Maybe you have heard of the term “toxic masculinity”. If you know this concept, you will know how gender-based expectations can breed undesirable characteristics and behaviors, including aggression, difficulty expressing emotions, and excessive self-reliance.
But psychologists and researchers have also started to consider a similar topic, “toxic femininity.” In a nutshell, this term describes the potentially negative impact of society’s standards for women.
It’s not clear who first coined “toxic femininity.” Various internet sources suggest the term first entered the mainstream public lexicon around 2018, when social psychologist Devon Price wrote a Medium post about it, and journalist, speaker, and educator Jane Gilmore published a piece on the topic in The Sydney Morning Herald.
The source of the term can affect the definition. A common misconception is that it means using feminine qualities to manipulate men. Toxic femininity involves limiting your behavior to fit feminine characteristics that men find pleasing.
Toxic femininity can affect your health and well-being in many ways by increasing Stress. levels, sabotaging your sense of identity, contributing to a feeling of powerlessness, and leading to unhealthy relationships, says Monica Vermani, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas“
She says that femininity and toxic masculinity are harmful because they force individuals to fit a mold rather than strive to live and relate to others authentically.
When you recognize toxic femininity, you have to identify it and do something about it.
Toxic femininity can describe any instance when women are either explicitly told to conform to traditional stereotypes or attempt to align with those stereotypes themselves, according to licensed therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC.
Rice says that individual people reinforce toxic femininity all the time. It happens as a result of a conscious effort to find value in a patriarchal society.
Vermani says that toxic femininity is an internalization of misogynistic values and power structures.
- Passiveness, selflessness, and nurturance are characteristics.
- Compliance, submissiveness, or docility are some of the terms used.
- It is sensitivity.
- Both compassion and empathy.
- Home and family values are important to us.
There is nothing wrong with having any of these qualities. Vermani says that they become toxic when you feel forced to express them or exaggerate them.
Toxic femininity can show up in a lot of environments.
- At school.
- At home with a loved one.
- At work.
- in the media
- Social media is online.
- Among friends and in other settings.
Some examples are real-world.
- A teacher who tells you to “act like a lady” when you show assertiveness.
- A parent who constantly pressures you to have children.
- An acquaintance says that men find your confidence intimidating.
- A social media personality says that real women have curves.
- A newspaper article criticizing a female celebrity for having hair on their legs and underarms.
- A manager or colleague suggests you wear makeup to work.
Social media can contribute to toxic femininity, according to Rice, when women and feminine-presenting people get more likes, comments, and general engagement for content that supports gender roles and stereotypes.
“Toxic femininity is promoted in a surprising amount of the media we consume,” adds Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy. “Everything from female celebrities promoting dangerous dieting techniques to shows like ‘The Bachelor,’ where women compete for a man’s affection, can further these ideals.”
Toxic femininity vs. benevolent sexism
Toxic femininity and toxic masculinity are both intertwined with another concept rooted in misogyny: benevolent sexism.
This form of sexism can cause harm. Vermani says that it is based on the idea that men are meant to be protectors and that women are vulnerable and dependent on men for safety and support.
“Vermani says that a man’s protection and support is only granted in exchange for a woman’s compliance with traditional gender roles.”
Toxic femininity can be seen in a number of signs.
- Feeling you should always have a male partner, even if you don’t particularly want a relationship. Rice notes this may stem from toxic femininity when you feel as if you’re somehow incomplete without a male partner and need to depend on them for certain things.
- Judgment or shame for not having children. Those who choose not to have children, or who experience fertility issues, should never be made to feel less like a woman, says Abby Dixon, MS, a licensed professional counselor and owner of The Joywell.
- Sacrificing your health to fit societal expectations for women. Rice explains this can mean trying overly restrictive diets, investing in procedures that are risky or beyond your budget, or otherwise going to extreme lengths to meet society’s beauty standards for women.
- Putting men’s needs and desires before your own. This could mean suppressing your own needs and feelings in order to accommodate a male partner, colleague, or family member, Vermani says. For example, you might agree to do something you don’t want to do for a co-worker so you seem polite and easygoing.
- Downplaying your capabilities. Pretending you don’t know how to do something or aren’t physically capable of something — especially in an effort to avoid emasculating a man — plays into perceived feminine weakness, says Vermani.
- Avoiding confrontation with men. Since traditional gender norms dictate that women should be obedient and submissive, Lurie says toxic femininity can manifest as not challenging men when you disagree with them or when they do something that bothers you.
- Judging other women or experiencing judgment from other women for not being “feminine” enough. Dismissing or belittling women who don’t conform to societal expectations for their gender is a common sign of toxic femininity, according to Vermani.
Vermani emphasizes that toxic femininity can harm people of any gender, just like toxic masculinity.
There are some potential consequences.
Physical health effects
Toxic femininity can also affect unrealistic expectations when it comes to keeping up with housework.
When you have school or work obligations, these expectations can create a lot of Stress.. Vermani notes that many women may overcommit themselves in order to live up to expectations.
“Toxic femininity can result in severe burnout from taking on the physical and emotional labor of those around you. Chronic Stress. can also contribute to serious health conditions, like ulcers, cancer, stroke, and heart disease.”
Mental and emotional effects
Vermani says that adhering to gender norms may leave you powerless. You might feel stuck because of your lack of agency.
