Femininity As We Taught It
by Molly Alessandra Cooper
I’ve felt a lot of pressure from other women about how to deal with my femininity. Mean Girls taught us that girls aren’t always BFFs and women don’t always unite through the fact of their gender. We created rules about how to be female at school, and unfortunately I didn’t have the guts to filter out what turned out to be critical and shaming comments toward classmates, shaping how I grew up. I absorbed all these rules, prescribing them to mine and other girl’s lives. Sadly, I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent many years conforming before realising that femininity isn’t formed by universal rules.
I don’t remember being taught about female (or male) pubescence at school; I just know that everyone thought of it as private. It wasn’t discussed outside of those one or two hours sat in front of a dated VHS in Year Six. Unsurprisingly, when my friends and I started experiencing changes at different times, we didn’t talk about the struggles we’d need to learn to deal with, but instead naively commented on others who had visibly shown signs of changing. I had no idea what was ‘right’, only what was wrong, so cautiously followed the crowd in conversations about girls who were gross for having used non-applicator tampons and about those who still hadn’t started their period. (I was the last of my friends to start, though learned to never reveal that.) I heard giggles directed at girls with dark stubble under their arms, and kept my arms firmly attached to my sides whilst nodding along. I didn’t learn quick enough that girls needed to be eternally hairless in order to be female. In 2016, aged 24, I still find my arms stiffening to my sides in memory of school taunts, on the rare occurrence that I wear a strappy top.
“I didn’t learn quick enough that girls needed to be eternally hairless in order to be female.”
I tried to deny anything natural about my body by plucking, shaving, waxing anywhere I could. I learned that bushy eyebrows were ugly, so my mum spent time helping me pluck mine the day I came home upset after being called ‘caterpillar eyebrows’ by a group of strangers. I gained more than a few scars on my legs using cheap razors, and I once – in a moment of insanity – shaved my forearms, encouraged by a friend after we heard that even those short downy hairs on women were ugly. I have always resented the believed ‘normality’ of female grooming in terms of hair removal, and it remains to be the point of discussion when talking about a lack of femininity. It must become a respected choice to be hair-free as a woman, as it is for men. Hair removal, which requires time, pain and money, is not the ‘womanly’ thing to do, but it must not be something that women look down upon each other for doing, either. There are more and more role models who proudly wear hairy, and hairless armpits, and it gives me so much optimism for the next generation of female adolescents.
I grew up in an era which was obsessed with size zero models and had a zero tolerance for size 12s or 14s, let alone plus sizes. As with many of my friends, I went through many stages of panicking about my weight. I remember fits of paranoia over even the smallest rolls of skin on my belly when I sat down (of course a natural occurrence for any sized human), and feeling unnatural trying to force my way into a size four dress in Topshop like all the other girls were trying to do. My thick thighs remained as hidden as possible as my generation taught each other that a girl’s thighs must be thin enough to never touch when walking (an impossible aim for many natural female forms). I knew of of too many girls in my school who learned that throwing up after eating was a ‘cool trick’ to lose weight. It wasn’t referred to as an illness or problem, but was encouraged by classmates. I once kneeled down by the toilet, but couldn’t bring myself to try to vomit and felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to fit in.
“My thick thighs remained as hidden as possible as my generation taught each other that a girl’s thighs must be thin enough to never touch when walking.”
I worried that I wasn’t like ‘most other girls’ when I found heels difficult to walk in and low-cut strappy dresses hard to carry off without that all-important cleavage. I crippled my feet and spent too much money on push-up bras trying to fit in with women in clubs. Watching girls groom themselves in the mirror on nights out, I feel out of place for not having the same level of discipline with my appearance. I still find it hard to recognise that it’s okay that I don’t carry a bag of makeup with me, as much as it’s okay that some do prefer to spend more time on their appearance. The light catches my frizzy hair in those mirrors, and I remember Year Seven, when GHDs were the most sought-after product for Christmas 2003, and I was persuaded to brush my curls out. I was left with Princess Diaries-esque, triangle-shaped frizzy hair which looked horrendous, but at least it was straight. I have based a lot of my confidence on the approval of other women, seeking validation in order to feel comfortable.
I’m sure these paranoias didn’t affect all females in my generation (my utmost respect if you filtered through the gossip and created your own femininity), but I believe I’m not alone. Unfortunately, the threat of the female voice and the idea of female shame caught the worst of some of us, creating twisted perceptions and intense insecurities and misunderstandings.
The current generation of female teenagers have grown up with the He For She campaign, in an era where Swedish children are gifted with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists at age 16. No one taught me about feminism and modern women’s rights until I began university, and even then my first consideration was that it was a dirty word. Now, there seems no other way but to love and unite as women, rather than to judge each other’s femininity.
To be female is to have the right to choose what kind of female we are, regardless of the pressures we face. It’s not just the dreaded male who projects insecurities onto us poor damsels.