In Praise of Feminine Things (A Rant)

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Things have been a bit serious around here lately, so I wanted to do something light and simple. Sadly, bunnies have been well and truly covered (thank you, Easter) and the killer risotto I made last week won’t fill a whole post. So. Setting aside the adorable and delicious, how about we talk about lipstick and lingerie and that dress that makes you look like you belong in a Hollywood film. You know – feminine, pretty, girly things, and our somewhat conflicted relationship with them.

Warning – this may turn into a bit of a rant. I just had a maddening conversation with a woman who claims that “girly-girls are weak, lame tools of the patriarchy”. I’m a femme in every sense of the word, but I am anything but weak. Loving the fact that my panties (I actually hate that word – alternatives anyone?) are shell-pink lace, doesn’t make me any less of an intelligent, autonomous, ass-kicker of a woman.

Here’s the thing. Despite what many would say, the relationship between women and beauty is not simple, nor is vacuous, silly or something to be dismissed. It’s a cultural reality, one that is complicated and intensely specific to every woman who engages it. Given that I’ve already written about my passion for corsets, let’s take, for example, red lipstick.

I love red lipstick. I always have. I love the ritualistic process of putting it on and the subtleties in the shades. I love the unapologetic artifice of it and the fact that, when I wear it, my partner is very likely going to end up wearing it too. Same goes for anything that touches my lips – every glass I take a sip from will have my mark on it, like a pretty, blooming kiss.

Do I do it to attract men? Nope, though I don’t mind if I do. Ironically, I’ve been with more than one man who wished I wouldn’t wear it. Apparently, it’s hard to get out of collars. I also don’t wear it to impress or intimidate other women. I don’t want to intimidate anyone, though I also won’t stop wearing something I love because it might.

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

So, why do I have six different shades of red lipstick even though most days I wear peppermint chapstick (it’s delicious, okay?). Because it makes me feel sexy and feeling sexy pleases me, just like wearing garters under a plain black skirt pleases me, or slipping on a ridiculously expensive silk something under jeans or wearing my favorite perfume. These things, as frivolous as they seem, are an expression of my femininity, and I find great power in that.

Dismissing or marginalizing a woman’s attraction to feminine things is not only judgmental, it’s counterproductive. It suggests that a woman can’t be more than one thing at once – smart or pretty, kind or sexy, feminine or powerful – and it’s indicative of a trap we’ve fallen into as a culture. Yes, women need to aspire to more than just beauty – that goes without saying and, as the mother of a daughter, you can bet I put way more emphasis on how well she prints her name than on the hair clips she wants to wear. I want her to kick the ball and build the tower and make the puzzle, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have pretty hair clips too.

Our standards of beauty are maddeningly exclusive and women shouldn’t be made to feel that there is one objective ideal to which we must all aspire. My emphasis here is on FEELING beautiful and the fact that it’s okay to want that. It doesn’t make you weak or vacuous. It just makes you someone who loves a gorgeous bit of lace or the perfect pair of heels.

Wanting to feel beautiful doesn’t make you a tool either. It doesn’t mean you’ve drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid and chosen girliness over ambition, influence or power. That’s like saying a woman can’t have a PhD. and rock her FMP’s. The desire to enjoy feminine things does not negate intelligence, ambition or strength. In fact, I would say that there is a very real power to be had for women in the things that are often dismissed as “girly”.

There is power in femininity, just like there is power in masculinity. The interesting, and often overlooked thing, is that they are complementary powers. Women don’t need to give up certain signifiers to hold their own with men. In other words, you can skip the pantsuit and still be a bad-ass. Yes, that means you might be sexualized, but a pantsuit isn’t necessarily going to protect you from that. If the sleek, black skirt makes you feel powerful, wear it and use your intelligence, wit, skill and ambition to assert your presence in that room.

It’s all about the effect these feminine things have on you. If you wear the sexy lingerie to impress someone else, you may or may not be satisfied with the results. Wear it to please yourself and baby, you’re gold. You’re a goddess and nothing can get in your way.

Some women don’t want or need “the trappings of femininity” (as my absolutely fabulous grandmother called them) and that’s fine. It doesn’t make them any less of a woman, nor does it nullify their physical or sexual beauty. But it also does not make them superior, more confident or more powerful than women who enjoy some or all of the trappings.

There is power and confidence to be had everywhere, from the perfect white tee-shirt to the prettiest, most expensive silk stockings. Do what makes you feel like a gorgeous, fucking Amazon of a person. Do it and do it a lot. Walk into a room so happy with your perfectly straight seams or your glossy hair that your confidence make you 10 times your physical size. Do it regardless of your weight, height or ethnicity. Do it whether you’re flat-chested or apple-thighed. If it pleases you, do it. Rock those feminine things.

12 Comments

  1. Well said! and I couldn’t agree more, but, as a male friend used to say about the winds of history, you’re pissing against the winds of the cultural moment wherein it seems just about everything feminine is being devalued.

    • Thank you! And you’re right about the winds of history. I suppose that’s why the rant bubbled up in the first place. I just get so tired of hearing that women can’t be or want anything they please, especially when that judgement comes from other women!

  2. If you were over here, we could be the ass-kickers in lace knickers. 😉

    As always, you have hit the nail on the head. It isn’t the what you wear or use, it’s the why. When it is to please yourself and make yourself feel your own strength/confidence/power then it has an energy that is totally different from when it is to please others. I guess a simplification of what I am trying to say is, are you wearing it or is it wearing you. In that picture, you are definitely wearing that lipstick and that curl of your lips declares that it is for you. You are a beautiful, strong and utterly feminine woman.

