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  • Debbie Dougherty

Damned if You Do. Damned if You Don't. The Paradox of Femininity

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

A girl cartoon character with large eyes and brown hair holds up a black gloved hand.
The Paradox of Femininity. Picture by Freya Clark (CW)

"You look like you have anorexia."


"You are really thin. I am concerned that you have an eating disorder."

"No. I am good."

"I wish I looked like you."

"Wow. Uhhh. Thanks?"

Yep. This was a real conversation (more or less) that I had back in the day when I was thinner. Let’s deconstruct this conversation a bit. This person told me I looked like I had a life-threatening illness. Then she told me she wished that she also looked like she had a life-threatening illness. Anybody else think this is weird?

Many people told me I was lucky to be thin. In our fat hating society, I certainly was lucky, and yet, the constant weirdness that came with being thin made me long for a thicker body. And then, as these things go, I got thicker. And then this conversation happened:

"You look great."

"Thank you."

"You could lose those extra pounds if you worked out more."

Let’s deconstruct this conversation. You think I look great, and so I should lose weight so that I look like I have a life threatening illness, so other women will want to look like me? Am I getting this right? Is there a "right?" My people, do you ever feel like you’re. . .

Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t?

You are not alone. In last week’s blog post I discussed masculinity as an unachievable mythical ideal that creates traumatic masculinity. Well, if masculinity is a mythical and unachievable ideal, femininity is a paradox. Because it is a paradox, it also is unachievable. It also produces trauma.

What is a paradox? At its most foundational level, a paradox is comprised of two mutually exclusive conditions which must be simultaneously present. Let’s take the simplest of examples. What if I pointed to a staircase and said go up and go down at the same time? Or, what if I pointed to a car and said, get in, stay in, and yet, also get out and stay out? Hopefully you would tell me that what I ask is not possible and then would walk away. Because you would be. . .

Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t

We do this same thing to women, especially women at work. How about this one: Display no emotions, but be nice. Or this: You must be gullible and competent. Or maybe, you must be a follower while leading. Or here is my favorite: Be sexually available and unavailable at the same time. Researchers have called this the virgin/whore paradox. As my middle school child explained to me a few days ago, girls are expected to be sexually experienced, but are then called “sluts.” Girls are also expected to be chaste, or virgins, but are then called prudes, and worse. There is no winning. There is no way to achieve both directives. Let’s say it together now. You're. . .

Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t

Paradoxical femininity is intersectional, meaning that how it is expressed and experienced is dependent on marginalized identity categories, such as race, sexuality, and dis/ability. For example, I strongly recommend that you read Bernadette Calafell’s (2012) article exploring the ways in which women of color are described and treated as dangerous and yet sexually desirable monsters. She describes her own experience in a faculty meeting when her faculty mentor declared:

“If Bernadette wants to stand naked in a cage in front of the building and call that research, we should accept that.” My face flushes red, my hands sweat, and I avert eye contact. I sit horrified and ashamed. Am I actually hearing this? Is this really supposed to happen at a faculty meeting? Suddenly the transformation has begun. No one will ever take me seriously again. I will always be marked by this monstrosity; the image of me naked in a cage. I’m trying to process everything all at once. I question everything that is happening to me and my place in it. I feel the weight of everyone’s stare. I want to retreat as everything is laid bare and I move from subject to object through his words. I become a “freak” or oddity whose only merit comes in sexual display of my Otherness. The display of women of color as sexual oddities or freaks is not new. Women of colors’ bodies are constantly on display because of their constructed Otherness and hypersexuality (pg. 117).

Every time I read Dr. Calafell’s story, I feel sick. That she was expected to calmly accept this treatment is both infuriating and yet, unsurprising. What was she to do? She was expected to act professionally (emotionally neutral, calm, in control) while she was described as an out of control sexual freak who was caged and naked. If she acted angry, she reinforced her dangerous monstrosity. If she stayed silent, she also reinforced her dangerous monstrosity. Either way, she was. . .

Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t

When I wrote about powerful women as objects of suspicion in my very first blog post, I was subtly referencing the workplace paradox that women need to be both strong and weak at the same time. Leaders must be strong, but women must be weak. That means that the very phrases “powerful women” and “women leaders” hold an unacknowledged paradox. Get the picture? Because you cannot be both traits at the same time, you are doomed to failure. You can never be feminine in the “right” way because you cannot have both characteristics at the same time. You are. . .

Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t

The full body picture of first image. charachter has green skirt and black maryjane shoes.
Paradox of Femininity. Full Picture. By Freya Clark. (cw)

Action Steps

Our action steps this week are both simple and difficult. First, the constant judgment women and girls face is ridiculous and harmful. Stop. Really. Just stop. Second, when I was talking to a friend about this post they asked me if I thought it was okay for women to be obese. I told them it was odd to me that they jumped from “don’t judge” to “women are obese.” How about this. It is none of your business unless she specifically asks for your input (which she probably won’t). Further, check your biases. Would you think/say the same thing about a man? (If you think you would, I recommend reading this blog about the unique person syndrome).

To the women reading this blog, let’s choose not to internalize the paradox of femininity. This paradox is not for us. It does not benefit us. It is time to let it go. I would be interested in learning about your strategies for managing/eliminating/dissecting the everyday paradoxes of everyday life.


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