Lipstick, Pussy Power and Toxic Femininity

A harmful myth has been circulating recently which I feel called upon to counteract. Some have called it “toxic femininity.” I’ve seen it expressed, to varying degrees, in Jordan Peterson’s work; in a recent article by Heather Heying and in the work of some critics of the Me Too movement. Many of those arguing along these lines are people I like and respect and with whom I’m in partial agreement. I’m not going to close read their articles and talks here. I am, however, going to highlight some misunderstandings and muddle-headedness which may spring from this focus, whether the original authors intended it or not. This is not about individuals: it’s about a current of thought, a shifting of the Overton window, a way of looking at things which is becoming increasingly influential.

There are two main threads to this way of thinking. The first is that, when women wear lipstick or more revealing clothing, we are seeking attention, signaling sexual availability or ‘asking for trouble.’ Most of those making this argument are not suggesting that women deserve to be harassed, let alone assaulted. But they are saying that this is disruptive and liable to have a distracting or even debilitative effect on men and may make it difficult for men to function effectively in a professional environment. Many are also claiming that men’s desire for attractive young women gives such women disproportionate power, power which they frequently abuse. I’d like to examine both those premises.

First, though, are there some forms of characteristically feminine toxicity? Yes. But they have nothing to do with workplace lipstick or with contravening modesty dress codes.

Feminine Toxicity

Women, like men, are fallible. We should not pretend that we are somehow the morally superior sex. Some attractive women exploit this advantage in very ugly ways. I’ve personally experienced or witnessed women: bullying other women for their looks; engaging in competitive dieting which verged on subclinical anorexia; making snide comments about weight which left other women in tears; faking genuine feelings for a guy in order to get a loan and then ghosting him as soon as the money was in her bank account; making an almost certainly mendacious accusation of sexual assault; and going out on multiple first dates per week with no intention of getting involved in any way beyond receiving free meals. Women can be selfish, fake, manipulative, self-interested, and bitchy. (So can men.)

But none of this is relevant to the central question at stake here: do young and beautiful women wield dangerous sexual power over men which must be curbed and regulated, lest they exploit it for pernicious ends?

Lipstick Maketh the Woman

I agree that if you are a very attractive woman and dress flamboyantly or scantily you will probably attract attention. As a practical measure, you should avoid doing so in places where you are likely to attract unwanted attention or even be endangered. I also agree that we should neither pathologize nor criminalize some forms of male response to attractive women. Looking is fine; consensual flirting is fine.

But I think it’s very easy to exaggerate the effects of lipstick or a mini skirt on men. There is an imperfect, but very strong, correlation between those countries in which women are expected to cover up, in which hijab, niqab or purdah are the norm, and countries which are dangerous and oppressive for women. While countries in which women dress as they please, far from being hotbeds of lasciviousness, full of helpless, drooling men and vicious sexual predators, are some of the safest countries in the world. Straight men in such countries are accustomed to sight of the female body. You are unlikely to be rendered completely unable to function normally at the sight of a young woman in jeans shorts or a colleague in lipstick if every other young woman you pass is wearing cut-offs and most of your coworkers sport a little lippy. The more freedom we allow women in the way we dress, the less likely it is that how we dress will upset, anger, or arouse men in public situations and the less likely it will be to elicit extreme (and illegitimate) responses, such as assault.

Pussy Power

Secondly, dress and make-up are only a small part of attractiveness. We should not overestimate their power to transform. Young, beautiful women will attract a lot of sexual attention, no matter how they are dressed. So, does the fact of their desirability give those women undue power over others, the kind of power feminists used to dismissively refer to as “pussy power”?

On the one hand, being physically attractive confers benefits for both sexes and perhaps especially for women. This applies not only in the sexual sphere. People often respond more favorably to beauty, even in situations in which physical attractiveness is irrelevant. That’s why Fox News, for example, employ so many good-looking blonde women as newscasters. They know that political opinions are more palatable when presented by one of their “Fox blondes.”

