Toxic Femininity: What Is It and How to Escape It

16 Apr 2024
8 min read
Toxic Femininity - It's Real and It's Wrong

Years ago, there was a classic riddle circulating. A father and son were in a serious accident. The father was killed, and the son transported to the hospital where he needed emergency surgery. When he was taken into surgery, the surgeon said, “I cannot operate on him – he’s my son!” How can that be? There were all sorts of answers, the most common being that the surgeon was his stepfather. The right answer was the surgeon was his mother.

This obviously reflected vestiges of society’s traditional conceptions of stereotypically feminine traits and a patriarchal society.

Gender norms. Each generation tends to at least loosely define them. And over the past 100 years or so, the gender gap has been closing. Women can vote, have their own bank accounts, buy a house, and are at least making solid strides toward gender equality in the workplace. And women in modern Western societies continue their march toward the full equality that they have yet to reach.

Among the reasons for their need to continue the “good fight” is that this thing we call toxic femininity continues to exist.

What Is Toxic Femininity in Modern Society

There are two terms of importance here:

  • Toxic Masculinity: This is the adherence of men to the traditional roles of societal expectations. They are to be tough, aggressive, heterosexual, without outward displays of emotion, and generally, in charge. The term toxic masculinity has emerged more recently, as discussions of what it means to be a man have emerged in primarily conservative circles.
  • Toxic Femininity: Like toxic masculinity, this term refers to those women who accept the traditional views of what society expects women to be – subservient to men, mindful of their body image, sacrificing for others, putting a man’s needs above theirs, and refraining from self-expression if it creates any conflict. Picture the mom on the TV show, “Leave It to Beaver.” She is the picture of femininity, in dresses and heels, with hair perfectly coiffed, and the commitment to wear makeup as she cleans and cooks and keeps the home fires burning for her husband and children. But this is a bit simplistic.

So, why are we still having discussions and conflicts about women’s rights and roles? The reasons are many and some relate to political and religious views, the strict adherence to biblical and internalised misogyny which aim to keep women “in their place” so men can fulfill their destined roles in all leadership positions. Yes, sexism is still alive, and there are women who live in a state of silent acceptance of this rising movement among conservatives.

5 traits of toxic femininity

5 Characteristics of Toxic Femininity

If we want to identify toxic femininity clearly, we have to speak to the most common traits that such women present.

1. Hyper Feminine Look and Behavior

There are strict beauty standards that leave no doubt. Hair is done and makeup is donned as soon as these women get up in the morning. They never leave the house without being well-dressed and perfectly groomed. Jewelry is appropriate for the style of dress, as are shoes and purses.

Behavior is decidedly feminine, especially in social situations. They sit appropriately, watch their tone of voice and topics of conversation, and generally maintain a submissive demeanor toward men.

2. Need to Police the Femininity of Other Women

Their gender binary beliefs mean that they need to try to pressure other females, especially young women, to conform to the looks and behaviors of their gender. They will criticize unisex dress that has become so popular among other females, along with their general appearance in public.

They will use whatever power and influence they have over other women to “help” them become more ladylike in their actions and behaviors. Years ago, there were “charm schools,” at which young girls were taught how to dress, apply makeup, do their hair, walk, sit, and engage in the right kinds of conversation, and learn/practice table manners. These women want to be a charm school all in one.

Related reading: Think You’ve Met a Female Narcissist? Follow the Clues

3. Belief That Every Woman Should Be Docile

Being docile in the toxic feminism world means that women put up with internalized misogyny of the opposite gender, including putting up with violence. And violence against women is certainly a societal concern. The problem is that docile women put up with such violence and remain in such toxic relationships because they have learned to sacrifice their own well-being and given in to the power of the idea of patriarchy.

These feminist women can even be feminine in demeanor, as in the movie “Barbie,” but they have the benefit of knowing that they have skills and abilities well beyond that demeanor. And they put their own well-being first. A social night to them may mean being feminine in outward appearance, but when it comes to heavy conversations and being assertive, they dive right in. All of this is totally unacceptable to the woman who has internalized toxic femininity.

4. Belief That All Women Compete for Male Attention

In a gender-binary world of patriarchy, inherently toxic women must win the attention of a male by using all of their femininity. This sets up a competition between a woman and all other females seeking the same attention from him. To view the world this way means that women cannot be supportive of one another, nor can they celebrate each other’s achievements. Every woman becomes a threat. Such beliefs are destructive. Those who look at this belief objectively see it as a mental health issue.

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5. Transgender People Do Not Count

Their concept of a gender binary world must involve the social exclusion of any trans male or female person. In fact, anyone who identifies as having a non-binary sexuality is a threat to manhood and womanhood. And people acting outside of their gender stereotypes (a butch lesbian or a femme gay) is to be shunned. In short, gender differences are rigid and unbending.

What Toxic Femininity Is Not

“Toxic femininity refers to the adherence to the gender binary in order to receive conditional value in patriarchal societies. It is a concept that restricts women to being cooperative, passive, sexually submissive, gentle, and deriving their value from physical beauty while being pleasing to men.”

