“Settle down! Act ladylike!” These words are all too familiar to many women and girls across America. But what does it mean to “act like a lady?” Is it an innate behavior of all humans born with two X chromosomes? Is it a manner of speaking, walking, sitting, or thinking? And if women do act differently than men, is that a bad thing? Iris Marion Young, author of a provocative 1980 article entitled “Throwing Like a Girl,” considered some of these questions and came to some intriguing conclusions. Starting with the ideas of Young and other phenomenological philosophers like Mark Johnson and Merleau-Ponty, I began to investigate the relationship between femininity and the lived body. By examining the characteristics, causes, and effects of the feminine lived body experience, I will explore the ways in which femininity can limit human capability.
Let me begin with an important definition: I define femininity (as does Young in her essay) not as a biological attribute, but as the conditions that determine the situation of being a woman in a given society (one in America, for the purposes of this essay) and how this situation is experienced (Young 140). Therefore I do not mean to say that men cannot be feminine or that all women are feminine. If I refer to women in this essay I am referring to those who live the feminine experience. Also, although Young’s essay was written over thirty years ago, the only pieces of information which I have referenced in this paper are those which I feel to remain unchanged, or only slightly changed. If you disagree, I urge you to observe the men and women in your environment for a single day. The differences that appear when one looks for them are remarkable.
So what exactly does feminine movement involve? Phenomenologist Mark Johnson defines bodily movement in terms of four qualitative dimensions: tension, linearity, amplitude, and projection (Johnson 22-24). While his discussion of gender difference appears only in his explanation of amplitude, we can definitely employ some other dimensions in our discussion of gender, for many feminine behaviors exhibit an overlap in these dimensions. Generally speaking, women tend to display more tension than men. When sitting, for example, women often close or cross their legs and keep their arms around their body, while men sprawl out in a much more relaxed fashion (Young 142). Concerning amplitude, Young notes repeatedly that feminine body movement is characterized by a lack of use of available space; it is as if women move around in a bubble of imaginary available space which they think is smaller than it actually is (143). In walking, men will swing their arms more, exhibit a longer stride (proportional to their height), and even bounce up and down more! A woman carrying a book will hold it close to her chest, while a man will let it swing in his hand by his side (142). And although there are real physical differences in women’s muscular abilities vs. men’s, when women do laborious tasks, they tend not to throw their whole bodies into it and are therefore less effective. This relates to Johnson’s idea of projection in that men project a purpose through their whole body where women do not. In lifting heavy objects, for example, women lift with the arm and shoulder, not the legs. When unscrewing tight jar lids, women focus on the wrist and hand and ignore the shoulder which is essential to successful twisting (143). All of these aspects of feminine movement share a common theme: motions are compact, constrained, and often less effective than masculine actions.
Now consider how the feminine lived body, or the body as experienced by oneself, affects a woman’s experience in the world. We view and understand things according to the way we experience them (Matthews 94), and we experience them through the lived body; the mind and body are inextricably connected in a complex but necessary way (92). A woman’s body is both an expression of her mind and a source of input for her mind. Whether it is the body or the mind (most likely both) that is experiencing trepidation, it is apparent that women will approach physical tasks with more timidity than men. When asked to open a tight jar or throw a football, women who are unfamiliar with the task (probably due to the fact that men always did these tasks instead of women as they were growing up) will become nervous, especially in the presence of men, and try to do the task ineffectively while muttering some excuse about how their arms aren’t working right today. Young’s explanation for this timidity is that women don’t use their bodies correctly when engaging in physical tasks: “We [women] often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the media for the enactment of our aims,” she says, “We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our body to make sure it is doing what we wish it to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies” (144). Therefore we don’t do things very effectively and as a result we think we can’t, a self-perpetuating cycle of body and mind that keeps women from reaching their full potential.
Merleau-Ponty explains the human use of our bodies through motor intentionality; by intentionally reaching to grasp an object, for example, we are using our bodies to carry out our projects (Thompson 247). But Young argues that women use their bodies in what she calls inhibited intentionality: “When the woman enters a task with inhibited intentionality, she projects the possibilities of that task - thus projects an ‘I can’ - but projects them merely as the possibilities of ‘someone,’ and not truly her possibilities - and thus projects an ‘I cannot’” (147). This inhibited intentionality also helps to create the self-perpetuating cycle mentioned earlier, for when the woman believes that she is less capable, she will not try as hard to succeed.
Another interesting paradox occurs when a woman’s body becomes “other” to herself, a process called self-othering (Thompson 251). This is problematic because viewing the body as a subject (not an object) is a key part of Merleau-Ponty’s theory about human existence (Matthews 92). “The world is inseparable from the subject,” he explains, “but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject is inseparable from the world, but from a world which the subject itself projects” (qtd. in Thompson 247). So the woman experiences the world around her through her own body as a subject who is connected with the world. But in many ways, Woman is defined as Other in the society in which she grows up, and she is denied some of the autonomy and creativity that are decidedly human. So the paradox arises that she has autonomy and creativity (because she is human), but she is unable to exercise them fully (Young 141).
How are women’s bodies “othered” in society, and what other factors contribute to feminine body comportment? While foremost in one’s mind may be the sexual images of women displayed by the media, this is probably not the most formative influence. The process begins when women are small children, told by adults not to get hurt, get dirty, or tear their clothes (153). They are told to mind their manners (literally, this phrase means to pay close attention to the way one acts), and to be careful of their bodies. As they grow older, adults expect and ask boys, not girls, to lift heavy things or run far distances (153). This means that girls simultaneously get less practice in physical activities and more reminders to stay safe and reserved, a combination that leads to the development of the limited spatiality that is evident later in life. This limited spatiality quite often extends to social/business aspirations, for many women feel or have been told that becoming a CEO is “outside the realm” of their capabilities or that they shouldn’t leave “the comfort of home.” This is not to say, however, that women are stripped of their freedom of choice because of childhood expectations. We always have options that can take us in new directions, but we do make our choices in the present based on the past - how we were raised, what has happened to us, etc.
So what does it all mean? Mark Johnson puts it perfectly: “We learn what we can do in the same motions by which we learn how things can be for us” (21). The mind and the body are linked so fully that any demands on one will have an affect on the other. We can observe in feminine body comportment several negative qualities (timidity, tension, limited spatiality, self-consciousness) that are a result of the culture in which women are raised. The dangers of raising women in such a culture are clear when one considers the influence of this type of body on the mind: women feel timid, tense, limited, and self-conscious in a world in which they, as human beings, deserve to feel free, mobile, and active. Again, the several aspects of femininity which I explain in this essay are not definite attributes of all females, and different people will have varying degrees of femininity. There are patterns, however, and several women will be able to identify with a large majority of the experiences mentioned. It is for these women and for the communities in which they live that I am concerned. Women are human, and they deserve as much autonomy, creativity, and freedom as their male counterparts, in body and in mind.