The F Word: Femininity

Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? asked one of my favourite humans, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recently in Elle. In the essay, she writes about a struggle that many young career-minded women confront at one time or another — Does my desire to be successful mean I have to suppress the joyful femininity that is at the core of my identity?

Now in her 30s, Adichie no longer wears flat shoes and neutral colours in order to be seen as a legitimate author. And what a blessing that is! A woman who gives a Ted Talk in a bold yellow printed peplumed top, pink jeans, and tall leather boots is a woman who knows who she is. And the fact that she is also charming, articulate, sharply critical, and funny should come as no surprise. In fact, it should be expected of one so stylish.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of course, given the way in which we’re bombarded by the pumped-up femininity depicted in advertisement, all glossy pneumatic cleavage and inane slogans, it’s no wonder we fear that our girlish plumage might signify superficiality for others. And it’s all the more reason to cherish real-world examples of fearless, joyful femininity!

Adichie’s pink-clad booty makes me wonder why I ever took steps to try and hide what is naturally me. After all, men’s square bodies and attire will only be seen as the default professional shape as long as women don’t challenge that. At one time, I had cut my breast-grazing hair to shoulder length, a more “serious” adult length, and I was mindful of not wearing anything clingy or too pretty. No more! Now I too wear the pink pants of freedom…

Please understand, I’m not exactly showing up to the office in spandex minis! Clothing is situation specific, after all. Just as I wouldn’t wear flip-flops to a funeral, I won’t rock a bustier on the job (and I’ve often wished some of my colleagues would curb their more casual impulses). But I have stopped trying to find pants that don’t hug my curves. Why? Because those pants are not flattering, I’m not comfortable in them, and it’s no concern of mine if people glance at my thighs. Everyone can already tell that I’m a woman, so if they were tempted to discriminate against me on that basis, I seriously doubt the power of a boxy blouse to deter them.

Pink pants

Pink pants

Femininity is not weakness or feeble-mindedness. Femininity doesn’t mean I don’t have a good head for numbers (I do), it doesn’t mean I can’t speak up for myself (I can), and it doesn’t mean I’m not driven in my career (I surely am). Like those old ding-dongs who thought that women’s brains were located in the uterus, any positive or negative associations we have attributed to either masculinity or femininity is a reflection of our culture’s biases, nothing more. Femininity is something I cherish.

Beyond attire, I have to consider whether my manner of speech may be considered too feminine. I don’t speak in the firm flat voice associated with competence. I smile a lot, I make jokes, and I draw unusual links between ideas. As I approach an issue through personal story-telling instead of a linear cause-and-effect narrative, I sometimes notice my listener’s puzzlement. I could try and change this about myself except that I have a growing suspicion it could be one of my strengths (certainly, it’s responsible for the existence of this blog).

Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988): "I have a head for business and a bod for sin."

Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988): “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.”

I realize that for a long time femininity was something that oppressed women because they had to submit completely to very specific society-approved forms of it. But now I think we’re much more able to define femininity individually and celebrate personal expression. I’d love to hear what femininity means for you; comments are welcomed.

PS — Next week I want to tackle gender difference again: Lori Gottlieb’s piece in the New York Times Magazine has been stewing in my brain. See you then!


  1. Can’t wait to read what you say. I was shocked about that article. What does it all really mean, then?


  1. […] the same way I like to play up my femininity, I also enjoy the ways in which men are uniquely manly. Whether by conditioning or by design […]

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