But, like most forms of privilege, beauty privilege only operates under certain conditions, even in the west, even among the relatively affluent. It’s only really a boon when you are also self-confident and canny. Many beautiful young women are naïve—they are young, after all—and self-conscious and insecure about their looks. A significant minority are even self-loathing. Eating disorders, body dysmorphia and other clinical and subclinical unhealthy obsessions with ‘ugliness’ are common among teenage girls.

The power beauty confers is starkly limited and, by its nature, ephemeral. Who do we find in positions of the greatest power or enjoying the greatest wealth in our society? It’s mostly not young women of exceptional beauty. If we extend our focus out globally, this is even less true. Living in India, you will see a hundred strikingly gorgeous young women a day: gazelle-like figures and faces of radiant loveliness. If beauty brought real power, India would be a gynocracy. Instead, it’s one of the most sexist societies on our planet, in which women are often treated as lesser at every stage of life, from in utero (sex-selective abortions are common) to old age (think of the widow’s one meal a day). And, in conditions of real poverty and oppression, beauty becomes irrelevant. Your pretty face will not matter at all if you’ve been married off at twelve; or save you from the genital mutilator’s knife; or help you as you scavenge or pick rags for a living.

Even in the west, beauty also has its perils. It can’t be switched on and off at will. It can help you attract the lovers you want, but it may also render you a magnet for creeps and predators. True power always involves autonomy. It is the power of choice. If you are young and beautiful, this has effects on others, beyond your control. It may bring opportunities—if you live in the prosperous west. But it won’t protect you from harm and will render you a more tempting target.

The Detox Diet

So what are my suggestions?

First of all, both men and women must always be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some women will be exploitative, manipulative, cunning, in sexual situations. So will some men. Do not make the mistake of some of the bitterest incels who, having had bad experiences, generalize them to all women and begin regarding women with a toxic mixture of hostility and despair: attitudes which are prone to make their fears of remaining single self-fulfilling prophecies. Above all, you must learn to handle disappointment. Attractive people can hurt our feelings when they don’t reciprocate our attraction. Don’t let disappointment fester and become envy, bitterness and misogyny.

Strive to be less superficial in your interactions with people, whenever you can. Make your best effort to judge them, particularly in professional situations, by their work. And, in social situations, by their character. Try to neither give people unfair advantages because you like their looks or assume a beautiful young woman must therefore be a brainless bimbo. Stereotypes and preconceived opinions like this blind us to the human beings in front of us.

Don’t pathologize innocent forms of sexuality. Admiring glances from men are not criminal. But neither is putting on a flattering V-neck because you know it makes you look good and you need a little ego boost. Both wanting to be attractive to people of your preferred sex and being attracted to such people are normal, natural instincts. We should be able to simply chill out and live with this fact. We’re not at the mercy of our instincts. We have impulse control.

Above all, we must have no truck with the idea that just inhabiting a female body that conforms to our society’s beauty norms or just being in possession of a pleasing female face is, in itself, in any way provocative. The fewer modesty codes governing female dress we have the better. The more accustomed men are to responding to women as professionals, friends, peers and respecting us as individuals—no matter how we are dressed—the better.

Argentine Tango: A Model

I know that this is possible because I dance Argentine tango. In tango, we dress seductively; we choose partners through eye contact and a flirtatious mime; we hold each other in very close, tender embraces and move like that, entwined, to romantic music for twelve minutes at a time. Tango is a very sensual art form. So is it full of men with erections rubbing up against women? Is it full of groping, all-consuming jealousies and sexual sleaziness? No. I have danced tango all over the world and, wherever I’ve travelled, it’s one of the most relaxed, respectful, egalitarian scenes I have been involved in.

If they can handle tango, straight men can also handle a flirty woman in the workplace in heels and crimson lipstick. Some people like to look sexy. Including women. It’s nice to look desirable. And there is nothing wrong with that. Chill and learn to deal with it.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

16 comments

  1. I would suggest that “toxic” or “unhealthy” manifestations of gender roles plague both men and women in our culture. I would also suggest that the “toxic female” is more subtle and covert, and extends way beyond the context of this article. It is radically sexist to the core. While a lot of MRAs whine about its impact on men, women suffer the brunt of it on a daily basis.

