“Femininity doesn’t look a particular way” is one of the many problematic sayings that has crept into the Christian sphere. Intended to uphold femininity, it more often than not sabotages the very thing it means to safeguard.
Why is that?
When we start asserting that femininity can look anyway, we slip into a relative understanding of femininity. Femininity morphs into something that you can express however you want. And if it can be defined any way you wish to, it ultimately has no meaning.
It becomes subjective. Arbitrary.
But are the terms — femininity, and masculinity for that matter — subjective?
Not at all.
Femininity and masculinity are gifts from God; they are our ways of being, how we are called to live out our womanhood, and how man is meant to live out his manhood. In acknowledging the concrete quality of these gifts, we also admit that men and women have limitations. This is why we say that men and women are complementary; we depend on each other differently. We have set roles.
Yet, for modernity, the concept of limitation and complementarity is inflammatory: we’ve bought an erroneous doctrine that “you can do anything”/”be anything,” which is false. We are finite, and we acknowledge this truth in accepting the gift of our femininity.
So, if these terms (masculinity and femininity) are not relative or subjective, how can we make sense of them?
What about all of the “feminine” boys and “boyish” girls out there?
Our wonderfully varied personalities are what we so often mistakenly conflate with masculinity and femininity.
There are personalities we consider more feminine and others we consider more masculine.
Dr. Jordan Peterson is a perfect example of the important distinction between personality and true masculinity.
Dr. Peterson is a father figure to many men, young and old. He’s made what it means to be a man accessible and revealed the goodness of manhood. He has taught an aimless generation responsibility, courage, and the necessity of picking up the cross. Yet, as far as his personality goes, Dr. Peterson has many “feminine” attributes. He tears up regularly, is deeply relational, and showcases a nurturing disposition.
He even works in a predominantly female-dominated profession, which makes sense due to therapy’s relational and caretaking nature.
But does anyone question Dr. Peterson’s masculinity? Of course not. Because regardless of personality, Dr. Peterson cultivates natural masculine virtue.
Unfortunately, we’ve become so consumed by the topical or superficial. Whereas masculinity and femininity are so much deeper than an individual’s temperament. We commit a considerable crime when we reduce masculinity and femininity to mere accidents and completely blow past the essence. (In fact, this might have to do with why we have so much gender chaos in modernity.)
So what do we mean when we use terms like masculinity and femininity?
When we talk about femininity or masculinity, we refer to our way of being.
My womanhood has everything to do with my purpose and my vocation. It’s not a personality trait or accessory, but how I am to live out my vocation. Men cannot possess femininity, just as women cannot have masculinity.
Yes, men and women are both called to live virtuous lives. We are both called to reflect the love of Christ. And to be truly virtuous, we need to uphold all the virtues — not just pick and choose.
So, where do we differ?
We differ in how we are to live this out.
Ultimately, masculinity is found in the vocation of fatherhood, whereas femininity is tethered to the vocation of motherhood. To be a good man with masculine virtue, a man might not necessarily be a father. Still, he will have the character or virtue of a good father: discipline, headship, courage, and protecting those more vulnerable.
Likewise, to lean into our femininity as women, we need to embrace the maternal; we are to imitate the role of Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ. Our vocation — our femininity — is bound to the vocation of the bride and mother.
Holy Mother Church is full of beauty; she sustains us, nourishes us, brings healing, reminds us of our dignity, and points us upwards to God.
This is what our femininity is — it is maternal, sensitive, generous, receptive, and beautiful. It mirrors the role of a gorgeous bride on her wedding day and the sustaining love of a doting mother.
Only a woman can be a bride and mother.
Only a woman can embrace her femininity.
Femininity isn’t our personality, but it can and should inform our personality by helping us grow in virtue.
While femininity is a gift from God, it takes acts of the will to live out.
So when people argue that femininity doesn’t look “one way,” it’s because they conflate femininity with its accidents, believing that to be feminine, one must have a set personality, which is nonsensical. Instead, when we embrace the maternal, we cultivate our femininity; in doing so, it will instead inform our personalities and enable us to grow in virtue.