The Essence of Femininity

January 18, 2011

Notorious: She gave up her slutty ways for Dev.

There were many insightful comments from readers on the recent post about American women and femininity. Some readers emailed me offline as well. Thanks to all of you who shared your thoughts!

First, the very real question arose about whether femininity is innate, learned throughout life, or superficially applied. I don’t believe it’s entirely innate, though I do believe that the natures of men and women differ greatly, genetically speaking. As I shared earlier, I believe that my generation of women has been taught to effectively suppress femininity because it was believed to be an obstacle to women’s professional success. Those early feminists had a point – a woman who “thinks like a man” is bound to go further in business or law than a man who “thinks like a woman.” The latter calls up images of an overly emotional, somewhat unstable male. Ridding ourselves of overblown stereotypes seems like a good idea.

Although femininity is heavily marketed to consumers as something that can be applied superficially, I believe that is a very unsatisfying way for a woman to approach her femininity. As women we can and should benefit from embracing our femaleness, or womanhood, without regard to politics, dogma or fashion. Many readers, both male and female, raised the point that femininity is not something that women should use as a tool to attract men. One male reader said “it’s not like a dress you can take on and off.” Another said, “It is your nature, not something to put on when the occasion arises.” Rather, a naturally feminine woman will by definition attract men.

Several readers expressed concern that men should not define femininity for women. I understand this feeling, but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that neither sex gets to define what femininity is. It just is. Being feminine is the opposite of being masculine. It is natural that women should be feminine, and men masculine. However, gender traits lie on a continuum, and are certainly affected by culture. Men and women share many traits and values, and also affect one another. A man may hesitate to show his nurturing instincts unless he knows that they will be appreciated. A woman may hesitate to show her dispassionate analytical side unless she knows it is critical to her success and will be rewarded.

Sex differences are about procreation. Men desire feminine women, and women desire masculine men. The two come together to procreate. Any effort to rid ourselves of our essential natures, then, is futile. On the other hand, sex differences can become emphasized to the point that they are caricatures. A simpering woman who feigns stupidity has missed the point. So has a woman who  swears like a trucker and always wears sweats. (It goes without saying this is a heteronormative analysis.)

In order of frequency, here are the factors defined as the most pertinent in defining femininity:


This was the most frequent adjective that came up, along with warm and affectionate. Women do have a predisposition towards taking care of others – most importantly, family. Both parents can be exceptionally loving, but there is a difference between the sexes in the way they express love. Ideally, both boys and girls grow up in the embrace of a loving mother’s arms. Is it any wonder that grown men long for that loving embrace from their partners? Mike C shared a poem that he found at Roissy today (I don’t know whether Roissy has lost his mind or his blog has been taken over by aliens). It’s illustrative:

When her head nestles in my neck
and her fingers graze my ear
and her sleepy breath whispers hymns
my worldly worries disappear.

Men crave a nurturing and tender touch from women, and women enjoy bestowing it. Several men mentioned looking for clues that a woman will be a good mother. A nurturing personality is the number one cue for that.


This came up again and again, especially among men. They love to be teased. One requested coyness and another coquettishness, which is defined as “teasing sexual or romantic overtures; flirtation.” Playfulness is one of the things that has been discouraged by feminism, as it was considered a sure-fire way not to be taken seriously. I believe that a sense of playfulness, humor, and good-natured teasing is almost always appropriate. We Irish even bring these traits to our customs around death. Both sexes are very capable of playful behavior, but men perceive that women are better at it, and they find it appealing.


Women have been taught that “you get what you ask for,” and “you can do anything you want if you fight for it.” Consequently, we have gotten rather obvious and aggressive in the last couple of generations. This has served us well in some ways, but it doesn’t translate very well to relationships. We have made seduction artless, which is pitiably a lot less fun for everyone. It is impossible to be intriguing when one is obvious. It is impossible to be curious about someone when they are an open book, displaying their wares as if for sale. One man described subtlety as communicating “class and elegance.” Another described the appeal of mystery, advising women “Show, don’t tell.”

Emotional Intelligence

Men perceive that women are good at emotions, that they can be sensitive and tactful. Men crave empathy, understanding and appreciation from women. They need the support of women, and they appreciate good listening skills. They also enjoy a woman’s emotional vulnerability as a proxy for her emotional health and ability to bond. One man said that he wants a woman to have sex like a woman, and that means emotional intimacy. Men will avoid committing to a woman who does not “have eyes only for them.” Female intuition was mentioned as well.

Pride in feminine appearance

Interestingly, not a single person defined femininity in terms of the use of cosmetics. Nor was there any demand for specific types of body parts, e.g. big boobs, tiny waist, etc. (except to say they should be lady parts, haha). Both men and women value good grooming and careful attention to dressing. Men like skirts and dresses more than pants, tailored pants more than sweats. Emphasize what makes you female!

Not surprisingly, men and young women are tuned in to maximizing those features that also serve as cues for fertility: skin, physical health and fitness, and the ever-present preference for long hair. Several guys mentioned loving polished fingers and toes. Modesty was mentioned as having more allure than brash display of physical assets.

Female physicality

One reader shared her grandmother’s advice that a woman needs to walk like a woman. This was echoed repeatedly by the males. They notice and appreciate female posture, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. I’ve never met a man who didn’t want a woman to feel soft beneath his fingers. They strongly prefer a feminine tone of voice, and love the sound of a woman’s laugh.

Appreciation for masculine traits

Men want women who recognize and appreciate what it means to be male. This does not mean excellence on the playing field, necessarily. It has nothing to do with an overabundance of testosterone, or the tendency to act like a douchebag. Women have largely lost this knowledge, but we’re trying to bring it back 😉

Many offered suggestions to avoid distinctly unfeminine behavior in women:

  • Any form of false advertising, including “dumbing down” when men are present to bolster their egos.
  • Treating others with disrespect.
  • Verbal aggression.
  • Extreme verbosity, especially of a whining nature, or coupled with demands.
  • Sarcasm, snark and other forms of “put downs.”
  • Ruthless or competitive behavior.
  • Swearing, use of profanity.
  • Binge drinking.
  • Sexual aggression.
  • Overt attention-seeking behavior/narcissism.

Personally, I find all of these behaviors equally unattractive in men. Let’s lose them altogether!

In the end, women and men define femininity in much the same way. Each of us lies somewhere on the spectrum of masculine and feminine traits. I say use every last thing that nature gave you to live a full life. Be sexy and vulnerable, be coquettish and direct, take care of yourself, and take care of others. Different approaches and behaviors are called for at different times. Give your partner what he needs, but ask for what you need as well.

And definitely brush up on the playful teasing and witty repartee. As several people suggested, the old movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood have wonderful contrasting feminine and masculine roles. If your great grandmother isn’t available to teach you, you could do worse than observe:

  • Ingrid Bergman – Casablanca, also great as a “reformed slut” in North by Northwest
  • Audrey Hepburn – everything
  • Grace Kelly – anything, but very coquettish in Rear Window
  • Sophia Loren – anything
  • Ginger Rogers – Fred Astaire movies
  • Lauren Bacall – To Have and Have Not
  • Myna Loy – the Thin Man films

Vive la difference. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.