Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Freedom From "Femininity"

Femininity is certainly a controversial issue. And here on Seraphic Singles, whenever an issue seems particularly controversial, and feelings are high, I write about it again.

Femininity is controversial firstly because social codes of femininity have been used--and still are (burkha, spike heels) used to restrict women's freedoms and flourishing. It is controversial secondly because if we don't measure up to someone else's standard of femininity we tend to take it personally. At Mass on Sunday, our priest extolled motherhood and condemned how some today actually hate motherhood and I felt all very sorry for myself because I'm not pregnant yet and what's with that?

Anyway, I thought to myself later, how did this turn into a "How to Get Guys" blog? Beyond the part-self-help book, part-Catholic-anthropology, part-learning-from-mistakes philosophical mishmash that my group of friends collectively known as Les Girls and I concocted, what do I know? Mostly what I know is how to avoid Mr Wrong and how to spot other women's Mr Wrongs in those women's honest emails to Auntie Seraphic.

How not to scare Mr Right away, I think I have a good handle on. But as to finding Mr Right, that I leave to God. Let go, I say, and let God. The only three great truths about men-in-general in this area that I grasp with both hands are that 1. Men will work for what/who they really want; 2. Men are terrified of marrying the wrong woman; 3. Men prefer women to look like what they think "women" look like; fortunately there is quite a lot of variety here.

If you are a happy Single, and do not give a flying fish what men think women should look like, then you are free, free, free as a bird to ignore what men prefer. And why not? Go take a look at a modern-style nun, the kind with no habit. How does she dress? And how short is her hair, eh? I know umpteen modern-style nuns, and they all have short hair. And they love pantsuits. If you are wondering who is keeping the pantsuit makers in business, it is thousands and thousands of modern-style nuns over 60, bless them. And one thing you can say about nuns, ancient and modern, is that they rightly have zero interest in attracting men.

Two of my favourite modern-style nuns are not very feminine. I love them, and they could kill a rude man at ten paces with a glance from their nunly eyes, and they are not very feminine. I know feminine nuns, but these ones aren't. They are sharp-talking and loud and raucous. They love football, which they watch on TV. They wear trousers in and out of season. If you handed them a row of false eyelashes, they would take it outside and lay it on the porch to run free, since they could only assume it was an unusual new spider.

They have their Rule, their devotions, their convent, their household rituals, their paid employment, their other ministries, their lefty theologies, their responsibilities to the oldest sisters away in the nursing home, their holiday cottage. They have an amazing way of life. I could have shared their amazing way of life because they asked me, and I am very proud of that, but I just couldn't.

I couldn't, not just because I couldn't be a modern-style nun, but because it would just about kill me to cut my hair short, cutting my hair short meaning that it was over between me and men-as-caffeine-in-the-cappuccino-of-life forever. And indeed, that is why old-style nuns originally had their hair cut: it was THE sign that they were permanently unavailable. Buddhist nuns shave their heads, too.

Meanwhile, I know non-nun Single women who are equally as uninterested in attracting men. They live make-up free, cute-shoe free, skirt free, short-haired existences, and they have beautiful lives. They have their jobs, their hobbies, their pets, their friends (men and women), and nobody could care less that they can't flirt their way out of paper bags. It just doesn't matter.

St. Augustine, when contemplating which female lives were best, rated Permanent Virginity (proto-nun life) first, then Marriage next, because married women have to looking pleasing to only one man, and then Unmarried But Wanting To Get Married dead last because those women have to look pleasing to many men, which St. Augustine thought terrible.

My Searching Single readers may say "Thanks for nothing, St. Augustine," but perhaps this will cheer Serious Single readers who wonder if there is anything wrong with them for not being at all interested in men-as-caffeine, and prefering a quiet, busy life of comfortable shoes, Pears soap and cats.

And of course there isn't. It seems like a marvellous way of life to me. Perhaps when B.A. shuffles off this mortal coil, I'll live that way, too. When arthritis hits, I'll have to cut my hair anyway. But for the time being, I will continue wearing cute shoes and mascara, not only because B.A. likes them but also because other men seem to, and if St. Augustine thinks that is simply appalling, then I can only grovel and say "Amen, for, lo, I am a frivolous thing."