Zuva Seven, a health science professional and founder of the “An Injustice” publication

Toxic femininity is a broad term that refers to a rigid and repressive definition of womanhood, including pressures women face to restrict themselves to stereotypically feminine traits. Examples of traits that are traditionally associated with femininity include empathy, sensitivity, gentleness, and gracefulness.

From this, we can pretty much figure out what toxic femininity is not:

  • Accepting of gender equality
  • Accepting of non-traditional lifestyles and behavior
  • Is and/or promotes assertiveness on the job, at home, or in the bedroom
  • Denial of patriarchy as a societal norm
  • Fighting sexism and misogyny in the workplace
  • Shunning stereotypes of masculinity and femininity
  • Seeing women as equal partners in marriage
  • Belief that women have the power and ability to play in the “male sandbox” and achieve independence, dependent upon no man for their identity.
Breaking free from toxic femininity

Breaking the Chains of Toxic Femininity

There are women all over the planet who live in a culture of patriarchy. Consider the traditional Muslim culture for example. It goes way beyond what toxic femininity is in the West. And any hint of feminism is cause for violence and even death.

But before we can hope that feminism can reach these women, we have to clean up our own backyard first.

What Toxic Femininity Fosters

Here are just a few things that toxic femininity favors in the US:

  • The banning of books that address sexual equality, non-binary identities, and the disgraceful history of patriarchy
  • The right of men who hold to toxic masculinity to determine women’s healthcare
  • A trend in some states to determine the appropriate dress of female legislators when they show up in the chambers.
  • Misogyny related to girls and women and how their provocative dress brings on sexual assaults -toxic masculinity on full display

There is much that we can do to fight traditional gender norms that both toxic femininity and toxic masculinity place on our culture.

Begin With the Children

Judith Butler is a professor of English rhetoric and comparative literature. She is especially interested in the promotion of feminism and unlearning toxic femininity and the stereotypes that it reinforces. In her opinion, open discussions of feminism “have been good for both girls and boys by letting them find their way to activities and passions that more fully express who they are and let them flourish apart from any social judgments about what is appropriate for their gender. Indeed, the only prescription that most feminist positions make is to treat people with dignity, to honor the equality of the sexes, to accept gender diversity, and to oppose all forms of violence against people, whether young or old, on the basis of their gender or sexuality.”

The goal, of course, is to grow children into adulthood having shed those burdens that toxic femininity (and toxic masculinity) has imposed upon them.

Related reading: Dating A Single Mom

How Women (and Men) Can Work to Unlock the Chains of Toxic Femininity

It all comes from media. Consider the TV series “The Bachelor,” where females compete to be “chosen” by the masculine male who typifies all of the toxic masculinity traits we have come to admire. They take their femininity to new heights to land their catch and play all of their tricks to lead him into their “trap.” For his masculine part, the bachelor exhibits what is sometimes known as benevolent sexism, simply a milder version of toxic masculinity.

Consider the commercials that show the benefit of being feminine “for your man” – makeup, hair products, and such. These are nothing more than toxic femininity at work on you. Femininity means you get the man.

  • You begin to break the chains of toxic femininity by identifying the ways in which the media promotes it. Don’t run out and buy or do as they tell you to do.
  • Call out internalized misogyny when men make statements that reflect sexism. Advocate for yourself and tell them you don’t tolerate such talk or behavior. This is especially important in social and work environments.
  • Muster up your ability to be a self-reliant independent individual. Sometimes, this may be a mental health issue, so pursue counseling if you feel that would be helpful. Like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity can be challenging to overcome.
  • Resist the pressure that others may put on you to conform to the beliefs of toxic femininity -finding a husband, having children, subordinating your personal and professional goals to those of your mate, and being generally submissive.
  • Join a few support groups in which women are working on independence and their own well-being and see femininity in a broader sense.
  • Join some feminist causes that work to change the political and social culture at the state and national levels.

What Can You Do to End the Cycle of Toxic Femininity?

The phrase toxic femininity has been around for a while. It appeared in the 1980s as discussions around toxic masculinity began to surface. As we began to understand the phrase toxic masculinity, we had to look at the impact of that concept on women whose femininity had to be discussed as well.

Toxic femininity is an entire array of characteristics that accept sacrifice and submission to men. And it is damaging to the women who espouse it and to those other women who suffer because of it. Toxic femininity has no place in 21st-century Western civilization. Take your stand, take action, and ensure that this outdated concept does not continue to infect our culture.

Much like racism or homophobia, toxic femininity exists because it is taught and instilled in us from a very young age. The best way to help get yourself out of those mindsets is to call yourself out when you find yourself thinking or saying something that could be considered to be toxic in those lights. By learning to call out your own behavior you can become better at learning how to recognize those toxic sorts of behaviors from other people.

Love&Sex Expert
Cherie Hamilton
I’ve always been inspired by women who are outgoing, very sure of themselves, and not afraid to be who they were, including their sex lives. Under their tutelage, I gradually shed my old self, hung out and socialized with them, and, over time, became the empowered, self-confident, and sexual woman I am today. Happy to share my insights with other women today!

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