  2. I used a “not as bad as” argument to test out some things:

    https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Not_as_bad_as

    Then, came back to the site to see more thumbs down then thumbs up which in this case was a sort of good thing because it meant some folks might’ve intelligently reacted to the relative privation I used in response to Italia’s essay/article.

    Also tested out how many times I could press the thumbs up to show a favored opposite opinion because of certain wonderments. It seemed, at the time, one could continually press as many votes as they desired either way.

    Checking in again, I was relieved to see editing was done to pare down both my numerous positive thumbs up I’d selected as well as somebody else’s numerous negative thumbs down—that’s a good thing!

    I hope Areo forgives my testing out wonderments—and the lovely Italia, too.

    But there are still things going on in the world which affect us all concerning the complexities of how a human being develops unhealthy bad behavior. We can barely admit our own skewed perceptions about what is real or right and wrong so how can we know what it’s like to be in another race, sex, culture —another human being?

    In time, discoveries concerning our brain and hormones may finally come along which can “cure” bad behavior. Until then, it seems only a conscience provided by the “stop and resist” functionality of a healthy prefrontal cortex (the last area of the brain to develop) is the only reliable deterrent to bad behavior at this time.

    Cultural and religious beliefs are already facing the challenge of cognitive dissonance, especially amongst those of women who dare question. A typo error spelled her name wrong yet the violence in which Farkhunda died haunts and saddens as well as Emmett Till.

    If Feminism is to be of value in today’s society, it needs to, above all else, focus and send emissaries to cultures which do not allow women freedom of their reproductive rights.

  3. Good article. I think the idea to draw an equivalent on “toxic femininity” is just nonsense, bad moral equivalence. Manipulation through how you look is hardly an equivalent of using violence to reaffirm your ego. Violence is a form of direct aggression, manipulation requires somebody that allows himself or herself to be manipulated. That is why Peterson and Heying concept makes very little sense (while it attempt to make men look as victims, where there is no such thing).

    3
    3
  4. Here’s something the author — and, indeed, all female writers I’ve read on this point — seem to not be able to understand. When a man sees an attractive woman his reaction is completely involuntary. And when a man sees a woman who is doing something that signals sexual availability, that involuntary action becomes more extreme. It doesn’t matter that the woman doesn’t even know that she’s signalling. Women continually say things like “I should be able to do things that total strangers would incorrectly interpret as signalling,” but it doesn’t work that way. Men can’t help it. It’s like shining a bright light in someone’s eyes; the pupils contract, and it’s silly to blame the person for squinting.

    If you want to dress up to feel “sexy”, you have to realize that every single male will react to it, from a pimply fourteen year old to a ninety year old well gone into dementia. This will happen, whatever your intent. If you want too prevent this (no reason you should — there’s no accounting for tastes) you need to understand who you are trying to impress, and why you are trying to impress them. If you don’t understand this you may find yourself using a cudgel when you honestly thought you were using a rapier.

    Ethically, all of this is utterly unimportant. Men can’t control being attracted, but they can control what they do about it — and in this case it’s trivially easy. A decision that a man makes is his and his alone. “Toxic”, male or female, involves the cowardly act of pushing the blame for your odious decisions onto strangers.

    8
    4
  5. This article is fluff compared to the injustices done to women in other cultures outside western populations. It will forever haunt people of humanitarian minds that a woman who staunchly supported her culture’s beliefs was bestowed the worst hatred done by solely a male mob who tortured, beat her by all manner, stoned her corpse, then set it afire.

    Her name was Farkhund. She fully covered her body, was devoid of makeup and was only 27 years old when a mob of a men did atrocious acts to her based on the false accusation of a man who later was proven to have lied.

    She died more slowly and more violently than people who died on the cross and as she died in such a senseless horrific way no man-made god appeared and ascended her to man’s mythical heaven.

