, this excludes a lot of women – those who are unable to have children, and those who do not want to have children. As the human population becomes ever more unsustainable, we really, really should not be shaming women who don’t want to breed. Motherhood should not be the end goal of being female, nor the defining experience of being female. We’ve had far too much of that historically, it’s a notion that ties us to domestic roles. There is no urgent need for more people right now.

Defining womanhood in relation to domestic roles is another big problem. Historically, we’ve had very narrow options. There are still women who hold other women back by saying these are not the jobs for you, this is not what you should do or aspire to. We still give our daughters shiny glittery pink things and tell our boys they can be scientists and astronauts. We need more room in terms what we think women can do. I’m so tired of seeing men online trying to tell the world that women do nothing important and can’t do anything important. There’s a lot of work to do to deconstruct this one.

When we think about identities, the urge always seems to be to draw a circle around something – be that about gender, Paganism, political affiliation or anything else. We draw the line that says these people are in and those others are out. Toxic gender ideas draw circles that say only certain kinds of men and women are real men and women. The rest of us, the ones who don’t fit inside the circle are non-people. We don’t matter, are excluded from things, are shamed, ridiculed, harassed – and this has to stop. If we all stopped trying to decide who isn’t a real (insert term of preference here) and invested that time and energy in being better versions of ourselves, we’d very easily get rid of a lot of toxic ideas and all that follows from them.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “Toxic femininity

  • Mags

    Standing ovation to this!! We often think of feminism as teaching males that women are equal, but women can be utterly ferocious to one another, in so many different ways.

  • heartbridgeswritings

    Beautiful thoughts, couldn t agree more!💛

  • Donnalee

    I agree completely with this and have moved away from thinking someone or something is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’–I’m just not a gender-binary type myself, nor are the majority of my friends or, interestingly, my tarot clients, many of whom are into goth, ‘alternative’ lifestyles, carnie/circus work, BDSM, GLBTQAIH+, paganism, or just being hippies, etc. I lived at a senior citizen community in NJ for a few years and it distressed me that so many of the older women felt obliged to dress up as what in the old days would be called ‘female impersonators’–sort of obligatory and unflattering drag to make face like this with filler and botox and makeup (they couldn’t afford cheek and chin implants), hair like that, breasts like that, high heels like that–in what seemed a desperate bid to look young and ‘hot’. My next door neighbour was 72 and a cranky non-happy sexworker, and seemed to resent the demands on her while still feeling caught to oblige them. Hard life for her and for many of us, all to create some delusion of someone’s ideals–let’s hope we all have more insight and compassion into how hard it can be jsut to be alive, much less living up to some abstract social norms–

  • jrose88

    Somewhat off topic, but about motherhood — I read an article recently about a lesbian couple who had a baby, and during the pregnancy the woman who wasn’t carrying the child did hormone injections and stuff so that she would lactate and be able to nurse the baby as well. My partner and I are planning on me having some of our kids and adopting some, and I really want to do that to be able to nurse the adopted babies too. I wonder if trans women could do the same?

  • Blodeuwedd

    Absolutely! Could not agree more. Genuine freedom is freedom to have children or not to have children, to be a stay at home Mum or not to be, not to conform to somebody else’s standard regardless of their gender!

  • Fny

    Motherhood. That bit is what hits me hard. Revere the great mother, celebrate she who brings forth new life, yes yes. It is an understandably BIG thing, especially in heathen/pagan circles. But for one who suffers from unexplained infertility, it is downright painful and sadly cuts me off from feeling that I can fulfill my identity as woman. Yes, it’s stupid. I’d never ever say that ANYONE else is less of a woman for her ability/inability to get pregnant and give birth. But… that doesn’t hinder me from feeling it, when it comes to myself.

  • Daisy Chain Crochet Lingerie

    I felt so hurt whenever I saw posts flooding the internet like “real women have curves” because I have trouble gaining weight. i’m lucky i’m apart of a strong online community of women who love each other and support one another. We encourage each other to love our bodies and to share the love. It’s empowering when there is a group of women around you. Thank you for sharing this!

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