[This post is spaced with images of various forms of femininity becoming to women of fertile ages. As I am not yet a mother and still young, I felt it would be inappropriate to start a debate as to what is appropriately feminine for an older woman or a young girl. Unless otherwise mentioned, every picture here is a representation of something I find feminine.]
I have been thinking about femininity a lot lately. Namely because I’m working on being more feminine for Jon, who, as my husband-to-be, definitely deserves to enjoy me for the woman I am. So, for his sake and, by proxy, my own, I’ve been looking into ways I can be more feminine. And I’ve reached a conclusion that can’t be put in delicate terms: that, whilst it is important and may need to be at the forefront for many women, femininity is not my primary duty and needn’t be the primary duty of any working (moneyed or not) woman.
For starters, let’s define femininity. It’s a hard one, as GBG have found, so I’ll use their near-perfect definition (highlights mine):
How I always imagine the girls when they’re debating something serious like this.
“Femininity is one of those things that is very easy to pick out when you see it, but it isn’t always easy to tweeze out the very fine points of it. We’ve all written about how, as women, we should strive to be pretty, wear modest makeup, but wear it well, have long hair, dress well and so forth. But as we all know, femininity encompasses so much more than that and trying to write about all it entails in one or two posts is nigh impossible.
With this in mind, I thought it best to simply just pick one small aspect of femininity and write about it. My hope is that it will inspire questions, comments, and further ideas for myself and the other writers here to spin off of and therefore continue the conversation of what it means to be a feminine woman. It’s not a simple thing and it goes very deep. However, the outer covering is a very good place to start in one’s journey to becoming more feminine. It’s why I love the video above so much.
Women today seem to go to either end of the spectrum, even in the course one day, in their dress. For the day it might be sweatpants and sneakers and for the night heavy makeup with a very skimpy dress or skirt. There is little in between. It is in this in between that we start to find what is feminine.
I tend to think of feminine as that place one would find on the line between pretty and beautiful. One might use the words classy, elegant or sophisticated as well. And while a feminine woman, depending on her situation, will likely have occasion for sexy, it is not something that she allows anyone beyond her husband to be a part of or witness from her. The problem here often lies in one’s own definition of these terms. Something that I might find to be classy or beautiful might not be modest enough for the next person or might be too modest for someone else. You need to figure that out with your husband and with what you find acceptable. This is highly important.”
So femininity, in terms of dress, is “somewhere between pretty and beautiful”. I’d say that summary applies to most other aspects of femininity also. Not girlish, but not boyish. Mature, but not sexy. Well-kept, but not overdone. Attractive, delicate, coquette, coy, friendly, open, reserved and polite. Somewhere between a girl and a woman, miles away from a whore or a man.
This isn’t feminine.
But this isn’t either.
I’d say that makes good sense, wouldn’t you?
When we look at images of conventionally feminine women, we see skirts and dresses from just above the knee downwards, maybe slightly higher if it’s obviously warm or she’s on a beach. We see long, well-groomed hair and long-ish, well-groomed nails. We see a splash of make-up; not attention-seeking, but pleasing to the eye. We see women who stand with their backs straight and their shoulders back, their chins not too high in the air, their hips and busts not tilted alluringly, no slouch; just a graceful, unabashed, non aggressive woman. We see women who write, who sew, who clean, who care, who cook and talk. We see mothers, secretaries, teachers, nurses and cooks. Examples abound in the pictures I have inserted between these paragraphs. That is what feminine looks like. That is what feminine is. If you seek to be purely, wholly feminine, be everything described, everything portrayed and nothing else.
Next, it’s worth contemplating Olive White Fortenbacher’s short script “When Queens Ride By”. In it, the Mangraves’ fortune is turned around when, like the Queens of the title, Jennie starts caring for the home and her husband first and leaves the business to him. The message is that women’s domain, even in marriage, is specific and that femininity is the most important thing we can contribute. Which, to be honest, it often is. A woman in a relationship who earns £300/week but who doesn’t cook or clean ends up costing money once you’ve accounted for the extra rent, clothes, make-up, running a second car, inefficient food expenses and a cleaning lady or even a nanny. A woman who works hard on the farm and lets her house fall apart leaves her husband worrying about what he’ll come home to; namely an angry, tired, mouthy woman, an untidy, unkempt home and a poor dinner. Basically, the feminine and the traditional gender roles of women go hand in hand and specifically complement the life of a working man.
However, we now hit a snag. You see, to be purely, wholly feminine, you must be everything described above and nothing else. Yet a woman’s traditional roles are as varied as a man’s income and a nation’s culture and sometimes fulfilling these roles requires more than femininity.