    This treatment of women or toward any human being must stop but will never stop until people realize religion and it’s atiquated, patriarchal belief system is no longer relevant by what curious and intelligent people are discovering in neurosciences today—especially in biology and genetics.

    This heartrending video of the last hours of an intelligent Muslim woman’s life is what should stop happening in this world by men who are culturally raised to treat women like they are not of equal value or of value which merits humanistic intelligence and concern:

    https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/asia/100000004108808/the-killing-of-farkhunda.html

    All lives matter except to those populations who still blindly follow, believe their male god only gives them a higher favor. Our religions are no longer relevant in the society in which we live today. If one will truly read, study primitive scripture writings as well as give effort to read, study modern biological science, one will discover how tragic it is to keep holding on to religious myths.

    I love your intentions, Italia, but there’s a bigger picture going on than just the way some women have no class in the way they dress, apply makeup or act in a slatternly manner or how it makes men in the western world react to them. It would be so simple if folks could “get over it”.

    Most importantly, there are no ocassions whatsoever of men in the western world mob slaying women for ANY reason.

    Feminists mean well and would better serve coming to the aid now for women unlucky to be born in other world populations who are beaten or killed on a daily basis because they’re considered below the importance of a male-god-mythology and are deemed on par with livestock.

    8
    6
    1. I share your views about ancient superstitions and I agree with the article.

      “There is an imperfect, but very strong, correlation between those countries in which women are expected to cover up, in which hijab, niqab or purdah are the norm, and countries which are dangerous and oppressive for women.”

      Also, there is an imperfect, but very strong correlation between economic performance, innovation and individual liberties. Yet, comments below suggest that workplace would be better with certain old-fashioned rules for women. Literally, that women should do what men (allegedly) did for themselves. Afterall, what those men who gather around celebrity thinkers looking for masculine values feel deprived off? Their privileges. Not in a feminist and/or identity politics sense, their privileges were legally guaranteed and safeguarded by state institutions.

      I don’t agree with you about the motivation of mob-lynch in Afghanistan. Like the murdered secular writers in Bangladesh, the pogrom against gipsies in Ukraine or ongoing witch-hunts, the bestiality is justified by religion and politics. Indeed, women take part very often. The west is not as far from this as I wish for all of us.

  6. Toxic femininity is not merely harmless sexual display as the author pretends. If toxic masculinity can be described as hyper competitiveness, the suppression of emotion and aggression in environments where they are inappropriate and harmful. Toxic femininity is the promulgation of female sensibilities in a similar manner. For example:
    1. Women’s desire to not deal with unwelcome advances has driven increasingly broad definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment and harsher punishments which put men’s livelihoods and reputations at risk.
    2. Women’s pathological fear of rape has driven the demonisation of men, support for sexual assault tribunals and the like which violate the rights of the accused and caused many women go to irrational extremes to guard against it such as imposing curfews on themselves.

    The examples are not exhaustive and I’m sure that others exist which drive the sexist discourse on women that is employed in the mainstream.

    8
    6
  7. The uniform adopted by qualified men in professional environment is rather a status symbol. Men send out signals to women through their shoes and shirts and the ease they wear them. I’m not saying men should be forced to wear cheap suits like in a communist nightmare but, indeed, they could avoid flirtatious stimuli wearing a decent, modestly priced ‘uniform’.

    1
    1
  8. Great balanced article, but I disagree with the final conclusion that more variation in clothing options for women will somehow habituate men in such a way that leads to less sexual harassment and greater respect for women. There needs to be line drawn in the sand about what is and isn’t appropriate for men and women to wear in the workplace. It also has to be understood to be both largely arbitrary and rooted in the requirements of the particular working environment. And if you want to be fair about it you would have to do away with liberties of clothing options and limit both genders (and all others in between) to a few options. An extreme form is practiced at private and some public schools with a degree of success, and male culture tends to reinforce this proclivity in work environments (suites). If all men started going to the office wearing nothing but bedazzled banana hammocks every day you’d probably have a problem with that, especially if the same men are standing next to you while you’re sitting in front of your computer screen. All people; straight, gay, queer, men, women, trans, etc. would all be distracted by that. Having most women wearing low cut tops and mini skirts isn’t much different than the banana hammock scenario. There’s got to be a point in which you say enough is enough and you can’t say that while stating that fewer modesty codes for women is better. The line in the sand IS the modesty code.

