7 Ways Women Are Expected To Perform Femininity On A Daily Basis
Gender norms show up in our everyday lives in more ways than we realize, and among them are all the ways women are expected to perform femininity on a daily basis. Things as subtle as body language, choice of words, and sense of style can have insidious roots. And while there's nothing wrong with behaving in a way our culture would consider feminine, no one should never feel pressure to do so in order to meet an expectation.
Philosopher Judith Butler popularized the term "performativity" to talk about the behaviors we exhibit in order to be perceived as a woman or a man. Life is a bit like a play — not necessarily in an existential sense, but in the sense that we're all playing roles. However, we're not always consciously playing these roles, because we've sometimes been socialized to the point that they're indistinguishable from us ourselves. For example, if parents raise a boy to play with cars and a girl to play with dolls, they could genuinely end up liking cars and dolls, respectively. That doesn't mean, however, that those preferences aren't influenced by gender roles. (It also doesn't mean anything's wrong with them — it just means we shouldn't treat them as innate.)
Here are a few other, perhaps more harmful ways women and feminine-presenting people expected to perform femininity on a daily basis.
Sociologists have observed that men and women exhibit drastically different body language; what's more, it tends to symbolize the different expectations they face. Men, for example, are more likely to sit with their legs farther apart, which asserts dominance, while women often try to be less intrusive and take up less space. Women are also more likely to show signs of listening, like nodding and eye contact. The expectation to cross our legs and listen intently, then, is an expectation to be submissive.
In case you haven't noticed, there's a huge double standard for how much primping we're expected to do. It's considered weird if men shave their legs; it's considered weird if women don't. Men are criticized for wearing makeup; women are criticized for not wearing it (and for wearing "too much," actually). Paying more attention to looks than men is often a performance of femininity, since it stems from the notion that women's value lies in their appearance.
Even when women aren't parents, they're often expected to babysit, play with younger relatives, and disproportionately take jobs that involve care-taking. This performance of femininity can be particularly insidious, since it can lead to women being expected to do — and often actually doing — free labor.
Women are constantly told to smile, and it's far less socially acceptable for us to be introverted or socially awkward. We're supposed to have cheerful smiles and offer friendly "hellos" as much as possible, which also stems from a view of women as objects and an expectation that we take care of others. While acting positive can be a pleasant self-fulfilling prophecy if we do it for ourselves, it can also wear women out if it forces us to hide our real emotions.
In a similar way to body language, dieting and diet culture is a performance of femininity because it's an attempt to make oneself smaller, less obtrusive, less strong, and ultimately less powerful. As Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth, dieting culture serves to set women back by keeping them focused on their looks rather than career ambitious or social activism.
This isn't to say that making a point to eat healthfully is bad — but consider, for example, the idea of the "wedding diet." We rarely, if ever, hear men talk about going on a diet to fit into their outfits at their wedding; for women, though, "Are you going on a wedding diet?" is an almost inevitable question you'll get asked after you get engaged. Brides are expected to perform diet culture in a way that grooms simply are not.
In American Hookup, sociologist Lisa Wade writes that women attend college parties substantially more dressed up than men. As the movie Mean Girls hilariously depicted, this happens in high school, too, with women competing to wear the sexiest possible Halloween costumes. And it continues into adulthood. No matter what our age, the burden usually falls on women to make sure people have something pleasant to look at.
Another Mean Girls scene perfectly sums up this aspect of femininity: When Regina tells Cady she's pretty and she thanks her, she responds, "so you agree?" as if she should have objected. A women who is confident in herself is threatening because she doesn't need anyone else (in particular, a man) to validate her, so self-deprecation operates in an insidious way as well.
So, while being feminine isn't a problem in of itself, society's view of femininity is, because what all these performances have in common is that they contribute to women's disempowerment on a society-wide scale.