Perhaps you’ve come across the term “toxic masculinity” before. If so, you might know this concept describes the ways society’s gender-based expectations for men can breed unhelpful 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 definition of the term can vary slightly, depending on the source. A common anti-feminist misconception suggests it means using “feminine” qualities to manipulate men. Yet most experts agree toxic femininity involves restricting your behavior to fit stereotypically feminine traits that men supposedly 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“
“Both toxic masculinity and femininity are unhealthy as they pressure individuals to fit a mold rather than strive to live and relate to others authentically, as their highest and best selves,” she explains.
Here’s how to identify toxic femininity and what to do about it when you recognize it.
What does it mean, exactly?
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 notes that while toxic femininity stems from society’s rigid molds, individual people reinforce it all the time. It often happens as a subconscious effort to find value or feel accepted in a patriarchal society.
“At its core, it’s an internalization of misogynistic values and power structures,” adds Vermani, going on to explain that toxic femininity is based on the following stereotypically “feminine” traits:
passiveness, selflessness, and nurturance
compliance, submissiveness, or docility
empathy and compassion
home and family-oriented values
To be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with having any of these traits. They only become toxic when you feel forced to express them, or you exaggerate them while suppressing your own needs, says Vermani.
Toxic femininity can show up in pretty much any environment:
at home, with family or romantic partners
in the media
online, including social media
among friends and in other social settings
Some real-world examples include:
A teacher who tells you to “act like a lady” when you show assertiveness.
A parent who continually pressures you to have children because “that’s what women do.”
An acquaintance who says you haven’t found love because men find your confidence “intimidating.”
A social media influencer who says “real women have curves.”
A newspaper article criticizing a female celebrity for having hair on their legs and underarms.
A manager or colleague who not-so-subtly suggests you wear more makeup to the office.
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.”