UPDATE: EEEK! Viking hordes from The Crescat! Welcome, welcome! Buy my book for Christmas! IF you have one, buy one for your buddy! Buy two! There's a special one for Americans, protecting you from Canadian spelling conventions! Special Inside American Version: an imprimi potest!


leonine said...

Ok, so I have a question about femininity in context. How does one tailor femininity to a particular audience?

My professional life is in an area that is heavily male-dominated. It's very much Old Boys Club; women have to work really, really hard to be taken as seriously as our male colleagues. Femininity is a liability, not an asset. So there's no projecting vulnerability to supervisors or colleagues, no telling them everything they do is wonderful, no flirting. I wear lots of black* and have short-ish hair.

I really like what I do, I feel called to do it, I am pretty good at it. Also, frankly, being tough comes pretty easily for me. But I don't want all of the world to see me as formidable, just this particular group. I've wondered a lot recently if the lack of a serious relationship is one inevitable sacrifice that I have to make to do what I love. But short of that, I'm trying to figure out how to project the necessary professional toughness but still relax a bit when it's appropriate.

Any thoughts?

*I was wearing black and grey with a red scarf the other day, and a gentleman of my acquaintance was very complimentary about the color choice. He liked the black/grey/red combo (though I'm not sure if he was referring to the red scarf or the red lipstick), but was explicit that the grey made it and was a great color for me. It made me think of your rules for dressing, Seraphic... And you'll be pleased to know I simply made eye contact, smiled, and said "thank you."

Alisha said...

"If you are a happy Single, and do not give a flying fish what men think women should look like, then you are free, free, free as a bird to ignore what men prefer."

Hmm. This for me isn't the issue. Of course people can ignore what men prefer. But femininity, I'm sure you would agree, is not confined to what men prefer or having an interest in attracting men.
So if femininity seems to be spoken of largely in those terms, there may be women who then conclude that they are not feminine, or somehow not really womanly.
There are women who do enjoy cute shoes, long hair, skirts, etc and want to be feminine in that way AND other ways - not to attract men but because they see it as part of their female identity.
There are women who don't care about those things or attracting men but aren't looking to be "free from femininity", either.
In fact, if God has made us women, we have to take femininity and its meaning seriously if we are trying to live well.
I read recently that "The difference that sets women apart is that she imitates the Church, the Bride of Christ." I think in this lies the essence of femininity...though I'm still genuinely trying to understand what it means, and practically, how that looks on the ground...

Alisha said...

For the record, I am not against great looking shoes...but in general, I can't wear heels because they hurt too much, and dancing is important to me!

Jennifer said...

What Alisha said.

Seraphic said...

Leonine, well, you are at WORK. You dress one way at work, and you dress completely differently outside of work.

I remember a woman soldier telling me that at boot camp she and her fellow women soldiers wore the most over-the-top frilly grilly underwear under their uniforms as a way with coping with being treated just like men all day. This was in the 80s, though.

Alisha, I don't think you are getting my point.

Clare C said...

I think the problem is that Alisha and Seraphic are using the same term to refer to different things. Alisha is talking about the deep, complex, mysterious thing called femininity so crucial to our identity. (The thing that JP II, Alice V. Hild., et al are so interested in.) Seraphic is talking about sexual dimorphism, the outward signs and cues that highlight our difference from men.
Sexual dimorphism is not important in and of itself, but it can be very useful in finding a mate (just look at the animal kingdom) since other-ness is very attractive.
But of course sexual dimporphism is very awkard and strange sounding, so femininity makes for some handy shorthand.

Both of you are free to correct me if I'm wrong. That's just my take on it.

dark but fair said...

I love this post and I LOVE being a woman. I do believe that wanting to please men as well as being disposed to decorate, beautify and order things is part of being feminine. No I am not saying that we all have the same taste about how things should be beautified or that we always want to please every man or just any man. But wanting to please and wanting to beautify things and be beautiful ourselves, is I think, part of being feminine. That feminity expresses itself in different measure and different ways, I know.

