The pressures of dating have a strange way of making the most fearless, capable woman feel like a watered-down version of herself. Take my friend Cho—a focused, ambitious, early thirtysomething who has no problem asserting herself in a male-dominated industry, shrugging off negative female stereotypes, NBD. Sharp, collected, and shrewd, it’s clear that one day she will be running the ship.
Yet when it comes to the dating arena, she told me that, like many of us, she can let that sense of self slip through her fingers, spilling her confidence on the floor of the bar where she’s meeting her Tinder date. Almost without realizing it, she finds herself clinging to outdated, stereotypical female roles—replacing her outspoken, boisterous personality with one of a very sweet, affirming kind-of doormat.
I’m not talking about her revealing a more demure, quiet part of her personality. I’m talking about warping her natural personality toward what she thinks will please a guy. She doesn’t do this on purpose, exactly, but she’s done it enough to realize it’s a routine—a defensive routine in the name of simply “being more feminine.” And it’s done her no good.
To be sure, dating is messy, and gender roles have never been more confusing. Should I ask him out? Should I wait for him to ask me out? Do I pay? Does he pay? Do we both pay? Wait, are we just “hanging out”? But getting your “feminine mystique” confused with passivity or appearance is one way to make dating not just messy but also a terrible, horrible, no-good torture of the heart. If you find yourself slumping into a misconception of what real femininity is, here’s a friendly reminder of what it’s not:
01. Femininity is not waiting for the first move.
“Let the man take the lead!” is one of those cardinal dating rules we probably have subconsciously tattooed in our brain since seventh grade. Sure, while most women still want guys to make the real first move (although, you definitely don’t need to!), you might be surprised to hear that according to research by Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julia Schwartz Gottman, women are technically “the choreographers of most first meetings,” as Grace Zedler aptly phrases it for Verily. In other words, true femininity is a bit proactive—especially when dating. So, for women who believe that hiding your interest as an attempt to play hard to get or go with the flow is actually a sign of femininity—nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just bad dating strategy.
02. Femininity is not being subordinate.
Many women find themselves trapped in relationships where they feel they must suffer silently, with bated breath for the man to treat her the way she deserves. After all, you don’t want to nag, right? Asserting yourself when you feel distressed, unloved, or disrespected isn’t unfeminine, even if it causes conflict. The problem is, this kind of submission is not only dysfunctional, it completely goes against achieving any sort of real peace and harmony. Stepping up and telling your man what you need, want, and deserve is actually the kind of strength that showcases your femininity and is essential for a healthy relationship. “We need to understand that femininity is not weakness,” actress Jessica Chastain told NPR. Indeed, it’s a strength.
03. Femininity is not putting on an act.
Femininity needn’t look like a grown-up Barbie doll excited for her next nail appointment, if that’s not you. Ultimately, the essence of femininity transcends hairstyles, fashion, and makeup. Our femininity may influence those outer parts of ourselves, but they’re not defined by it. So don’t channel artificial girlishness in an attempt to win a man’s heart. Femininity is best discovered through being authentic and letting virtue and goodness be your aspiration. If you happen to fit the girlie stereotype, that’s absolutely fine, but if you don’t, remember that you don’t need to do a costume change before you head out for a date.
It might be hard to switch our dating M.O., as being our true selves can make us vulnerable. But the thing about vulnerability? It’s what makes real relationships—and real love—possible.