Toxic Femininity Holds All of Us Back

Men and women alike perpetuate and suffer from it every day

Photo: olgakr/Getty Images

TToxic masculinity is a much bandied-about cultural disease, and it is everywhere. Toxic masculinity is in evidence when a dad tells his sobbing son to grow up and stop blubbering and when a man at a coffee shop refuses to even consider drinking a lavender latte because something so sweet and softly purple cannot be for him. It’s evident in the basement-low rate of male teachers and stay-at-home dads and the scant numbers of men willing to hug someone they are not sexually interested in.

People sometimes talk about toxic masculinity as if only men have it. In mainstream conversations about it, we often act as if the singular man who refuses to buy berry-scented shampoo is toxic—as if he alone created millennia of rigid, prescribed male roles of toughness and disdain for the finer, softer things in life. We observe the adult man who cannot cry and judge him as repressed rather than feel compassion that he was instructed to suppress his emotions for years. We look to the dude in the theater who cannot seem to sit without an invisible yardstick between his knees as though he were the one who invented dick-and-balls-based insecurity.

But he didn’t. He just learned it, took it as gospel, carried it forward from his knee to your thigh, jammed tight in your seat. And while I can’t blame you for being mad at that guy, you probably learned and internalized some of the same toxicity too.

TToxic masculinity is not some annoying quality that dudes have. And it is not a preference for all things masculine either—be it flannel, catching the spiders in the house, or feeling stoically sad at movies like The Iron Giant. Toxic masculinity is a warped, unrelenting cultural relationship to masculinity and the trauma that such a relationship creates.

All people are infected with toxic notions of what masculinity must entail and how it must look. And all people are both victims and spreaders of the sickness. It is not just the father who upbraids his son for crying; generations upon generations of mothers have denied their sons delicacy and vulnerability too. Sometimes the man who is loathe to order a fruity drink at the bar has taken the risk before and been mocked for it by a woman. The primary victims of sexism are often converted, through years of abuse, into foot soldiers for its cause.

Forbidden fruit. Photo by Taylor Grote, courtesy of Unsplash, remixed in Pixlr by author.

In my own life, I have known dozens of women who made it their business to enforce unyielding standards of masculinity on other people. Usually, it came in the form of instruction, correction, and mockery, often packaged as dating advice.

There was the woman who became furious every time her boyfriend asked for her restaurant preferences because, as the man, he was supposed to be confident and have every date preplanned. There was the classmate of mine who found it off-putting when a man expressed any feelings other than career-focused drive and lust and ended up dating gruff clod after gruff clod. There were scores of women, too many for me to count, who categorically refused to be with men under some arbitrary height limit (usually the height of the woman plus the few inches of heels).

Focusing only on the harm done by men — and the insecurities harbored by men — is to ignore the broader, systematic nature of the beast.

I don’t share any of this with the intention of blaming women for their own oppression and abuse at the hands of insecure, repressed men. Women who uphold such toxic standards are not evil; they are merely misguided products of a sexist environment, and they do not deserve any of the sexism they personally receive, ever, regardless of their own behavior.

However, our current cultural examination of toxic gender roles is too focused on blaming men and masculinity for a variety of ills that are actually caused by the gender binary and our strict adherence to it. Focusing only on the harm done by men—and the insecurities harbored by men—ignores the broader, systematic nature of the beast. The problem was never just masculinity. It was, and is, inflexible gender roles for men and women alike.

ToTo illustrate that, look at a much less-inspected form of gender toxicity: toxic femininity. It exists and is just as pernicious as toxic masculinity in how it affects all people regardless of gender.

Toxic femininity is in evidence when a woman won’t let herself eat anything but a salad while on a date lest the person across the table realize she is an omnivorous being who sometimes tears her teeth into flesh. It’s in evidence when every sweater in a woman’s closet is thinner and frailer than any in a man’s possession and when a parent insists on piercing the ears of a moments-old girl baby to ensure she looks ornamented and sufficiently “pretty.”