If you start to equate your self-worth with your ability to find a partner, get married, or have children, Lurie explains, you may have a harder time feeling satisfied or fulfilled with your life as it stands.
Since toxic femininity means adhering to a predefined set of very limiting ideas about what femininity means, Lurie says it can also breed insecurity or even self-loathing when you stray from the mold.
As noted above, toxic femininity can also fuel workplace bullying, which can have a mental health impact, too. Research from 2016 links workplace bullying to:
If you don’t identify exclusively as a woman or man, toxic femininity can bring up shame and guilt and leave you feeling out of place in society, says Rice, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety, Depression., and isolation.
Toxic femininity can affect your professional and personal relationships.
Toxic femininity can encourage behaviors that are not helpful.
- neglecting to set and communicate boundaries
- avoiding a fight
- approval-seeking or people-pleasing tendencies
You might, as a result, experience power imbalances in romantic relationships or friendships. This dynamic can lead to:
What impact does it have in the workplace?
A 2020 study suggests women in higher managerial positions are more likely to experience bullying from men in the same positions. Researchers theorized this may stem from sexist beliefs that women lack the ability to handle leadership positions. They also noted that women with stereotypically masculine traits also tend to experience more workplace harassment.
One 2018 study explored the potential negative effects of makeup on perceptions of leadership ability.
Researchers asked 168 male and female participants to look at photographs of women wearing makeup and to judge their leadership capabilities by how well they look. The participants looked at photos of women.
According to the results, makeup can negatively affect how people of any gender asses your leadership capabilities — though it might certainly boost your advantages when it comes to finding a romantic partner.
Society expects women to adhere to certain beauty standards in dating and social contexts, but these expectations can actually hinder them in professional settings.
These “standards” can cause plenty of diStress., not to mention confusion about what’s expected when. What’s more, women may — with great reason — feel unfairly judged whether they choose to wear makeup or not.
You may begin to notice toxic femininity in your everyday life once you have a clearer understanding of it.
Experts suggest a few ways to respond to this construct.
If you notice it in yourself
- Consider where your beliefs came from. Rice says it can help to consider where you first picked up on notions of toxic femininity. Parents? Friends? The media? Identifying the source of these ideas can help you begin untangling them from your own true beliefs.
- Question your motivations. Toxic femininity can be so ingrained that certain behaviors may feel automatic. That’s why Lurie suggests getting curious about your actions. Do those choices truly represent what’s best for you? Or do you believe you’re expected to make them? Before agreeing to take on a task, you might consider whether you genuinely want to help — or simply feel you should.
- Practice self-validation. “Women are often socialized and conditioned to minimize their experiences and discount their feelings to make men feel comfortable,” says Vermani. So, make it a point to validate yourself. You might, for instance, reach for daily positive affirmations like, “It’s natural to feel this way,” “It’s OK to feel angry,” “I tried my best, and that’s enough,” or “My feelings matter.”
- Notice when and where you feel most authentic. Rice suggests noticing when you most feel the urge to conform to stereotypes and distancing yourself from those scenarios. Creating distance may involve setting boundaries with people who would rather pressure you to fit their expectations than celebrate your uniqueness.
- Make space to explore. “Allow yourself to discover aspects of your identity that go against the norm, and honor those parts of yourself when they arise rather than reject them,” says Lurie.
- Be mindful of the media you consume. If you recognize that certain channels, publications, social media accounts, or other outlets promote toxic femininity, you might consider avoiding those as much as possible. Instead, Lurie recommends taking in inclusive media that challenge gender norms and represent the wide array of gender expressions that exist.
If you notice it in others
- Approach the subject with curiosity and compassion. Making accusations can put the person on the defensive, so Dixon advises calling it out by asking a question. If your sister keeps commenting on the fact that her friend doesn’t want kids, you might ask, “It seems like you have some strong feelings about that. Why do you think it bothers you?”
- Ask if their actions are genuinely in their best interests. If you believe toxic femininity is affecting someone in your life, Lurie recommends asking whether their choices bring them joy and fulfill their needs. You could, for instance, ask a friend why they chose to leave a job or neglected to pursue a career.
- Show them judgment-free love. Lurie suggests affirming and supporting any self-expression not colored by societal expectations. Remind them of everything you love and appreciate about them, especially the qualities that may not align with gender norms.
Rice emphasizes the importance of the topic no matter how you approach it.
- Asking questions that are open-ended.
- practicing active listening
- They feel safe and supported if they avoid criticism.
Keep in mind, too, thAt work.ing with a therapist can have a lot of benefit, whether you’re looking for:
- Help identify and navigate the effects of toxic femininity on your own health and well-being.
- Guidance giving up difficult or uncomfortable questions to a loved one.
- Support with exploring ways to change your mindset.
Toxic femininity is the behavior that supports or reflects gender-based stereotypes.
“Exposure to these social norms and stereotypes starts at an early age, and this mindset isn’t your fault. Taking steps to explore what drives these often-harmful thought patterns and behaviors can make a big difference for your overall well-being.”
A therapist can offer more guidance with identifying and replacing unhelpful tendencies with alternatives that support your well-being. They can also help you practice embracing all aspects of yourself, including those that don’t align with gender norms.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based writer who writes about health and fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications.