Upon learning that I'm transgendered, someone recently asked me, "What are the feminine ideals that people aspire to, and where do they come from? And why is it so feminine to carry so much anxiety and self-loathing about these things?"
Great questions. And there is more than one way to answer them.
It's worth noting that this individual thought I was a genetic woman, and didn't realize I'm transgendered until she saw my photo. That made me feel happy – and proud! So there you are – some feminine ideals don't carry anxiety and self-loathing at all.
Others are not so benign. There is a set of ideals promoted in the media, particularly around selling stuff – the somewhat helpless skinny woman with regular features. I recently had a fashion consultation (next post???), and checked out a wide variety of women's magazines from the library to look over the styles and determine what I like and don't like. How disappointing, to see so many ugly clothes promoted as fashion! Yet these are the ideals. And shoes – what's more feminine than that famous ankle-twister, the stiletto heel? Not for me, thank you very much. Give me a nice, chunky heel anytime – one that will provide an adequate base on which to stand. Maybe my next book should be on Practical Femininity.
So there is the feminine ideal as seen in the media and by society (foot binding, corsets, etc.). Where does that come from? Women are not helpless – they're capable and intelligent and effective, unless they're socialized into decorative uselessness, and what is the societal benefit to that? And why should we feel guilt or anxiety or self-hate if we don't live up to that ideal?
Perhaps because we are taught that our worth is determined by others, and not by ourselves. Because acceptance is so important to us. And, I think, culturally (and perhaps biologically) we are wired to mold ourselves to attract a mate.
There is also the feminine ideal of the individual, as determined by the individual.
In fashion, I aspire to simple, elegant, and practical. And yes, feminine. Definitely feminine.
I aspire to feminine ideals of patient nurturing. Of useful work. Of practical, loving self-care. And of selfful care for others, tender interconnection. Women are the glue of society.
But perhaps the greatest feminine ideal I aspire to is the primal, powerful, earthiness of birthing. I can't experience that myself, but I have seen the miracle take place; the force of amazingly powerful muscles, the courage to face immense pain, the guttural cry, the patient (or not) labor of labor. What is more feminine than the act of birthing? And what human endeavor is more powerful than the act of birthing?
That is something to be proud of.
But that answer is by no means complete, and the questions still beg to be answered.
Your turn. Click on the comment link below, and let me know your thoughts.