Like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity comprises countless idiosyncratic rules and manipulative insecurities. Each victim of it may have their own warped understanding of what the rules entail. Perhaps makeup is required. Perhaps having a lengthy and complicated nightly facial care routine is essential. For some women, drinking brown booze and eating meat is unacceptable; for others, there is a charming, winking way to consume “manly” food that is somehow the height of alluring femininity. And then there are many who think the requirements of femininity are all about love, parenting, giving, and being of service.

The exact rules don’t matter so much as their rigidity and the insecurity they inspire. In fact, toxic femininity is most pernicious when the rules are a bit confusing or impossible to fully follow—like when a woman is forever scrambling to be acceptable, to look the way ladies are meant to look, and to behave in a manner both alluring and undemanding. The more desperate a woman is to follow the ever-shifting, contradictory rules, the easier she is to control and exploit.

Photo: Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Toxic femininity is not the same thing as simple “sexism,” but sexism and toxic femininity are certainly partners in crime. Sexism says that a woman is too frail or docile to play a contact sport; toxic femininity says that you don’t want to play football anyway, sweetie, you would look horrible and sweaty in the helmet and pads. Sexism is focused on robbing women of status and rights; toxic femininity is about defining womanhood so shallowly that a woman feels de-gendered by basic human acts or neutral preferences. Both factors lead to women being compressed into impossibly tight, uncomfortable shapes. One is the carrot and the other is the stick.

I am not a woman, but I have been told many times in my life that I needed to work harder to be one. My Girl Scout leader, Mrs. Henning, was forever telling me that the curled-up, gargoyleish way I sat in a chair was unacceptable and unfeminine and forced me to sit “normally,” with my legs together and my feet on the ground. I resented her every day that she corrected me, came to dread going to Girl Scout meetings, and never understood why my basic comfort was inherently ungirly and also inappropriate.

I received a lot of toxic-femininity-based advice as a child and teen.

Years later, I had a high school sociology teacher who aimed to illustrate the perniciousness of gender roles to the class by turning to a girl, Sarah Fischer, and snapping, “Sit like a lady!” We all watched as Sarah Fischer’s legs automatically slammed together and then crossed over one another in a frantic, unthinking bid to make herself small. The teacher was smug and thought she had taught us something about how implicit gender roles could be. But most of us spent the remainder of the day focused on where our legs were and if we were sitting in a suitably feminine way.

I received a lot of toxic-femininity-based advice as a child and teen. I was told that not wanting to have children made me unacceptably unfeminine. Classmates said that my voice was unsuitably low and, worse, that I used it in a masculine way: I sang like a boy, and I declared things with flat confidence. I didn’t care about makeup throughout my middle school and high school years until some particularly vicious acne started to rear its head and I embraced powders and creams as a way to cover it up. I didn’t carry a purse.

People worked very hard to remedy these things for me. Friends gave me late-night makeovers that made me cry, parents and grandparents gifted me with handbags and bottles of beige stuff, peers looked deep into my purple under-eye circles and asked me why I had them. They were all trying to help, dispensing practical advice for how to win in a system that ought to have been dismantled rather than gamed.

It was all toxic femininity. It was a cultural disease. It was nobody’s fault. And everyone around me suffered from it too.

RRefusing to date a woman with short hair is the male version of refusing to date a dude under 5-foot-11. Straight dudes seem to be mentally poisoned with a lot of inane, toxically feminine rules of attraction like that. Some men can’t appreciate a woman with small breasts or won’t date women who are smarter or stronger than themselves. Anything can be a threat to a woman’s acceptable, alluring femininity: sweatpants, jeans, a competitive streak, love of one’s career, a few hair follicles in the “wrong” place.

When I got glasses in high school, I was overjoyed to be able to see the chalkboard in Spanish class. Trees had never looked so lush and leafy before. Everywhere I went, I realized things had textures I had never been able to perceive before. But my dad was only concerned with the old adage that boys didn’t make passes at girls with vision correction.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I was a fetus, my dad had one opinion about what my name should be: I couldn’t be named after anyone ugly. He’d never met an ugly Erika in his life, so Erika was the name he approved.

