The pretty pretzel of femininity

The next time you’re in a class or in a meeting, take a look at the girls. How do they sit?

You’ll see that women don’t sit; they fold. Women cross their legs. Cross their ankles. Fold their arms. We contort ourselves into pretty little pretzels just to appear smaller and not take up space.

Then take a look at the guys. How do they sit?

Men don’t sit; they sprawl. They let their legs lay open. They lean back. I just read in TIME that assuming a “power pose” can release chemicals in the brain that make one feel confident. One of the most powerful poses is the boss pose: Feet up on the desk and hands laced behind the head. How many times have you seen a woman do that?

Which are the powerful poses? Which ones are manly? Which ones do you do?

I noticed that if my boyfriend and I find ourselves in someplace new, say a new friend’s house or a store, we react very differently. I survey the room. I take in the colors on the walls, the height of the ceiling, the décor, the statement the room makes.

But before I am done doing that, the boy has: pushed a button or picked something up or knocked something over. I look. He does. I am girl. He is boy.

Somewhere along our girlhoods, we evolve from fearless, confident, even cocky doers to watchful, needy, insecure watchers. Boys don’t get this training.

This is how I am a feminist: I train myself out of the ways femininity can hold me back.

How do I do that? I read. Learning about power poses taught me that the next time I feel nervous or insecure while talking to someone, I can assume a more powerful pose and change the tone of the whole interaction. Or at least how confident I feel about it.

There's a reason they picked a boy for the Nissan "kidzilla" commercial.

While I’ll be the first to admit that although I am completely girly—not even a hint of tomboy here—the more I learn about the world, the more ways I learn how to not be “just a girl” and let my life be driven by the rules of girl-ness.

But that not word often gives feminism a bad rap: on the surface, it seems obsessed with the things that one isn’t. It seems bent on saying no: to women’s magazines, to traditional family roles, to an obsession with appearance.
But feminism isn’t just bitching about the ways femininity can hold you back: it’s moving beyond that. It’s about sitting in a chair and taking up space. It’s about walking into a room and grabbing something. It’s about speaking up without waiting to be spoken to. It’s about unhooking yourself from whatever conscious or subconscious Rules for Girls exist and figuring out exactly what you want to do.

While I kvetch about the power of women in the first world, there are enormous differences in female power around the world, which Erin so eloquently explained in her essay about feminism. She pointed to women who aren’t allowed to drive cars or go to school or choose their life path and dared you not to be enraged.

I know that our first-world problems are nothing in comparison to how these women are held back. But I see first-world women hold themselves back all the time. Think about the women in your life: How many of your friends, aunts and sisters are meek little watchers just because they’re women, desperate for some attention and validation? A comedienne once said: “I’d give up free health insurance if I could get these three people in the front row just to LIKE ME.” I laughed. Because for so many of us, it’s true.

My truth? I am girly. I am feminine. I’m not trapped in either term. This is how I am a feminist.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

This is the latest in our “Why I’m a Feminist” series, which also includes Erin’s post and Sam’s “Where my lady Legos at?

2 thoughts on “The pretty pretzel of femininity

  1. I know that our first-world problems are nothing in comparison to how these women are held back.

    That is the point in our piece when you lost me. What good can possibly come of comparing oppressions? In fact that statement actually suggests that there is such a good thing as a good oppression. The fact of the matter is that to be ‘woman’ anywhere on the globe is to exist as a marginalized body and though this manifests differently across culture, countries and ethnicities in no way is any of it acceptable.

    • There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” oppression for women, and that was entirely not the point of this piece at all.
      Yes, we certainly have our own problems as women. But as a typical young woman in the U.S., I enjoy a wealth of freedoms and opportunities that women in other places don’t: I can drive, get an education, choose who I can marry. I don’t live in fear of breast ironing or FGM or being stoned for adultery.
      That doesn’t mean that the ideas that I posed in the post are not worthy of consideration, or that they have anything to do with “good oppression” or “bad oppression.” The point was to share a personal view on feminism. I see many women hold themselves back without even knowing it. I came to call myself a feminist by not just learning about and being upset by this; I actively do something about it in my everyday life.
      This is just one way to interpret feminism. There are lots of ways to live it, and I’d argue that none is superior to the other.
      I’d also argue that feminism gets a pretty bad rap because of feminist catfights about “who’s the better feminist,” which I dismiss as distracting and not constructive.

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