Too Feminine for Feminism?: The trouble with coded femininities in identifying as a woman

Words by Emily Fuller

The body is a vessel that often comes with the expectation that it should be unique in reflecting identity construction. Through today’s climate of social media in abundance, it increasingly feels as if our performance of presentation is being monitored and measured to have judgement passed upon it. In particular, there is a certain kind of tightrope that those who identify as women must balance – if we are not presenting ourselves as feminine enough then we are often dismissed as a woman deserving of power and we are not listened too. And what if we’re too feminine? Well, then we are undercut by the high-maintenance trope or we are accused of conforming to a system in which the patriarchy feeds off.

Coded expectations of femininity are pretty well established in the everyday, weighing implied pressures upon all of us. As someone who has nestled quite comfortably into my sense of self-expression with how I present myself to the world and also through my personal values, I find that I balance in this apparently dangerous territory. It thrills me to deck myself out in vivid flowery gowns and pile as much silver on my neck and wrists and fingers as my posture will take before I collapse under the weight of it. I rejoice in wearing glitter and flower crowns and crystals. I am like a baby bird that is attracted to shiny, beautiful things – feminine things, some might say. By the same token, I expend so much of my energy on reading feminist theory, as well as writing and expressing my own staunch convictions against a patriarchy that condemns all of us to the confined constricts of behaving ‘correctly’ under this power structure.

What I have found so interesting in my own journey of seeking and discovering my sets of values in this daunting world, is how much people around me struggle to accept this dualism of my being as I do not fit into the rigid binaries of femininity. After challenging something a customer had inappropriately ‘joked’ to me during a tedious day at work, he scoffed at me and muttered “you’re too pretty to be into that feminist stuff”. I have had fellow women question my choices of clothing, one even asking how I uphold my own values of feminism when I clearly conform to certain feminine ideals in the way I dress.

It is almost humorous, this paradox of self-expression. Women are celebrated and then torn down for expressing themselves in ways that are considered appropriately feminine. I am well aware that when I am presenting myself in a way that allegedly conforms to feminine ideals, I am afforded the time and energy of being listened to and taken more seriously then I would be if I did not – though this makes me feel very uneasy that it is dependent on how feminine I appear. I am aware of the praise I get from strangers and acquaintances for always looking beautiful in the way I dress. It is usually this same type of person who I make uncomfortable with my bold values and feminist pursuits, as I do not fit the mould of what a headstrong and free-thinking woman should look. The irony is that I feel as though sometimes I am not taken as seriously by those in the feminist community when I am presenting myself in such an ideologically feminine way as I am apparently conforming to constructs that have been placed upon me by the system that I am trying to fight against.

There is a gross misconception that those who identify as women prescribe certain appearances for social and cultural approval – particularly by those who reside at the head of the table, men. Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of feeling like I have garnered a level of respect due to the way I dress, and am even more frustrated when I am discredited for it in the same breath. I do not want other women to see my image and think that is a exactly how they should be presenting themselves if they want to feel powerful and beautiful and respected in the world, because it is not why I choose to present myself in this way. The person I dress-up for each and every morning is myself (as corny as it sounds, but it is a cliché for a damn reason!) My external image of myself is an exact manifestation of my internal self, as I crave to utilise fashion as a primary source of my creativity where I can celebrate colours and texture and art. I make a conscious decision to dress in a way that makes me feel powerful and provides the confidence to exert my kindness, intellect and passion in my daily life. Your self-expression and relationship with femininity might look completely different to my own – but it still gives you that same feeling of empowerment. I will never stop recognising femininity in all its varying forms, because true conceptions of femininity should certainly celebrate our right to choice of self-expression and our individuality.

In his colossal work, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius claimed that “the soul attains her perfectly rounded form when she is neither straining out after something nor shrinking back into herself; neither disseminating herself piecemeal nor yet shrinking down in collapse; but is bathed in radiance which reveals to her the world and herself in their true colours”. For myself, his words ring absolutely true here, as I do not want the young women growing up in this world feeling like they need to shrink back into these rigid expectations of coded femininity in order to feel listened to and respected. Nor do I want them feeling like they have to reject these expressions of femininity in order to be accepted as a strong and empowered woman of the 21st century – particularly if they find resonance in these forms of femininity. I am a feminist and yet I love to wear things that society considers pretty – that does not make me more or less of a strong and intelligent woman, just as it shouldn’t undermine your identity as a woman of today.

Art by Olivia Buerki – @oliviabuerkidesign

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