    5
    2
    1. “If all men started going to the office wearing nothing but bedazzled banana hammocks every day you’d probably have a problem with that, especially if the same men are standing next to you while you’re sitting in front of your computer screen. All people; straight, gay, queer, men, women, trans, etc. would all be distracted by that.”

      In fact, the distracting effect would wear off pretty fast if all men were to wear banana hammocks every day, day after day. You’d simply get used to it.
      In nudist communities, it’s not the nudes who draw the gaze; it’s people who appear there fully dressed.

      6
      2
      1. While I see what you are saying it’s really a false equivalence. In a nudist community everyone is nude. Everyone is the same. This is not habituation but a form of social control much like a suit in an office. It’s “difference” with a sexual slant that leads to unnecessary distraction. Relying on a simple principle like habituation to prove that more choice is better is reducing a complicated phenomena to something that it is not; simple.

  9. Good article, but i think the writer’s “end point” simply refers to femininity which is non-toxic, i.e. healthy, non-manipulative display “to look nice” and attractive and sexy. That is fine. But that is not the toxic femininity referred to by Heather Heying and others recently. Also, toxic femininity is not merely to be selfish, fake or manipulative as suggested in the piece (a man can also be those). Toxic femininity is that which is unique to femaleness. Luckily a (small) minority of women exibit that, just as a (small) minority of men exibit toxic masculinity.

    7
    1
  10. Both sides are talking past each other. Women say they don’t dress to get attention from random men, while men say it’s needlessly distracting to look at dolled-up women in a professional environment. The secret to understanding is that when women dress up, they are only seeking the attention of qualified men.

    What’s a qualified man? A man whose advances would be welcomed by the woman. The problem is that women do not know who these men are in advance or where they will meet them. Thus, women send out a broad-spectrum signal to every man out there. This results in men whose minds are constantly distracted by sexual stimuli. The men in control of themselves are annoyed while men who aren’t in control of themselves react with catcalls or worse.

    Women could fix the problem by doing like men and adopting a uniform for professional environments. A pantsuit, perhaps. But they don’t want to do this. Women like looking good. Even if she practices societally-enforced monogamy, receiving attention from a qualified man still feels good even if she rejects him. And hey, lots of women (and men) cheat because they find forced monogamy a silly relic of Christian culture.

    13
    3
  11. If men find an attractive young female a turn on, which they do, the women should consider dressing to downplay these features. Yes, the women should change to accommodate the men at work.

    1
    8
  12. I hear a lot of complaining about the way women get more attention regarding the way they dress in their professional life than men. Men, of course, wear suits or some minor variation thereof in professional environments, which women do not, or at least are not required to in the same way. This is not a call for some kind of middle eastern style modesty garb, but rather perhaps it’s time female western professionals adopted a more uniform style of dress in the workplace in the way men already do as one component of the equation that they can control. However, that would mean relinquishing the positive attention along with the potential negative. Surely this is a small sacrifice to be seen strictly as a co-worker but not one, I suspect, many women will be willing to make. Instead I fear it will once again be men’s responsibility to accommodate, lest he be accused of having antiquated, or worse, opinions on all women.

    9
    7
    1. Egalitarian, you beat me to making this point. I absolutely agree.

      If a man in an office wore a sharp suit with a shirt and jacket open to his navel to reveal his six pack, or indeed any other “vanity” part of the body that he thinks women might find attractive, he would almost certainly be told off for inappropriate dressing. His co-workers would probably go further and label him a d**che, a pr**k or a d*ck (and rightly so).

      While I (and I imagine most people) wouldn’t use those epithets (even mentally) to describe a formally dressed woman showing cleavage, I think there is, as you say, a valuable trade-off to be made in sacrificing positive attention for the gain of being taken more seriously.

      7
      2

Leave a Reply

Inline
Inline