Femininity won’t carry the firewood home.
For example, in the Cagayan Agta tribe being a good woman also involves fishing. In medieval peasant society, a good woman roughed-up her hands and tired her body by working in the fields and at the home. Even in modern society, a good housekeeper cooks, works with bleach, may have a part-time or even full-time job. Basically, a good woman can only fit so much into her day, or be so careful about her body, without ending up hurting her home or her tribe. An Agta woman who doesn’t fish so as to keep herself clean and dry is probably viewed as lazy. A peasant woman who refused to work in the fields would probably be viewed as an unsuitable wife. And we all know what we think of women who don’t work, cook, clean or do anything with their time and energy but groom and display their bodies. Pretty to look at, good for men to have sex with, but not good women. Yet the last three women are arguably more feminine. They will be more delicate, more beautiful, more composed, etc. However it seems we’ve missed an aspect of femininity. We’ve talked about good women. We’ve talked about feminine women. Now we need to think about both. Namely, what makes a good and feminine woman. Consider the following list of traits and behaviours and imagine a balance between them:
And getting our hands dirty shouldn’t be beneath Western women either. Or did ovens stop needing cleaning in the 50s?
-delicate, but strong and healthy
-slight build, but with enough hip fat to grow children inside her
-well-kept hair, but housework-ready hair
-shaved legs and manicured nails, but a good dinner on the table
-attentive, caring wife, but secondary earner
-attractive, flattering clothes, but practical, robust clothes
-polite and considerate in conversation, but raise important points in conversation
-learns entertaining things, but develops practical skills
-sexually and romantically alive, but puts energy into running and maintaining a house
There we have the balance. A woman who is not afraid to be a woman, but not so concerned with being a woman that she ceases to be a helpmeet. A woman who fulfills the first part of those bullet-points but only the first part may be the epitome of femininity, but if that’s all she brings to the table, then she’s a demure prostitute. She’s delicate, slight, with well-kept hair, nails and legs, attentive, caring, wears attractive and flattering clothing, is polite and considerate, studies the arts and is big on sexytimes. A woman who fulfills the second part of those bullet-points but only the second part may be the epitome of a good housekeeper, but if that’s all she brings to the table, then she’s a slutty co-worker. She’s strong, healthy, has enough fat to ensure many healthy children, is dressed for work, puts her time into cooking and cleaning, earns money, debates with her husband, learns practical skills and devotes her energy to her home. Yet these women are imaginary. The demure prostitute and the slutty co-worker are mere models, not real women, no matter how close to becoming them some women are. More often than not, you’ll find a woman who’s delicate, with well-kept hair, nails and legs who debates and earns. You may find a woman who’s robust and practical, but who puts her energy into romance, sex, children and cooking. As individuals, even traditionally-minded women can lean towards the feminine or the housewifely, yet possess the traits of both. But the key isn’t that.
The key is to pursue a balance of both sides in every aspect of your life. You wear practical clothes that look good on you wherever possible. You don’t wear a trouser-suit to work, but a suit-dress and a jacket. You keep your hair, likewise, practically kept away and attractive. You don’t leave it down in the way, but tie it up in a loose bun or a high pony-tail. The goal isn’t to pick and mix one or the other depending on what aspect of your life you’re looking at. The goal is to find the balance between the two that best suits you.
And, of course, like all goals it’s an ideal. Just as no woman is the perfectly feminine demure prostitute or the perfectly useful slutty co-worker, no woman is the perfect woman nor can be. Femininity is firstly a personal thing. What one culture views as feminine another views as slutty. What your society views as feminine your family may view as strange. What your friends view as feminine your husband may view as modest. Talk to those who matter.
It is up to you to decide whose advice is in your best interests.
Next you have to consider your other priorities. If you have young children then making your clothes a priority will likely be more stress than it’s worth. Yet if you have older children you can encourage them to help with housework enough or be quiet for long enough that you can properly shave your legs and find some nice lingerie for the night. If you have digging to do, keeping your hair down may not be an option. If you are just repotting small shoots then you can keep your hair down. If someone is flirting in an obnoxious manner at work, perhaps demure and polite isn’t the way to go. If a man who could have been misled flirts with you, then a polite rejection is in order because let’s face it, it’s easy to see why a man could think a feminine woman is into him; why else would a modern Western woman be acting feminine?
Imagine you’re living in an inverse reality. “Look how covered up and quiet she is! Must be interested in me.”
