Challenging the Feminine Ideal

Jodi Harrell | August 13, 2018

I grew up in the 1980s with a mother who fully embraced the feminine ideal. I learned that to be feminine was to walk a more or less narrow line of conformity to what it meant to identify as female.

Graceful,
attractive,
pleasant to be around. Happy, if only superficially.

This gender identity construct was reinforced by the greater society and, for me, the sub-culture of the American South. I learned early on that as a young girl and as a woman, one must look a certain way. What I didn’t understand until much later was that this also implied I was to act a certain way.

As a young girl, I wasn’t interested in living up to the feminine ideal. Growing up in rural North Carolina, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I was a ‘tomboy,’ you might say, though I also did ‘girly’ things, like cheerleading and playing with dolls. As I became a teenager, while interested in boys, I was also interested in other things like literature, going to college, and travel.

Early on, I decided I did not wish to conform to these gender norms. And so I rejected the feminine ideal in theory but continued to abide by its rules in practice.

I went to college.

As many young people do when they leave home for the first time, I experimented with my appearance, but I never strayed too far from the feminine ideal. My mother would reprimand me for not shaving my legs often enough or, in the spirit of the Bra Burners of the 1970s, going without. But it wasn’t until I became a married woman that I really started testing the boundaries of the ideal. Given that for the first time in my life I wasn’t supposed to be in pursuit of a mate, I let myself be. I relaxed into my relationship and let the peace and security I felt with my spouse reflect outward.

For long periods of time, I wore no makeup. I loved it.
I got a facial piercing. I hated it.
I refused to shave. Or pluck or wax.
I sometimes wore dresses, but I often wore whatever was comfortable.
I swore off high heels.
And now, 4 years later, I am itching to shave my head.

To act out the feminine ideal was to be graceful (always), to be conservative in speech (because someone else knew more or could articulate it better), and to be humble and modest. This created an unhealthy dialogue in my head and impacted the risks I was willing to take to advance professionally. Not to mention dashing my hopes of having a fulfilling and satisfying career.

Professionally, the feminine ideal translated into an inferiority complex, without an understanding of why or where my feelings of insecurity had come from. For a long time, I felt like I was hiding inside a shell of myself, a shell that I had created, but one that I didn’t feel confident enough to step out of or, simply, to let go of.

It was only after acknowledging this schism, this dysfunction (even if I had no name for it and struggled to explain what it was), that I gained the courage to admit that the danger of NOT owning who I was 100% of the time, all the time, was greater than continuing to hide inside myself.

As a result of this greater self-awareness, I became more purposeful about the type of work I wanted to do,
the impact I wanted to make.
How I wanted to use my talents.

Ultimately, I changed careers. This small action propelled me to start owning who I was, both personally and professionally. I am not someone that can be one person at work and another at home so I sought out a profession, as well as an employer, where I felt like I could be more myself. I was drawn to an overwhelmingly female-dominated profession, and one you could say is full of introverts (like me), scholarly publishing.

In my personal life, it took getting married for me to stop aspiring to the feminine ideal, to stop trying to be someone I wasn’t.

I can say that I have only recently become my own best advocate. I was always worried to speak truthfully about my accomplishments when applying for jobs in fear that I would come across as inauthentic or braggadocious. I would even go so far as to hide my talents and skills because I didn’t feel qualified enough for the position to which I was applying. Indeed, a survey conducted by the Workplace Equity Project found that women, more so than men, are less likely to apply for a position when they don’t meet most of the job requirements. I worried constantly that someone would think I was lying even to the point of paranoia that I would be over-representing myself.

Abandoning this ideal in earnest has created more space in my life to simply be. I still go through spells when I fully embrace my childhood understanding of the feminine ideal – the only difference is that now I do it on my terms

because I want to,
because I choose to,
not because I feel like I should.

Other changes I’ve made include starting to negotiate the terms of my employment including a switch to part-time and additional paid time off. Never before did I feel like I had enough experience to negotiate my pay or benefits. I never felt like I was important enough to ask for “special treatment.” I always just took what was offered, never giving much thought to what I was worth based on my education and work experience. I was shocked when I realized that my male spouse has been successfully negotiating pay and benefits in his career in every position he’s had for over 10 years!

In addition to my husband, I’ve learned a lot from my male colleagues. I challenge myself to model what I think of as stereotypical male behavior, which is really just confidence such as expressing interest in an open position where traditionally I would have waited until the job was posted online.

Now, I define femininity differently, and I no longer ascribe to a feminine ideal. For me, femininity is a personal expression, and different people choose to express it differently. Besides, we’re all made up of masculine and feminine traits, and gender identity isn’t as important.

With greater gender fluidity, I often wonder how the next generation will understand the traditional binary categories of male and female. I also wonder if gender identity, as we currently understand it, will ultimately fade, giving rise to a society that identifies sex but not the social construct that we know and understand as gender.

We all have our definitions of what it means to be male or female. For most of us, this concept was defined for us as children; however, as adults, we each get to choose our place in the world and how we express ourselves. I would encourage all of us to think about how our gender has impacted us personally as well as professionally.

What does femininity mean to you? Were you raised with similar gender ideals?

Jodi Harrell is an Editorial Professional at Research Square where she oversees the peer review process for two chemistry journals. As a former researcher, she was inspired to join scholarly publishing to support research communications for authors around the globe.