    • I love “ass-kickers in lace knickers”!! I kind of want to get a tee-shirt made! And thank you – you hit it perfectly when you said “are you wearing it, or is it wearing you”. My (absolutely fabulous) grandmother always said, “darling, lipstick is a thing. You are a person. Make it work for you, not the other way around” and that stuck with me.

      Women should be allowed to do the things that make them feel good about themselves without judgement, especially from other women. Your post today made me think about our relationship to ourselves, and how sometimes it’s small things that make the biggest difference. You are a perfect example of a woman who does what’s right for her and is all the more gorgeous for it. xxx

  3. That’s reminded me of the “strong is the new pretty” thing that I’ve seen popping up all over the place. It’s great to teach our female offspring to be strong, and that they can be anything they want to be but why can’t they be strong and pretty, what’s wrong with that?

    AND if you tell someone they can be anything they want to be, there’s a certain back-handed logic to it – my growing-up twisty brain would be looking into it saying “Of course I can, why are you telling me this, is it because you or society says I can’t?”

    Oh there’s so much more to say, but I think I might go and keep quiet in my frillies and lipstick 😉

    • I completely agree. I don’t see that strong negates pretty or vice versa, and I also think that the implication that you can’t be feminine and still have gravitas and command respect is really insidious and subtly damaging. Your twisty brain logic is totally right – the way these messages are getting hammered at makes me feel like we’re trying to convince ourselves that women are strong. Of course, women are strong. We are, in fact, so strong that we shouldn’t have to prove it by not enjoying our frillies (I *totally* love “frillies” btw – may I adopt it?) 😀

  4. Knickers! say it with me Malin…. I bet it sounds sexy when you say it too. I love knickers and I am happy to live in a country where it is the accepted word for your female undergarments *said in a school mistress tone…. My daughter nearly always calls them her nickies which I rather like too.

    As for the rest of your post (and not just your knickers, that I now can’t stop thinking about) I could agree more. I too want my daughter to be everything she can be but if she wants to do that whilst also wearing her hair in amazing braids she has taught herself to do etc then yay for her. The real key is that it is her choice, if she enjoys it and gets pleasure from it then more power to her!

    Mollyxxx

    • Knickers… Knickerrrrs!! I’ve always loved “knickers” so much more than “panties”. “Panties” just sounds so sheepish. I think “nickies” is great too. I just wasn’t sure if I could pull “knickers” off as an American…ha! I’m going to pretend that I totally planned that innuendo. 😉
      xxx

  5. All the applause for you, Malin. As a high femme, I see this a lot. (Just last weekend, I was thanked by strangers at a Pride parade for being an ally and a supporter. Even though I was hanging out with a group of dykes, they assumed I was the token straight along for the ride.)

    It’s really depressing to see it in business, where I’ve seen both men and women dismiss a woman for being too feminine – assuming she’s incompetent or slept her way to her position. There’s an automatic suspicion that sets in when a woman is feminine and accomplished; people often question it in a way they wouldn’t with someone else. So I quite understand why women feel they have to choose.

    Great post.

    • Thanks Valerie. I’ve had a couple of encounters like the one you had at Pride and it’s frustrating (someone once told my girlfriend at the time and I that we couldn’t be Lebanese (seriously) because we “dressed like girls” and so had to be playing at it to get men. Fucking grr.)

      The notion that a feminine woman is somehow suspicious, or possibly not what she seems, is deeply woven into our culture and is responsible (I think) for a lot of the knee-jerk distrust women have for each other. It’s disheartening and I really hope that we can slowly start to unhook that. Femininity doesn’t mean anything except that you like certain things – it does not define who and what you are. As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate them.

  6. I’ve never been confident in how I look until recently. I know a lot of it stems back to being a teenager and seeing my hunk of a brother get tidal waves of female attention while teenaged boys left me surrounded by tumbleweed… But I’ve never doubted my brain.
    For as long as I can remember I’ve been a brain, and funny – and as I got more depressed, so the certainty of Being Clever and Being Reliable took over everything. It’s taken a long time to develop any sense of myself as a physically okay, even attractive, human being, and a woman at that.

    It’s wonderful that little girls are told they’re smart and clever, and I get nervous when I hear friends tell their daughters they’re “so pretty” and nothing else. But there needs to be a balance between the two extremes.

    I hope managing to get as messed up as I did is extremely rare, but it does no one any favours to forget that even as kids, we’re all multi-faceted and plural beings.
    Wearing a glittery T-shirt to go splashing through muddy woods, having beautiful nails and a full socket set, designer glasses sliding down your nose while studying astrophysics… and that’s just a Sunday.

    And always in beautiful underwear. Because I love how I look and feel in it.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I had a very similar teenage-hood. I was smart and I had my friends, but I also had big red glasses, frizzy hair and very bad skin, all of which conspired to make feel horribly awkward and physically insecure. A lot of these things – make up, pretty underwear, a lovely top – helped me inch my way towards feeling comfortable in my own skin. They were things I could *do* to make myself feel pretty, and that meant a lot to a girl who knew she was smart and sweet, but went on all of one date in high school. This isn’t to say that I needed the validation of having a boy or girlfriend. What I needed was to feel confident, and feminine things helped.

      As you said, there’s no reason a girl has to choose between smart and feeling pretty. The glittery tee-shirt in the muddy woods, the sexy glasses while she studies – all that stuff indicates a full, rounded, complete, 3 dimensional woman, and *that’s* beautiful. xx

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