Of course, if you’re single then femininity goes up your priority list. Once you’re in a relationship you needn’t let the facade fall or keep being extra-feminine; you can just tell him that you were working to get his attention and that you aren’t usually that well-dressed or that quiet. Sure, honesty seems a bit weird when you’ve been prioritizing femininity during the flirting and dating stages, but men often prefer honesty and, well, comfortable clothing, chattering and swearing, take-away pizza and no make-up isn’t exactly the best bait for a man of any walk of life. Just don’t let it all go. As mentioned, you can let the balance readjust between the feminine and the housewifely once you’re settled. That doesn’t mean get fat and talk him down. That means 1h hairdos and polite silence doesn’t have to be the order of the day everyday anymore.
You no longer need to do an impression of her, is what I’m saying.
The reason for priorities is simple: you have a limited amount of time and energy, or power, to hand out in your day. If I had decided one morning to dress in a feminine, delicate manner, do 4h of tutoring, plant-out all the seedlings, clean the house, do the shopping, write an essay, read 50 pages, study German, do a 45min workout, get Jon a cooked lunch and dinner, entertain guests and then get into some lingerie and spend 2 hours in the boudoir I am unlikely to accomplish all this. My delicate, feminine skirts and hair-arrangements are fine for tutoring, cooking, light cleaning and reading, but would get untidy and even broken during shopping, gardening and heavier cleaning. I only have so much time to allocate and things would go amiss. I only have so much energy and gardening, shopping, cleaning and a workout all in one day would kill me before I ever got around to changing into lingerie. These things must be spaced out over days. Sometimes I have a messy, busy, workout of a day and spend all day in old jeans and one of Jon’s t-shirts. Sometimes I have a nice, quiet day and spend all day in tight jeans or a floor-length skirt and a blouse. Sometimes I have done walking and gardening and have no energy for a workout. Sometimes I save my energy for a workout or the bedroom. Sometimes I have to finish work at night and can’t cook a big dinner. Sometimes I have free time and make Jon one of his favourite meals and get the baking done.
Likewise, you have to think about what needs doing, for when and to what standard. Not what you would like to do, or what you didn’t do yesterday, but what needs to be done. Pick and choose and get things done when they need doing. Don’t overburden yourself mentally, physically, emotionally or generally in one day. Your energy and time are investments and wasting them by investing poorly or running yourself down until you’re ill is not the way to do things.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning my “little sacrifices” explanation for when you have to make a decision regarding your time and energy. Of course, sometimes it’s OK, or even important, to prioritize ourselves. If you don’t have much more energy, it’s better to take a nap than power through the hoovering. If you did a heavy workout, it’s better to leave the lifting for your husband than disturb your muscles further. If there’s some work to do, those letters will have to be posted tomorrow. Likewise, a little downtime is also important. We need to have hobbies, some time to ourselves, a break from the day-to-day. And these things should sometimes be our priorities, as sometimes they’re 100% necessary to keep us going. All work and no play makes us all dull girls.
Secondarily, it’s worth noting that sometimes your time or your energy run completely dry. At these times it’s important to just shut down and rest. When it’s 11pm, 12pm or 1am or you can hardly move a limb and you still haven’t finished what you’d set out to do, it’s time to call it out. You have no more time and no more energy and pushing yourself further will just have a negative impact on the next day’s productivity, on your health and on your mood. Sometimes you will have to accept that the day won and get enough rest so you can tackle tomorrow all the harder.
“I may need 8 hours of actual sleep tonight.”
However, when considering a rest, some me-time or a break from all the work you’ve been doing, it’s also important to bear the “little sacrifices” in mind. They’re in quotes because they’re often seen as sacrifices, however, in reality, it would be better to view them as Little Gifts or Little Pleasures, because that’s what they are, so I shall refer to them as such henceforth. Basically, a Little Gift is when you have some spare time and you can choose between prioritizing yourself or doing something nice for your husband, children, home or friends. It’s when either your time or your energy is running low, but not run out, that this should be considered. Primarily because of the risk of developing selfishness. If we decide that every free second we have needs to be spent on leisurely reading, napping, long baths, solitary walks, TV and anything else that helps us relax, we begin to think of ourselves as inherently deserving of these things and inherently needing relaxation. The more we enjoy these things, the more we resent the less relaxing and less pleasurable aspects of our lives. If we start following a series during the kids’ nap-time, that’s because we have half an hour free at that time. If we start to prioritize the series even when the kids don’t nap, or nap later, or when other things need doing, then we’re ignoring what is part of our job-description. The series is a filler, not a priority. Our enjoyment of it is fortunate, but not a priority. If things like TV shows, long baths, naps, walks, etc, start becoming our default priorities, then we are becoming selfish. We can observe the results of this in mothers who will send their children to their rooms for interrupting an episode of a soap-opera, refuse to cook dinner because it’s their bath-time and go for long walks even when this presents an inconvenience to everyone else in the household. The message we communicate when we engage in these behaviours is “I am more important than you”. “You” could be your partner, your children, your friends or your entire household. And make no mistake, when we seize every second for ourselves and even go so far as to inconvenience others (others who are supposedly important to us) so that we can enjoy ourselves, we are saying we’re more important. This becomes a slippery slope towards declaring you are more important than the relationship or the family, at which point said relationship and family could start to disintegrate.
