Femmes and femininity

Dr. Isis wrote a moving, insightful post last week on what we tell girls and women about their bodies.  I’m going to quote liberally, but it’s definitely worth reading the entire thing.  Along with Sublime Femme’s recent “Femme Myth’s” post, it’s inspired me to finally write about how as a femme woman, I am often considered weaker/less intelligent/less etc.

Changes to Dora the Explorer’s clothing as she goes to middle school are getting a lot of feminist criticism.  As Dora becomes more feminine in middle school, they suggest she’ll stop being smart and adventurous and strong.  To be honest, this “feminist” criticism reminds me of what Dr. Isis and many girls go through in middle school:

It didn’t occur to me that there was anything unusual about Barbie battling Skeletor and Darth Vader.  She could wield a light saber and the Power Sword like a champ.  It didn’t occur to me, that is, until the fifth grade when my little girlish figure began to change from being twiggy to distinctly more hourglass.  It was at this age that the girls in my class, girls who had known each other for years, began to change the way they treated each other.  They started to use words like “slut” and “tramp,” although none of us really understood them.  Certain girls, those of us who developed feminine features ahead of the mean, started being labeled as having “done it,” even though most of us had no concept of “it” and were only just learning that some people used their tongues when they kissed.

I like skirts. I like wearing makeup. I really like cute shoes.  I’m also pretty nerdy (yeah, I had a Pi Day Party Saturday), adventurous (I went to a small town in China for a year on 3 weeks notice when I didn’t speak any Mandarin), and pretty goddamn tough.

But sometimes I feel like many feminists and nearly everyone else are telling me that I can’t have both.  I hate that when I put on heels and makeup I have to work so much harder to be taken seriously.  I wish everyone got it like Dr. Isis gets it:

I don’t see why Dora can’t grow up to be all of those things while still choosing a skirt and ballet flats. I can still write a differential equation in a pair of Naughty Monkeys. But, 59% of responders to a New York Daily News poll deemed the new Dora too sexual based on her silhouette alone.

This all makes me realize that much of the disdain young women feel towards their developing forms, the self-loathing at being perceived as potentially sexual beings, comes in part from how we treat them. To say that the new Dora or the old Barbie are too sexual because of their narrow waists and widened hips, even when we put them in the role of President, teaches girls that they are defined primarily by their physical form — that the development of secondary sexual characteristics means their primary identity is sexual.  These secondary characteristics are, thus, something to be ashamed of.

We shouldn’t teach people that women have to wear makeup and heels or be thin with impossibly huge breasts to be beautiful.  But we also shouldn’t teach them that appearing feminine makes them less intelligent or weaker.


  1. Sublimefemme says:

    Amen! As femme-identified women we face multiple and complex forms of gender oppression. It can be hard to grapple with and confusing because femininity is both revered and devalued in our culture.

    As a professor and academic, I understand what you mean about how it’s more difficult to be taken seriously in makeup and heels. I’m sure this is especially hard for you as a scientist. But I think you’ll find that this will become easier as you get older and advance in your career. If you ever want to discuss this, feel free to email!


    • sarcozona says:

      It IS confusing! Depending on my setting, appearing feminine can be an advantage or a disadvantage. And sometimes both – for example, when I’m dressed up, the stock room manager is much more likely to fix things and get me the supplies I need, but he treats me like I can’t do anything for myself. And even in the same setting, different people see a feminine appearance differently.

      I definitely play down the femme when I have an important meeting or presentation. If I don’t, I have to be harsher and more aggressive to be taken seriously.

  2. Mike says:

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours ever.

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