Google “Femininity” and you will find this as the first suggestion:
The quality of being female; womanliness.
"she celebrates her femininity by wearing make-up and high heels"
The provided example, that femininity is associated with appearance and typical beauty, is a common thought within western society and one that is pushed through mainstream media, popular culture and pornography. Expectations of the female gender to be typically feminine and sexual in a palatable way have been constant throughout history and a key element in the oppression and policing of women.
Prior to the womens liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 70’s (which was mainly curated by and for cis women) gender roles were rigid, regimented under the misogynistic gaze of the time and rarely openly deviated from. Women were expected to be well put together, maternal, attractive nurturers who appeared to be thoroughly satisfied with their role as wife and caregiver. As illustrated throughout the 1970’s article The Women Identified Woman by Radicalesbian male curated ideas of what it is to be a woman were rife throughout this era, the author suggests that to be a tom boy or a lesbian was the ultimate challenge and political protest against the misogynistic demands and expectations placed on women (1970, radicalesbians) The author argues that the mere mention of the word lesbian challenged typical femininity and what it was to be “real woman” or “real man” (1970, radicalesbians) “The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy, and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women-or those who play a female role-are held. And the investment in keeping women in that contemptuous role is very great.”
During the mainstream uprising of second wave feminism that was mostly facilitated by white middle class cis women, norms surrounding mainstream femininity started being challenged and women began seeking to redefine their gender role and their right to self representation. While female sexual autonomy was being discussed and fought for on a grass roots level, the Church continued to enforce patriarchal ideas of what it was to be a woman and the related expectations and these ideologies bled over into politics and mainstream society. The Church began to slightly change their message in order to align more with womens wants and create a palatable image for the climate of the time. They did so by encouraging women to work so long as work came secondary to their domestic duties, women were encouraged to enjoy sex so long as it was heterosexual and done so in marriage. The image of the maternal, domestic nurturer was still pushed as the pillar of typical and desired femininity only now women needed to do even more to live up to societal expectations.
It is also interesting to note the correlation between body hair in pornography and the womens liberation movements, Larry Flynts Barely Legal began representing young and virginal appearing women with shaved vaginas to combat the rise of the feminist movement - as cis women within these movements reclaimed their sexual autonomy and right to self representation in a myriad of ways, including growing their body hair, the porn industry began pushing the image of virginal girlishness to reinvigorate the desired image of the feminine.
As mentioned in the Introduction of Coredelia Fines Delusions of Gender there have been interesting studies and suggestions regarding male and female biology and their inherent differences, but how much of these differences are due to the lens with which studies were conducted and other external factors, Fine (2010) “...claims of ‘essential differences’ between the two sexes simply reflect - and give scientific au- thority to - what i suspect is really majority opinion. If history tells us anything it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science” Fine goes onto say “the psyche is ‘not a discrete entity packed into the brain. Rather, it is a structure of psy- chological processes that are shaped by and closely attuned to the culture that surrounds them”
Biologically women are only able to carry one mans child at a time and women while men are physically able to impregnate many women, thus comes the notion that women are naturally monogamous while men are naturally promiscuous. This understanding has trickled down from biological research into mainstream culture and has been responsible for many of the assumptions and expectations surrounding female roles and femininity in our modern society. It is with this in mind that images of de- sired femininity and femaleness remain narrow and women who challenge these images have been perceived as masculine, or promiscuous, labelled lesbians and so on, while images of the ultimate feminine woman across cultures have been and are perceived as pure, nurturing and virginal.
Womens virginity has been an ultimate symbol of femininity across the world with some cultures and religions expecting all women to have an intact hymen and bleed on their wedding night to prove purity to their husband and his family. There have been cases of women who didn't bleed having their marriages annulled and in some instances even been put to death, this is discussed in “Reliving Virginity Sexual Double Standards and Hymenoplasty” by Meredith Nash. Not only is the image of the virginal, girlish woman synonymous with male desired femininity throughout various religions and cultures but it is also seen as a pillar of youth in Western culture, this is evident through the rise of hymenoplasty in ageing women - a procedure in which the vagina is surgically tightened to make women feel and appear younger.
There is something very troubling about adult women undergoing surgery which will take their bodies back to a child like state in order to feel girlish and feminine. It is a disturbing fact that the image of the youthful, virginal girl is highly desired through- out society as represented in popular pornography and culture, Nash (2015) “Hymenoplasty, then, is also a response to the stigma surrounding ageing for women. The restoration of the hymen is often coupled with vaginal tightening so women can look and feel “younger”. 'Sadly, not only are women expected to be eternally “girlish” — they are also expected to be eternally “virginal”. Clearly, we should be deeply concerned with the cultural obsession with virginity. Women are risking their lives and their health in order to be “virginal” (primarily for men). This leads to a sexual double standard in which women are solely responsible for maintaining some kind of “purity.” Nash also touches on the irony of young girls being sexualised and expected to appear older than they are while ageing women are expected to stay youthful and girlish. It could be argued that this creates a constant dissatisfaction with each stage of a cis womans life and enforces a self policing system that becomes innate.
Mainstream culture and media still perpetuate the image of the feminine woman as an unachievable goal. You can view this image in most advertising campaigns, popular television shows and magazines. The modern feminine woman has more options, she has changed her clothing and make up style but she is well put together, sexy without being “slutty," powerful without emasculating men, independent but still vulnerable, doesn’t wear too much make up but must be naturally beautiful, these expectations are ubiquitous within society and prevalent in the policing of women. This policing is both obvious like the fact that abortion is used as a political weapon and more subtle such as advertising subtexts, popular culture, pornography and the misogynistic lens with which they are curated and delivered.
While the blatant standards and expectations of the 1950’s are no more, cis women are now setting these standards themselves due to everyday societal subtexts and a desire to fit their gender role and keep up with the current image of femininity.
In an article “In Defence of Female Scruffiness” author Neha Kale discusses the societal expectations placed on womens appearances in a modern context, Kale (2015) says “In a May 2015 blog post, academic Sarah Bernstein suggests that we mock those who wear maxi dresses in public because women have been historically expect- ed to look comfortable without ever being comfortable. "Getting rid of the corset didn't mean we stopped policing women's bodies .... What we really did was not so much 'free' ourselves from the corset as internalise it.”