Though not as well-known as its masculine counterpart, toxic femininity can be just as destructive. Here’s how to check for it and overcome its insidious effect on your life and career.

This article was last updated Aug. 21, 2023.

When I was a child, growing up in the South, my mother had definite standards for female behavior. I was sent to etiquette class at the local department store and taught to walk with a book on my head to encourage good posture. But nowhere was my feminine education as fraught with pitfalls as when The Dinah Shore Show came on TV.

In the 1970s, singer, actress and host Dinah Shore had a chat show where she interviewed guests and sang occasionally. My mother didn’t have me watch for the guests, however, or for the vocal stylings of its host. She had me watch because to her, Dinah Shore was the pinnacle of appropriate and elegant female behavior.

“Look how Dinah sits. She doesn’t ever flop down on the couch like you do.”

“Look how Dinah walks. What beautiful posture.”

“Look how Dinah is dressed, so tasteful.”

I honestly have no idea why my mother chose Dinah Shore over every other woman in the world, including herself, for me to emulate. Maybe it’s because Shore once dated Burt Reynolds, my mother’s No. 1 celebrity crush. Whatever the reason, she instilled in me a laundry list of rules for female behavior (almost none of which I currently follow).

You may have heard of toxic masculinity. It’s the force that makes a man afraid to use a pink pen or order a pink drink at Starbucks because it might make him look less manly. More recently, it was on full display at last year’s Oscars, when Will Smith took to the stage to slap Chris Rock for making a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

What is toxic femininity?

Toxic femininity, on the other hand, doesn’t get talked about as much. One of the first places it was defined in its current form was in a 2018 Medium post by social psychologist and author Dr. Devon Price. In it, she provides many examples of unthinking ways in which women limit themselves and other women to a shallow definition of what constitutes “feminine,” “ladylike” or “womanly” behavior.

Toxic femininity may tell you, for example, that you should choose a salad at dinner because it’s more ladylike when you really want a steak. You should spend loads of money and time on hair, makeup and wardrobe rather than that new car you wanted. Your body is unacceptable if it doesn’t conform to society’s idea of beauty or attractiveness.

Within the context of toxic femininity, though many of these definitions and so-called rules are based on male preferences, they are perpetuated and enforced by women. They occur when women criticize each other for supposedly “unfeminine” behavior and appearance or when women make rules about what a woman should or shouldn’t do based on the fact that she’s a woman.

What’s worse, they occur when women see other women as “bitchy” for speaking up or speaking out or when women avoid leadership roles because they might be seen as too masculine. It happens when a woman gives her career short shrift because making more money might threaten the status quo in her marriage.

It happens when we treat a man like a hero for showing empathy, then call a woman who’s in leadership “weak” or “soft” for doing the same thing. It’s when we don’t listen to a woman unless she adopts the speech habits of a man.

Toxic femininity creates an impossible catch-22 for women in business and says that behaving according to arbitrary societal rules of speech, dress, thought and appearance is more important than doing a good job, taking care of yourself or pursuing your own interests and goals. It means shaming women (and yourself) when you fall short of the standard that “they” have set for correct behavior. 

A little advice

Starting and growing a business is a hard task for anyone. Don’t compound its difficulty by making toxic femininity part of the equation. Let women exist in their bodies without your evaluation. Let them eat what they want to or dress how they want to and don’t make it your business to comment on it.

If you are a mentor and your mentee asks you about their personal behavior or appearance, offer constructive feedback that is based on performance and professionalism rather than a need to lose weight, get a facelift or act more “like a lady.”

If you are a woman trying to build your business, give yourself a break from impossible standards of perfection imposed on you by well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people in your past. Work out if it makes you happy, not because you “must” be skinny to be acceptable. Eat for your health as a human, not for what “looks” ladylike.

Speak up for yourself, in your own voice, and give others the freedom to do the same. Value yourself for what you bring to the table, not how you look. 

Most of all, get rid of the notion that you have to look or act a certain way in order to be a woman. Be what you want to be, do what you want, not because it’s necessary but because it’s your choice. 

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