What Femininity Means to Me
Two weeks ago someone asked what I think being truly feminine means.
I stumbled through a definition that was probably something like, “becoming who I’m meant to be.” It was the vaguest definition in the world and likely not at all helpful to the person who asked.
Usually the first thing that pops into my mind is: women, grow babies. That’s limited though, because what about people that don’t have kids? Are they still women? Clearly you can’t say that you must have children to be a woman, It’s like getting the cart before the horse. You can have children, because you’re a woman. Not, you have children therefore you are a woman.
Anyway, the whole baby-making thing is a shared experience, men have children too, they just don’t grow them inside their bodies for nine months. Unless you’re the virgin Mary you don’t go getting pregnant without a man involved. Children are a human experience, even if actually growing it for the first nine months is an exclusive ability.
Sometimes femininity is tied up in what we wear or do, which I find to be a bit ludicrous based upon the logic above. I am not a woman because I wear a skirt or know how to make a sandwich (yes, that is a joke) or change oil in the car. I make sandwiches and maintain my car because I am maintaining life. We all share those responsibilities too, but they are just that, responsibilities and not identity. Good heavens, I sure hope my only identity is not a sandwich maker, though it could be fun to be an epic sandwich maker and get famous for it.
“Want my sandwich? Sell me your birthright!”
Where this subject gets all tied up in knots is somewhere around confusing appearance with truth, so let’s think about this as men and women for a little while. Appearance is what identifies us to the world and is exclusively, or heavily, dictated to by biology and culture. If there’s a full grown beard, a deeper voice, and different physique chances are you’re looking at a man. If there’s a smooth face, higher voice and breasts, it’s probably a woman. These identifications are what help us to navigate life as people. The “what” we are. Culture is what adds a layer to biology and says, “men are better at business” and “women are the better cooks.” It assigns a truth to gender that doesn’t belong there.
Appearance has much to do with identity, but our internal identity begins way before someone takes a look at you and identifies what you are. How we look explains us to the world, who we are explains God to us.
Words and appearance are powerful. If you are a Christian you already know that the world was spoken into being by the Word and we are always looking for better ways to express and communicate this truth through how we look and what we say. The trouble comes when we confuse our identity and words as the truth, instead of an expression of truth.
What is truth? It’s one of the most difficult concepts to illustrate. As I said, words are one way we communicate it, and then culture, doctrines, music, clothes, art, and work are more ways. All of these things carry truth, much as women carry babies, but they aren’t truth so much as they “grow” truth. They house unseen truth which we must work to birth. We don’t look at a church and say it is truth. If we do, we’re dead wrong. The church is a genre of truth-carriers, but we must always look beyond what we can see to find the unseen reality.
When we need to explain something we choose imagery or words or body language, and God knew that - after all, the Word was God, with God, and IS God. So when we use the word “woman” in one sense it’s just a word, but in another we already know, a whole truth can be contained in a Word. Now bear with me, because this is about to get a bit strange. We are biologically limited as to our gender, but spiritually there is no “gender.” You might think that sounds blasphemous, but check out this verse from Galatians, in the Bible.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Gender, race, freedom, etc is an identity to everyone on Planet Earth, not in God. I think sometimes we have this idea that Truth (God) is masculine or feminine, rather than masculine and feminine. Black or white, rather than black and white. Very different, same origin and meaning and value. Our primal life instincts have taught us to stay at the top of our game, which is great to help keep us alive but blinds us to competition, not how we complement one anther. All the speech for the equality expressed both in feminism and scripture (different kinds, by the way) won’t really change anything until we check out what is wrong with the way we think in the first place.
There is definitely something wrong with this world and the way we think. Evil exists, because there is nothing else that could account for the battle of right and wrong. When actions such as the Rwandan genocide are balanced against the science teacher in Kenya giving back most of his salary to help students there’s no contesting it: good and evil is our dilemma.
Where we get into major trouble is when we personify the good or evil, instead of seeing beyond the actions of people to see why they do them, which comes down to what we believe. For example Stalin was an evil man, but not because he was the original evil. He made terrible choices because he believed the wrong things. The Kenyan teacher also made choices, which made him recognizable to us as someone good. The teacher is not the good, but he is certainly expressing good. The question we must ask is, “why do we do what we do?”
Part of that is checking the sequence of our logical understanding. Think of what would happen if we say “Stalin made terrible choices. He is a man. Therefore men are evil.” With such logic Tabichi, the science teacher, would be on this side: “Tabichi made good choices. He is a man. Therefore men are good.”
We get our sequence all wrong and it messes everything up. Women are not women because they have babies. They have babies because they are women. People are not good or evil by virtue of their gender or humanity, they make choices for good or evil because they are people and something is wrong with people. In both cases, identity starts long before it ever becomes visible. We are grounded in something else as humans, and this something else defines everything we do.
