For centuries in China, foot binding produced unnaturally small and deformed feet. This was a feminine ideal. In parts of Africa and Asia, neck rings still signify femininity, even though it sometimes renders their wearers crippled and dependent on others. These examples are proof that femininity is defined differently by different cultures.
In Western culture femininity has traditionally included characteristics such as gentleness, patience, kindness, and other nurturing qualities. Traits that are traditionally considered feminine may be categorized into physical differences (narrower shoulders, larger breasts, wider hips, less body hair, etc.); psychological and behavioral differences (a concern for relationships, empathy, sympathy, etc.) and social differences (ornamentation, career choices, leisure pursuits, etc.). It is also important to note that femininity is closely related to “lady-like” behavior. It is not considered feminine to use traditionally masculine body language, such as sitting with your legs spread wide apart.
Femininity, like masculinity, is believed to be a product of both nature and nurture. It is believed that girls have an easier time developing their femininity because they closely identify with their primary caretaker, their mother. There is little disconnect from their feminine role. Boys often have to disconnect from their mothers to “learn” their maleness.
Research has clearly shown that traits associated with femininity are not as highly valued in our culture as those associated with men. The media has contributed greatly to this view. The 1950s and 60s featured women in gendered roles. They were seldom seen outside of a home setting. Television shows like Father Knows Best clearly portrayed the man as the wise decision maker of the family. Even with the feminist movement of the 1970s this thought prevailed. Charlie’s Angels showed tough women who were tough crime fighters. However, they worked for and took orders from the mysterious Charlie. They were also often dressed provocatively to attract male attention. The Mary Tyler Moore Show portrayed a competent and independent woman. Unfortunately the character was passive. She often faced humiliation for her rebellion. In the 1990s Murphy Brown was a strong and respected woman. She was outspoken and independent. She was also portrayed as being very bitter.
Sponsors of television programming like to advertise during programs that are not controversial. They like to stay within a social comfort zone. It is hard to change programming that is predominantly controlled by men. It is interesting to note that in commercials selling children’s items, boys are often seen outside while 70% of girls are pictured in the home. Advertising works hand in hand with television shows to teach girls and boys their respective and proper places.
In terms of feminine stereotypes, magazines and advertisements found in magazines may be the most blatant communicators of extreme physical ideals. Not only are feminine ideals included in advertisements, but these magazines also featured many articles concerning how to perfect one’s body and achieve an ideal form. Why are women made to feel that they must achieve such ideals, when they are clearly unrealistic and unattainable? When these ideals become as prevalent as they have, women begin to unconsciously adopt this view.
Female body images that are presented through models, mannequins, and Barbie dolls are contributors to what females see as the feminine ideal. The average American woman is 5’4” and a size 12. She has a 37-inch bust, a 29-inch waist, and 40-inch hips. A mannequin is 6 feet tall, a size 6, with measurements of 34-23-34. A life-size Barbie doll would be 7’2,” with bust, waist, and hip measurements of 40-22-36. Considering that these characteristics are ultimately unobtainable, how did it become the icon of femininity?
When considering issues of femininity, we must consider a certain amount of biological criteria – the nature part of the equation. Evolutionary studies show that even the earliest societies supported the same gender roles that are evident today. There is no history of any matriarchal societies. Females were (and are) seen as the weaker sex. This doesn’t necessarily mean that women are inferior, but that they fulfill a different role than men. A human being’s most natural instinct is to reproduce. Men were (and may still be) are attracted to women whose physical features suggest fertility. This natural attraction is a possible explanation for today’s ideals regarding femininity.
There is also evidence that gender is a result of one’s actions and the labeling of those actions as masculine or feminine according to how society defines them. Females are told that in order to attract a man she must be warm, sensitive, altruistic, and attractive. This ideal leads women to display their physical attractiveness and submit to males’ aggressiveness. Unfortunately, such ideals may also lead women to view the resulting loss of self esteem or compliance to males’ violence toward them as acceptable because, in terms of society’s gender norms, such submission is proper.
What can society do to go about changing such long-standing norms? Consumers should begin to demand more realistic images of femininity. Maybe then the media would be forced to produce such images and a change for the better could be achieved. Considering the long-standing nature of current stereotypes, this change would be monumental and exceedingly beneficial to women’s overall well-being.
Have something to say? Feel free to add comments or additional information.