Incidentally, I love having very long hair, wearing skirts, cute shoes, mascara and red lipstick!

theobromophile said...

Leonine: how you should dress depends a bit on how you are. If you are tall and don't have a very sexy figure, feel free to wear more feminine clothing. If you are either very "feminine" (read: tiny/short) or could give Cristina Hendricks a run for her money on clothes, then aim for somber and sophisticated.

I've known short, slender, blonde, blue-eyed attorneys who wear pantsuits. They don't do it because they are trying to be men, or because Hillary Clinton is their heroine (although maybe she is), but because if they didn't, they would look over-the-top girly. One of the women in my family - very tall, with short hair - was in a super-male dominated field where professionalism is taken very seriously and wore skirt suits in different colours. Balance it out.


The issue with "femininity" is that some people (i.e. rude, insecure men) equate it with incompetence. Or it's equated with competence at those frivolous woman's things, like baking cookies, and masculinity, with excellence in athleticism, earning power, mathematics - i.e. things that not just anyone can do.

There's also a huge "damned if you do, damned if you don't" element to femininity. We're talked down to as not "real women" if we don't have children; if we stay at home with them, we're stupid housewives who, unlike men, can't run the world; if we put them in daycare, we're selfish and want to put our shallow careers ahead of our own flesh and blood. Likewise - wear make-up and be frivolous, forgo it and ugly (implication is that it's outside and inside), etc.

I don't have any solutions to this (that's why we have Auntie Seraphic, not Auntie Theobromophile), except that I think St. Augustine was a bit misguided. Searching Singles don't have to please more than one man: our mission is to live our lives to please exactly one man, the man who is the one we're supposed to be with. The trick is to figure out which one he is! Outside of very Catholic circles (and even in parts of some of them!), this is even more important, because so many men expect sex as a part of dating. A lot of women think like St. Augustine thought, which makes my maternal instincts kick in.

leonine said...

Well, of course I dress differently at work! (Although it's tough to have short hair at work and long hair elsewhere...) I guess my question wasn't clear. What I'm trying to get at is how to be feminine without being girly.

Seraphic said...

Well, I suppose it depends on the context. I aim for ladylike in public, and girly with my girly friends, and simply try to avoid freaked out mutant hysteric in the kitchen and laundry room.

Now that I am married, I think it is safe to bake goodies for all and sundry. (Apparently this is not a good way to get ahead at work, however, although if you are a tenured professor, I don't see how it would hurt.) I don't know if this is feminine or not, but it is certainly a fulfillment of my maternal instincts.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. I don't think this answers your question. Maybe you should ask a fashiony person.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and comments! I recently had a conversation with a male Catholic friend about "Proper clothing for Catholic women" based on an article I read here- http://www.catholicplanet.com/women/dress.htm

As a result, I am planning an experiment- I am going to wear skirts and dresses (of which I have plenty, I love them in the shop but never wear them!) for a week. A few hours after this discussion, I was thinking of renaging already... This blog post and discussion has prompted me to give it a whirl! Here goes...!

Anonymous said...


google on "multi strand braids". You can keep your long hair and still look professional, feminine, elegant, etc. I had glorious waist length hair (sorry about not being modest) I cut when I was very sad. For some reason, I've been told grief makes women want to cut their hair. I am now eating lots of salmon and B vitamins to grow it back - will never cut it again.

If the braids look too hard to do, just take three regular braids, braid them together, and pin them in a coil. When you undo it at the end of the day, you'll have beautiful waves. You can braid them as tightly as you like, depending on how "professional" you need to look. Hope this works.

Isabella of the North

Anonymous said...


When I suggested looking for "multi strand braids" on line, try spicybraids.com - despite the name they are more professional looking but harder to do. (didn't post link - I have no affiliation with them), but once you can do a 9 strand braid or weave, you will look amazing. You need a lot of long thick hair to do it but that is better than cutting it off.

Isabella of the North

(missing my long hair)