I’m in the shoe store with my daughter. We’re shopping for sandals she can wear to a wedding this summer. She holds up a black, strappy number with a three-inch heel.
“No way,” I say. “One wrong move and you’d twist an ankle.”
Young enough to value mobility above all else, she puts it back, and I show her what I like: a sturdy, white flat with supportive arches.
“Okay,” I say. “Maybe something a little more feminine?”
Feminine?! She recoils at the word. Anything – even boring or dangerous – is preferable to feminine. My daughter, who is on the cusp of pubescence and therefore the cusp of full-blown self-consciousness, shuns makeup and styled hair, thinks her school’s dress code “lacks modesty,” and bristles if you call her pretty. Along with a growing number of girls her age, she rejects the stagnancy of pink culture and pursues a more accurate gender representation. She recognizes it’s not the color per se, it’s the stereotyping that accompanies it: Boys get comic books, girls get emojis; boys get sports, girls get dolls; boys get dirty, girls hide imperfections. To her, everything deemed feminine is one-dimensional, fragile, and something to passively admire. While I wouldn’t describe her as a Tomboy or even androgynous, she prides herself on being determinedly not feminine.
In the case of the shoes, I refrain from pointing out that her ankle-sprainers are more girlish than my sensible picks, for I well know how inconsistencies and contradictions exemplify the experience of growing up female, when you have only two choices and neither is quite right. Instead, I blandly explain that feminine just means you are female, which is nature’s way of distinguishing gender, and the word feminine is rooted in the Old French, femelle from the Latin, femina…but she is not swayed by the etymology. She wanders into the middle aisle, where the store is genetically split, symbolically flanked by gray and navy-blue function on one side and hot-pink form on the other.
Let’s face it, the word feminine has baggage. Not only has it been hijacked by the tampon industry, it can be downright derogatory in certain contexts. Feminine has been married into phrases like feminine wiles, feminine guiles, feminine mystique, feminine hygiene, feminine products, feminine odor, and (gasp) feminine itch. When used to describe anything considered traditionally male, like athletic prowess or military might, being feminine is the ultimate insult. Like other well-intentioned euphemisms in the commercial realm – casket or toilet, for instance – the word itself has descended below the concept it replaced.
But is it beyond redemption? Unlike more blatantly offensive gender-derived terms (wench, hussy, spinster, bitch, faggot, etc.), feminine hasn’t passed the point of no return. Though boys snicker in embarrassment when heading up certain aisles in the drugstore and bookstores sanction related material to the far back corner, the word hasn’t delved into the obscene. To both women and men, femininity still has many good connotations: softness, sensitivity, gentleness, beauty.
Language is representational, but it is fluid and ever-changing. Its own transience lies in usage, where ambiguity allows for subtle shifts in meaning. Language represents but it also defines, and words can change our perception of the very thing they symbolize. Continual proximity will forge associations, both good and bad. Consider the words Nazi, communist, or fascist: The accompanying shameful history is what depraves these words and not simply their political origin. Conversely, words like Bohemian, waif, and Gypsy, once pejorative terms, now invoke a sense of whimsy.
Abandoning femininity is impractical, and we don’t have the luxury of controlling its fate. So how are we supposed to integrate feelings about a word that derives meaning from social and biological constructs, implies weakness, menstruation, and nefarious deceit, yet also describes our very essence? More pointedly, how do we override these learned denotations and separate them from our identity? Like my daughter, we are conflicted. Sometimes we want to be feminine, choose feminine, wear feminine, we just don’t want to be called feminine – or at least that kind of feminine. It’s a standoff of sorts, with a continuously shifting boundary.
We’re left with one option: embrace the word feminine in all its linguistic glory. Own it, take it back, use it with civility, and don’t use it in disgrace. Use it poetically, use it only for science, use it clinically, practically, whatever. Just don’t align it with the levied flaws of gender. And pick out some damn shoes.
In the car on the way home, after agreeing on leather T-straps with an ornate buckle, I launch the comeback campaign for the “F” word, beginning with my daughter.
“Did you notice the clever wording on that billboard back there? Very feminine.”
She turns, “The pink one? For breast cancer?”
It had been an advertisement for the engineering department at the university and admittedly not feminine, but making repeated connections is how we learn. Language moves at glacier speed anyways, and we have quite a ways to go.