For much of my life I didn’t think of myself as feminine. Of course, I knew I was a female and identified as such, but embodying femininity didn’t seem to come automatically with my female form. Therefore, when I was a child I classified myself as a tomboy. After all, I preferred sports to dolls and had more in common with my brother than either of my sisters. But I always felt I was missing some vital part of my femininity.
Research shows that I’m not the only girl to experience such an existential crisis. In fact, studies indicate girls between the ages of 9 and 11 are prone to construct a dichotomy between the “girly-girl” and “tomboy.” Despite identifying these categories, girls in this age range fluidly shift between the two labels — evidence the dichotomy is a false one.
Sometime around puberty girls begin to add nuance to these labels. Perhaps it’s the result of increased cognitive capacity, or maybe it’s related to the physical maturation children experience at this age. Though my interests hadn’t changed, my male friends began perceiving me differently when our bodies became less androgynous. I didn’t feel any more feminine, but suddenly I was perceived as such. Under this shifted male gaze, the word tomboy no longer seemed to fit, and the label became easy, for a time, to shrug off.
Femininity in Marriage
When I was a sophomore in college, I read through the book Love and Respect with my then-boyfriend. We were thinking about marriage, and reading through the text seemed like a good way to determine the strength of our potential future together. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t work out.) As I read each chapter, I became more and more disconcerted with the opposing positions presented by the author: Women crave love while men need respect. I heard (and still hear) this refrain echoed by the church. It wasn’t that I doubted either supposition — both of those things seemed true enough. However, I did question setting up a contrast between the two things. Surely love and respect weren’t mutually exclusive. Shouldn’t one flow from the other? Don’t men need love and women need respect as well?
For the first time since puberty, I realized I hadn’t completely shed my inhibiting tomboy cloak. I felt inherently flawed, as if the biology that was supposed to bestow femininity upon me left a keen interest in baseball instead. I didn’t connect with the image of femininity cast by Love and Respect, nor did I see myself in the similarly popular Captivating. The woman presented in these books was empathetic; she craved emotional intimacy and prioritized quality time. She was chiefly characterized as an emotional being, and I was decidedly not emotional.
During my junior year of college, my roommate honored me with the nickname “Tin Man” after I admitted (at the conclusion of My Sister’s Keeper) that I’d never cried during a movie. To this day my husband is more likely to cry and is far more empathetic than I am. If I’d known that as a twenty-something college student, I would’ve assumed we both occupied broken versions of femininity and masculinity. I also would’ve assumed a successful marriage hinged on my ability to somehow embody a femininity that didn’t naturally spring from my personhood.
Nobody ever directly told me this, but the information was there. I knew that a) femininity meant a bend toward emotional sensitivity, b) that emotional sensitivity made it easy for women to receive love and give respect in a marriage, and c) in order to be a functional part of that equation, I needed to embrace the more feminine qualities that were surely buried beneath a layer of emotional damage.
Today, I know I am feminine. But I still haven’t triggered some chemical reaction in my brain that catalyzes a move toward emotional vulnerability. For better or worse, my attitudes and emotional inclinations are still largely the same, and my interests still more frequently align with stereotypically masculine artifacts. The difference is I no longer think of these traits as boyish features mistakenly embodied by a woman.
The Validity of the Line
When culture draws an arbitrary line between two things, those caught in the middle are likely to either migrate to one side or analyze the validity of the line. I chose the latter. I never figured out how to project a more culturally normative flavor of femininity — instead, I’m striving to redefine femininity.
A recent study showed that men who request family leave are perceived as unreliable workers, and they’re also stigmatized as feminine. While this is interesting, it’s not surprising. Culturally normative femininity, both inside and outside the church, has a tendency to define femininity in terms of both weakness and uncertainty. Sure, we may use different words (fragile, gentle, meek), but we essentially mean the same thing: Women are inherently soft in a way that men are not; they are irrational and more uncertain than logic-heeding men.
If we work to push back on arbitrary gender norms (girls wear pink, boys wear blue; boys don’t cry, girls aren’t logical, etc.), we affirm the idea that gender isn’t swayed by things like emotional expression and an interest in sports. Biblical teachings make clear that our Creator outlined different functional purposes for men and women, but those purposes are not reliant on our cultural interpretations of femininity and masculinity.
Part of redefining femininity has meant creating space for a diverse array of characteristics to manifest in women. I joyfully acknowledge the femininity that fits neatly into the culturally normative description, but I likewise acknowledge the femininity that does not. I praise God for the intelligent, fierce, trailblazing, kind women whose lives inform a shifting culture and reshape what biblical womanhood truly means. I praise God for women who serve and women who lead, teaching us that femininity doesn’t equal subordination. I celebrate the feminine voices that choose to shout in a culture that would rather they whisper. I thank God for women who cry and women who don’t, and for the fact that there is room for such variance among godly women.
An Imperfect Resolution
I’m not feminine because I feel, or because I like to bake, or even because I’ve borne a child. I’m feminine because God created me female.
I still feel there are aspects of my personhood that are dysfunctional, but I no longer classify these failings as dysfunctional femininity. I’m brazen when I should be meek — not because women are biologically inclined to meekness but because Christ has declared the goodness of meekness in all people. I sow anger when I should seek peace; I’m proud when I should be humble; I hold grudges when I’m called to forgiveness. All of these failings might impede the way God has called me to function as a woman, but none of them are inherently tied to womanhood, and none of them will be perfectly resolved on earth.
Misguided perceptions of femininity and masculinity aren’t problems unique to the church, but they do create a moral conundrum the church must grapple with in a unique way. How can we affirm truth in “male and female He created them” without creating a dichotomy few can comfortably or naturally exist in?
Perhaps the first step is not simply to examine what God’s word says about gender but also to examine what it doesn’t say.
Copyright 2016 Val Dunham. All rights reserved.