Let me start with a confession: I love being feminine, and I love looking feminine. It is a well loved part of my identity and I’ve always wanted the world to know that. But in all of this, I have also been a terrible feminist: following what I thought the world expected of me as a woman, rather than defining what being feminine really meant for me (and only for me).
“Women”, as Jo March famously says in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, “have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.”
In my mind, I always shed a little tear to applaud Jo for her self-consciousness and feisty bravery to challenge the rigidity of norms. But when the same young woman cuts her hair and her whole family looks on, astounded, saying: “Your hair, your one beauty, you look like a boy!”, I also gasped for air. The truth is, it turns out, I haven’t yet undone a lot of internalised thinking around beauty norms for women; I’ve yet to fully believe that it’s not shiny soft hair and an ever-so-kind smile that makes me a woman. In fact, I’ve been overly-comfortable with society’s ascribed traditional sets of feminine traits. I’m the girl you will never see wearing trousers, the one that always puts a touch of makeup on before leaving the house; I have been picked for jobs because apparently I always smile when I talk to people, and if that’s not enough, I do pottery in my free time.
In a way, it’s no wonder. Growing up we’ve been conditioned to associate a very specific combination of traits with femininity. Physically speaking, women tend to be shorter, lighter, less muscular, are characterised with long, silky hair, but little or no body hair; hips but a small waist, and so on. Psychologically, women are described as more empathic, expressive, modest and affective. Behaviourally, women tend to be more caring, attentive and nurturing, sweet and gentle, more helpful, and more collaborative. Even sexually, women are associated with passiveness or receptivity, with desire being considered a stereotypically masculine trait.
During the lockdown I increasingly realised two things:
(1) That I have never previously taken the time to challenge the ideas that society, culture and traditions have taught me, and figure out what it means to be my own kind of badass feminine person; and
(2) that my femininity has been about performance and feedback (applause, really).
And my problem with this, with performative femaleness, is that in quarantine I increasingly became aware that my subjective sense of femininity was not a conscious creation of an identity but rather an inherited view on the body and the mind, and for a moment I felt this identity – in absence of an audience – undermined. Can I be feminine if no one sees it? It’s a chilling realisation that all my adult life I was trying to be pretty for other people. I needed the world to validate my identity that fundamentally depended on how much I conform to standards of femininity and how much I please others with my appearance and behaviour.
Of course, this is my side only. And we have certainly seen different ways in which women challenge the traditional to define and articulate their identity. For example, a series of reports by Brand Genetics dedicated to the future of femininity identifies the type of hyper-femininity that celebrates and exaggerates extreme stereotypical traits ascribed to the feminine, and owns the stereotypical female body and look. The report also identifies a brand of femininity that takes the form of rejecting this and adopting traditionally masculine characteristics, as well as a type of femininity that disowns all gendered traits and focuses on productivity, perfectionism and excellence at everything. Yet, they argue, no matter how enlightened these categories may be, they are still boxes. And many people increasingly look to go beyond simply expanding their options for a pre-ascribed means of performing femininity, instead seeking to create their own positive identity. The report talks of a new form of femininity, unconstrained femininity, that champions the uniqueness in every woman’s self and their freedom to build on the strengths and positive features of their gender as they please. This is not only a way of reclaiming and consciously redefining traditional female traits, but is also an opportunity to take the discussion beyond traditional gendered discourse.
The lockdown presented a unique opportunity to pause and reflect. It offered a safe space and a vacuum to experiment with and redefine our femininities, free from immediate feedback and society’s piercing gaze – no judgments to be worried about or expectations to live up to. And indeed many have taken this time to explore how modest or bold changes make them feel about themselves as humans and as women. I’ve seen this manifest in women shaving their heads, conducting home tattooing, learning to love body hair, dressing down because finally no one cared or, on the contrary, obsessively dressing up and putting that special red lipstick on (because they just felt like it) .
I personally went through it all (not in this particular order). But at the end of this intense journey I must say I’ve found my peace. I have never felt I own my femininity this much in my entire life. Nothing changed, except I wore yoga outfits with no makeup on and a fake nose ring for a solid month. Lockdown and the slowing down of life are temporary but one thing I have personally experienced is that this time has challenged my belief in the immortality of the present, of the normal.
I continue finding and appreciating traditionally feminine traits within myself, and I will probably continue to wear skirts 98% of the time. Yet, I am now consciously looking at what it is that I personally want and appreciate from my body and mind – and that is so far beyond the surface. And I invite you all to look at your feminine selves, your bodies and minds, with all their glory, all their functions, all the pain and all the pleasure. And if you dress up (or down) for yourselves, do your rituals without an audience and cherish your femininity for yourselves, then in my eyes, you have won.
Written by Agnes Magyar.
Agnes is a PhD researcher at the University of Essex, UK, focusing on political disagreements and hostility in Europe. Outside of academia she is most passionate about the issues of housing, homelessness and domestic violence in her communities. She is living in Budapest and is spending most of her free time with pottery, yoga, writing prose and hiking.