Regardless of who’s in it, forming, building and maintaining a “tribe” is important.
At times when we have a few minutes free, the first thing we need to think of is “what needs to be done?” If we ascertain that everything that needs to be done has been done, next we need to consider “what would be nice/helpful/kind/appreciated?” Chances are we’ll come up with a huge list of things that don’t need to be done, but that would be greatly appreciated. Finally, we need to consider how much time and energy we have left and how much we’ve dedicated to ourselves. If we have a lot of time and energy left, then we can prioritize the good behaviour over the selfish one that will lead to immediate happiness. After all, the selfishness has its place and, if we have the time and energy, we can always try and do both. If we have no time or no energy, we have to consider the option that uses the least of either or that replenishes one. We may use some time to rest and recover our energy; or we may use some energy to power through the dishes and cooking and make some time; or we may invest our time into time with the family, despite our lack of energy; or we may invest our energy into helping someone, despite our lack of time. If we have little to no time and/or energy, then we need to ask ourselves how much time we have dedicated to ourselves lately and how close to exhaustion we are. If we are not close to exhaustion and we haven’t dedicated much time to ourselves then it’s in the balance, but if we are not close to exhaustion and we have been doing much of what we wanted to do and enjoy, then the time must be spent on others. You have to find a balance, preferably tilted against your more selfish priorities. This is why it’s a Little Gift. Often prioritizing others whom you love, care about or esteem is more enjoyable or pays back more in the long-run than your more immediate selfish happiness. This is why it’s a Little Pleasure. You have sacrificed your own time and energy, which you could have rightfully spent on yourself, for the sake of improving the day of someone you care for. And if that always feels awful, like a waste of your time and energy and you always resent it, then chances are you either need to reassess your priorities or you shouldn’t have a partner or a family to begin with. Can’t help you with that one, though.
To sum it up, femininity is absolutely a duty of mine. As a woman and a devoted wife (to be), I owe my man a beautiful, feminine body and demeanor whenever he needs it. I must be his queen, make him happy, be easy on the eye and kind to him. Everything I can do to balance and accentuate his masculinity, to motivate him to do the best he can and to help him relax at the end of the day will help us both through even the most troubling of times.
A good woman won’t spend time applying make-up just to look like this when she’s jobless, her family is falling apart and her home is a pig-sty. Priorities.
Yet I don’t owe femininity to anyone else. Regardless of what you think is or isn’t feminine, it’s not your opinion, but his, that matters. If you find me lacking in femininity, so be it. I am not out to please or seduce you. In fact, I’d rather I didn’t, as it would make for an awkward situation for all involved. If you find tight jeans feminine, his preference for skirts wins out. If you like carefully manicured oval nails, his indifference to their shape wins out. After all, my time is better invested in things that matter than things we couldn’t care less about. Same goes for general society, other women outside of my social circle, the fashion industry and any location I am unlikely to frequent. Whilst some space must be made for developing the social skill of attractiveness, I can’t set out to be feminine for everyone, because nobody seems to entirely agree on what makes a woman womanly. It would be a wild-goose-chase. To give-in to general pressure or common belief is to say Jon is less important than society. And society comes in a distant second.
Finally, femininity may be a duty, but now I am settled with a man who loves me and has a set of requirements and needs that can be organized in terms of importance, it isn’t my primary duty. When I am swollen with child, my hair won’t be my priority, but when I am a mother I will set a good example of femininity to my children. If I am at an event, I will carry myself with grace, yet if I need to lift a sofa, doing it gracefully is not a major concern. When the gardening needs doing, my nails will have to be imperfect for a while, at least until I’m indoors and can scrub them clean. I wouldn’t go to a make-or-break situation with chipped black nail polish, but if I break a nail cleaning, folding the laundry or washing the dishes, then it will have to be so. I won’t spend an hour working if I can postpone it, but dinner may need to be postponed if I’m about to have a lesson. If Jon hurts himself doing something less than sensible, I’m unlikely to be wholly understanding, even if I am kind and nurturing. If we are out walking in the Summer sun and I sweat despite any precautions, then it’s only human.
I will strive to be feminine within the limits which my life gives me, but my primary duties are to be good, useful and happy.