Editor’s note: We post thought-provoking pieces that express a wide range of opinions. For further discussion of makeup and femininity we highly recommend Season 1, Episode 2 of One Day at a Time.
Allow me to explain what I mean by toxic femininity by first explaining the far more popular term, toxic masculinity: a set of harsh ideals of what it means to be a “real man”—strength, violence, aggression, dominance, sexual prowess, etc. Conversely—sensitivity, vulnerability, and emotion are all considered signs of weakness. Just as toxic masculinity is extremely harmful to men, I argue that toxic femininity, or the strict adherence to traditional female gender roles, is extremely harmful to women.
Before I go any further and get called out for not being a True Feminist™, I would like to make it clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with being feminine. Just as there is nothing inherently wrong with being masculine. What makes both of these sets of ideals “toxic” is their intensity and rigidity, as well as the strict binary they uphold. According to traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity, masculine = male and feminine = female; there is no room for overlap. And while we’ve come leaps and bounds when it comes to recognizing and accepting different gender identities, varying forms of gender expression, and the concept that gender is a spectrum, we still have a long way to go. The issues our society still has understanding gender become clear starting with something as simple (or so you would think) as hair.
Apparently the only socially-acceptable women who can pull of a pixie cut are: butch lesbians, celebrities, or Really Confident Powerful Feminists™ (or all of the above, like Ellen.) It also helps if you have naturally straight and non-textured hair that is easy to style. And if you have a strong jawline. And if you’re skinny and androgynous. As someone who fits into none of those categories–a cishet curly-haired chubby nobody who is a Feminist™ but not a Really Confident Powerful Feminist™—my desire to cut all my hair off was not taken well. The most pushback I received was from my family, of course.
“Why would you want to cut off all your hair?”
Because it’s not worth all the effort. Frankly, it’s exhausting.
“But you have such beautiful curly hair! So many girls would kill to have hair like yours!”
They can have it.
“But what if you cut it all off and immediately regret it?”
It’s hair; it grows back.
“But it’ll make you look like a boy! You look prettier with long hair!”
See, when you say “pretty,” I hear “feminine” and I really don’t give a fuck about that.
“It will worsen your chances of getting hired when you start looking for a job.”
…It’s 2018. Is that really still an issue?
“People will think you’re a lesbian.”
You get the idea.
For some reason, the concept that I’m truly not trying to impress anyone and I’m doing it for my own comfort and sanity is too unbelievable for the likes of my grandparents. But it’s not just them. While the likes of Emma Watson can experiment with short hair and still be sex symbols, as average normal humans most women simply can’t pull it off… according to most men. I cannot express in words just how much the opinion of “most men” doesn’t even remotely matter to me. Will I die alone? Probably. Will I have been happier and more myself for it? Definitely.
The fact that I couldn’t care less about fashion also doesn’t help the matter. I never thought of myself as masculine, save for when I was a cheerful ten-year-old tomboy, but that changed when I realized… No, wait: I never grew out of it. By society’s standards, I am a “masculine” woman, an “adult tomboy” if you will, simply because I’m not feminine enough. I’ve never cared about fashion and still don’t; I despise wearing skirts and dresses. I dress for my own comfort, and if that means hoodies and sweatpants every day, so be it. However, I have never consciously tried to present myself as masculine or feminine, but by simply being a woman and not caring about presenting as feminine, that apparently makes me masculine by default. This was hardly an upsetting realization for me.
I can understand the argument that my fellow Feminists™ make for femininity—that if a woman wants to have long hair and wear dresses and heels they should be able to without criticism, and there, I agree. Clothing and hair are, for most people, a huge part of how they express themselves, and I am all about freedom of choice. If you want to straighten your hair every morning and strut around in heels that’s great for you, as long as you don’t judge me for my sweatshirt and shorts combo. I genuinely have no problem with that.
Where I draw the line is makeup.
Of course, makeup is used for self-expression. Of course, makeup can be fun. Of course, makeup is also a choice, so who am I to say it’s harmful? Except, is it a choice? Is it really? I have literally worn makeup twice in my life: junior prom (an experience I would have gladly skipped) and as a bridesmaid at my brother’s wedding. I have no idea how other girls got into makeup: did their moms just sit them down one day and say, “You’re beautiful and I love you but it’s time you learn how to fix your face?” Did they learn it from older friends or siblings? Was it just the good old media to blame, as always, with all its makeup commercials and airbrushed models?
The thing about makeup that makes it harmful is that it is by far the most gendered accessory; only women are expected to wear makeup and any men who dare to are ridiculed to no end. But for most women (and girls) it’s an every-day requirement. Thirteen-year-olds who feel like they have to look sexy (what the fuck?), and grown women who are afraid they won’t be taken seriously at work. But at the same time, so many women will say things like:“It makes me feel good about myself! It boosts my confidence!”
Maybe while you’re wearing it, yeah. But what about when you take it off?
The thing that most people don’t seem to understand whenever I express this unpopular opinion is: I’m not criticizing any individual woman. I am criticizing the makeup industry that preys on young girls’ insecurities and the society that expects women to constantly cover up our physical imperfections and live up to an impossible standard, while, for the most part, allowing men to just be. I’m not gonna apologize that just existing as I am is far more appealing to me than performing femininity. Here’s a thought: how about instead of the recent trend of slowly encouraging men to wear makeup, too (prime example – Covergirl’s first “Coverboy” James Charles,) we instead say, “Hey, why don’t we all just go natural and actually learn how to feel comfortable in our own skin?” There are much better “traditional” aspects of femininity that we could and should be encouraging men to embrace, like compassion, sensitivity, and patience. After all, the ones that will benefit most from a society that demands that everyone must wear makeup is the makeup industry. They don’t give a fuck about gender roles. They only care about the emerging opportunity to make a huge profit off of a larger population.
Bottom line? Everyone should be able to express themselves however they feel comfortable without criticism or judgement since it’s really no one else’s business but their own. But makeup is not the way to make that happen: it’s just not as empowering as it’s made out to be. We are willingly allowing makeup corporations to profit off our insecurities: the $300,000 that a woman will spend on makeup in her lifetime attests to this.
Obviously, I’m coming from a place of privilege. I deal with tiny micro-aggressions compared to the ridicule that non-binary, transgender people, and anyone else who doesn’t strictly conform to the gender binary still face. My point, however, is that we collectively as a society need to get over ourselves. If so many of us still can’t wrap our minds around the fact that the length of someone’s hair has absolutely nothing to do with their sexuality or gender identity, then how the hell are we going to step up when it comes to an issue that really matters?
On a pretty personal note, do I suspect that I started dressing more “masculine” because on a subconscious level a small part of me wanted to proactively deter unwanted male attention when I grew boobs in fifth grade? Yeah. Was it effective? For the most part, yes. Is that super fucked up? Uh-huh. Does that invalidate any of the points I made earlier? Absolutely not. Considering the way I present myself really does make me feel more comfortable, in more ways than one, I would truly love nothing more than to be left the fuck alone about it.
Maya Rosenthal is an angry/depressed feminist and recent college grad who is just out here trying to live her best life. She also might be ace. She’s not sure. (She’s like, 99% sure.)