If indeed it’s true that truth or evil is neither masculine nor feminine, but something greater than that, then we ought to acknowledge that we greatly inhibit the potential of both if we make truth specific to either men or women. The same baselines of humanity, salvation, honesty, integrity, kindness, and love apply to us all. We all lust after something, we all make selfish choices.
To be truly a woman or man, to be truly masculine or feminine, we have to go past the things that we do (action) or that identify (biology) to see that we have been given a more complex identity that cannot be immediately seen, but is hidden within us. We gotta go through work to uncover this sucker.
So, what makes us women (feminine)?
The unique glory of being a woman is not found because there is some truth that mysteriously applies to us and not men. We want some distinction like that to bring us up and out, but again, truth is not gender specific.
What is gender specific is the expression of truth that has only been entrusted to women: the biological and spiritual privilege of birth. We are the only ones that can bring this about, and if there’s anyone who knows about the glowing reality of the unseen life and truth, it is women. They grow it. They carry it. They go through blood, sweat and tears to deliver it, or lose it every month.
More often than not God is unconventional about strength and weakness. It’s a part of God and women that we easily misunderstand. In the Christian tale, he sent his only son to earth as a tiny little baby because truth didn’t need to assert itself as God by human standards of survival. If God had been at all interested in blasting us with glory and fanfare he certainly had the capability of it, but instead choose the messier introduction of birth. The gore of blood is also the star of life. God is full of many paradoxes and seeming contradictions, and it is in gender we oft see this illustrated.
He gave women this particular gift not because we are secondary, but because we are one of the fiercer protectors of life. Just you try to get in between a mother and her child and put that child in danger. In fact, one of the very first words God uses to describe “woman” in the ancient Hebrew are also what he uses to describe himself as a rescuer of mankind. It’s why he co-partnered with Mother Mary to bring about the one thing that could address this deficit that creates such good and evil within us and the world.
There’s something deeply profound that God hid in the perceived weak, or easily misunderstood things of life: pregnancy, babies, physics, spirituality, sexuality, mathematics, relationships. Often those things have more exponential power than we think. God, who is a spirit, puts his truth into the things we can see and experience so we have something to help us understand, but truth itself is the unseen Spirit. The deepest understandings of God delve far into realms of faith, which is why Christians often sound cuckoo in the physical world. If the physical were the only dimension, we would be cuckoo, but God in his kindness he gives us a tangible, “real” world to draw us into the deeper reality of the unseen.
Being a mother is one expression of this characteristic, but it shows up in business, relationship, cultivation, beauty and refuge. In design, art, music, mathematical ability and science. Women are good guardians of the unseen. A line of defense between this world and the next. They rarely forget to look beyond what can be seen to what is unseen.
God didn’t send a baby to the cross, he sent a baby to be born that grew into a man that carried it. A woman carried the baby, who carried the cross. All parts of the story are significant, all processes matter, and it’s not up to us to always say who gets to do what, or even what is actually more important. In the bigger picture, you can’t have one thing without another. You can’t have man without woman, or vice versa. We are literally made in his image, male and female he created them.
Remember, God is not limited by time, so to him whomever came first has nothing to do with value or importance. Rather, he imprinted us with his divine truth and purpose equally, because God is both ever faithful and unchanging, and yet somehow unlimited. This type of paradox, this difference and yet oneness of truth, is also manifested in gender. But God is in all, and over all.
ALL THESE THINGS ARE ADDED
Most of these added things that our culture sees as feminine (like clothes, preferences, abilities and natural talents) are often social constructs. That doesn’t make them bad, we just have to keep our priorities straight if we are to excel in life. We cannot base truth on culture, ever, but since the biological and cultural definitions of femininity are something we learn from babyhood that is usually where we begin. It shouldn’t end there. Spiritually we must find identity outside of ourselves, and then the messed up and warped parts of culture and sometimes even biology, will begin to straighten.
What femininity means in me (keep in mind, this is me, not you):
Femininity in me means being strong and courageous, kind and loving, building my character and talents to excellence, not getting embarrassed because I find clothes and philosophy and business fascinating, and remembering not to compare myself to others or who I want to be. Femininity to me means helping and supporting the people around me, and accepting it when they give it to me. I’ll open a door for a guy with his arms full, and I’ll love it when he does it for me. Protection is always cherished by me, control will be stopped at the gate. Femininity to me is discarding the pressure of “should” and becoming closer to “I Am.” I will learn to own and augment my talents instead of hiding out, because I’m afraid I’ll be perceived as an overbearing woman. That is fear, and there is none of that in true love. I will learn to carry my weaknesses with strength, and to look for the truth. I own my responsibility to truth, and own my womanhood. I will always work to lift up and honor the men and women around me, and let them do so for me. That to me, is femininity.
Femininity is finally waking up to my true value, and seeing the unseen truth of that grow into seen reality. The birth of it will be painful, but 100% worth it. Amen.
Photo by Eva Dang