For some people, that name was still not feminine enough. “Erika” looks and sounds a lot like the male name it is derived from, which makes it a bit too masculine for some people’s taste. And whenever I told someone my middle name, Dawn, they looked mildly uncomfortable or confused because, in my Midwestern accent, it sounded exactly like the male name Don. A guy I hooked up with once went into a near panic over it, but I wasn’t committed enough to my femininity nor insecure enough about it to clarify that the name was Dawn, not Don. It was as if the name and my gleefully androgynous pronunciation of it revealed to him that I had been a non-girl all along.

InIn recent years, it has become popular to mock companies for deeply gendering objects that ought to be gender neutral. There’s man yogurt, man body wash, and man diet drinks. At times, these gunmetal-colored consumer products are used as yet another occasion to mock the insecurity of men. “Guys are so afraid of seeming feminine or gay that they won’t eat yogurt unless it is camouflage-flavored,” people chuckle. “Guys are so repressed that they can’t use a floral-scented soap.”

An item that perpetuates toxic masculinity, and an example of the mockery that typically ensues.

Never mind that the very existence of these products is intended to create and foment insecurity and policing of men’s habits. Never mind that even if a masculine fear of diet drinks already existed, it was no individual, tight-assed guy’s fault alone or that mocking him for having it won’t help him learn to relax and branch out.

The same sins are being committed with women’s products, of course. Pink pens. Pink guns. Leg razors enveloped in a labia made of soap. When these products are released, it is the manufacturers who receive public ridicule rather than the women who buy them. It is Bic’s fault for being sexist and underestimating the competence and taste of women; it is not the fault of women for refusing to buy a pen in dark blue or black.

But, as with man yogurt, toxic gender roles are responsible for pink pens, and those roles are absorbed by the minds of people. And, thus, women begin to internalize the idea that they must purchase products that affirm and broadcast their femininity. Most women, whether they like to admit it or not, refuse to buy items they associate with masculinity. Infected with toxic femininity and held to impossibly harsh standards, they reach for the pink pens and the overpriced labia-ensconced razors. And most people, when tasked with buying a gift for a woman or a girl will reach for something soft, sweet, and nonthreatening, thereby perpetuating the notion that to be feminine is to be fragile and maybe even a little bit frivolous.

We are all infected with toxic femininity. We all deal in it, perpetuate it, suffer from it—every day.

YYears ago, I was having wine at a friend’s house while her dog sniffed and licked at my feet. She was telling me about a recent date she’d been on with a poet she’d met in a bar. My friend told me that she apologized to the poet, in the middle of sex, for the unimpressive size of her breasts. She was so unhappy with her chest and its lack of bounty that she felt she’d done wrong by this guy just by existing naked on top of him.

I certainly felt bad for her, but I was surprised that my first and loudest instinct was to tell her not to apologize during sex again—because it was unattractive. Even as I found her insecurities tragic, my gut reaction was to prioritize her attractiveness during future sexual encounters over anything else. Don’t apologize, don’t broadcast that you feel bad, don’t show to this man that you have needs. It’s unwomanly. He will mind that far more than the smallness of your boobs.

That interaction was years ago, but I still think about it. Unrelenting, impossible standards of femininity had trapped my friend in an unwinnable spot, and there I was, making it worse for her, throwing another forbidden act onto the pile.

I was still trying to be a girl back then. I had a lot of rules for myself: what I was supposed to wear, what size I was supposed to be, a high-pitched throatiness that I forced into my voice. Eventually, those rigid rules would leave me freezing cold, underweight, and with a months-long case of laryngitis caused by vocal damage. I was a victim and a perpetrator of toxic femininity, doling out the same punishments I heaped on myself. It was all toxic femininity. It was everywhere. It was nobody’s fault.

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