How to Spot Toxic Femininity — and Stop It

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Summary: Being empowered and feminine is admirable, but toxic femininity takes it to the extreme. Here’s how you can spot it and stop it.


Equality has come a long way since the days of yore. However, there is still much to stand up against, especially when it comes to cultural and societal conditions. One such matter is toxic masculinity — the damaging societal ideals of a ‘manly man.’ But on the note of equality, we can’t talk about toxic masculinity without talking about the other side: toxic femininity.

What Is Femininity?

When femininity is traditionally discussed, it’s typically about the traits associated with women, such as:

  • Beauty
  • Sensuality
  • Radiance
  • Vulnerability
  • Empathy
  • Patience
  • Intuition

And to make it official, our friends over at Merriam-Webster defines the word as the quality or nature of the female sex: the quality, state, or degree of being feminine or womanly.”

Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani and female participants at A-Fest Bali 2018
Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani and friends at A-Fest Bali 2018

What’s the difference between femininity and masculinity?

While femininity is softer and nurturing in nature, masculinity is assertive and strong-willed — the yin to the yang, so to speak.

In the traditional definition, being a ‘manly man’ means:

  • Being fearless
  • Protecting your loved ones
  • Showing a firm character
  • Displaying you’re able, capable, and skillful
  • Being sexually active and desirable
  • You’re prone to risk-taking and violence
  • Suppressing emotions

But when it comes to the pressure to conform to society’s bullsh*t rules (or “brules,” as Vishen, founder and CEO of Mindvalley, calls them), femininity and masculinity are very similar. Just as the pressure to be stereotypically masculine is damaging for men, the trend is just as toxic for women.

What Is Toxic Femininity?

Diva. Mean girl. Karen. The names have changed over the years, but the characteristics of toxic femininity are the same — using feminine traits to undermine others.

In her paper on toxic femininity, Hannah McCann, senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, explores three ways this term can be understood:

  1. Women can be equally “toxic” as men. Regardless of gender, any person is capable of being manipulative, narcissistic, and emotionally destructive. With toxic femininity, women can use their “fragility” as a weapon, like playing the victim. Or they can play the same game, like Regina George and the Plastics in the movie, Mean Girls.
  2. It supports gender inequality. It also abuses the ideals of femininity. For example, if a woman is fired from her job or refused promotion, she can claim victimhood. However, if a man did the same, he “would be laughed from the room.”
  3. It enables toxic masculinity. This idea relates to women who choose to be pigeonholed to society’s standards of “how to be a woman.” For instance, not speaking up when they’ve been sexually assaulted. So, they remain subservient, quiet, and submissive, which in turn, helps reinforce toxic masculinity.

People who are toxic often are dealing with their own traumas. 

Almost all the bad things that we do to other people are because we don’t truly love ourselves. Because if we truly love and accept ourselves, we don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

— Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani, co-founder of Mindvalley and author of Mindvalley’s Live By Your Own Rules Quest

So, instead of facing their stresses head-on, they project their insecurities onto others.

Toxic femininity

What Does Toxic Femininity Look Like?

Oftentimes, you can tell someone is toxic by the way they make you feel. But there are also signs that highlight their toxicity.

Here are some common signs of toxic femininity:

  • Judging women who choose to marry late or not get married at all.
  • When are you going to have kids?” Just because a woman has a uterus doesn’t necessarily mean they want children.
  • Conforming to the idea of an “attractive woman,” which is reinforced by beauty magazines, television shows, and even celebrity endorsements. This can lead to eating disorders, excessive plastic surgery, and other body modifications.
  • On a similar note, body shaming themselves or other women.
  • Expecting women to conform to stereotypical gender roles, like cooking, cleaning, and being a housewife.
  • Saying “you’re so prettyto young girls, but “you’re so smart” to young boys.
  • Dressing to impress other people and not for themselves.
  • Using men as emotional (or even physical) “punching bags” since men are viewed as “stronger.”
  • Mothers (or even sisters, grandmas, aunts, etc.) using their relationships to control others as a way to show their love. It’s often heard as “it’s for your own good” or “I’m your mother and I know what’s best for you.
  • Discouraging sexual assault victims from speaking up and using “think of how this will ruin him” as an excuse.

How Can You Empower Femininity?

The perception of femininity has evolved over the years. At one point in time, it was associated with soft-spoken, delicate, and sweet. However, a 2018 study shows women are striving to be more balanced — independent and candid, yet compassionate and kind.

For instance, let’s take a look at the transformation of Barbie. Mattel’s most iconic doll has long been the subject of controversy for not representing what real women look like.

The original 1959 doll was inspired by women of the time, like Marilyn Monroe. But that meant Barbie was white, blonde, and thin. Over the years, thankfully, Mattel has been more inclusive of other feminine traits — the more recent dolls representing the women of science.

Feminism isn’t about making women strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.

— G.D. Anderson, feminist writer and founder of The Cova Project
Women kissing Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani on the cheek at A-Fest Bali 2018
Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani and friends at A-Fest Bali 2018

What you can do

So, how can you empower femininity? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage her to practice self-love. It will help her make healthy life choices and support her transformational growth.
  • Validate a woman’s self-expression. If she’s sharing how she feels, support and encourage her instead of belittling her.
  • On a similar note, call out sexism and harassment. Disrespect in any form cannot be tolerated in this day and age.
  • Compliment her mind and soul, as well as her body. Appearances are typically the first impression, but complimenting her intelligence and empathy is beneficial as well.
  • Challenge beauty standards. We all have access to filters that cover anything “unflattering” — scars, acne, rolls, and so on. These things are natural and flawlessness is a myth, so encourage her to rethink what it means to be beautiful.
  • Support expressing emotions. Help foster an environment where both women and men (especially the men) feel safe expressing traits like vulnerability, sensitivity, and so on.
  • And most importantly, find a tribe. Research shows that having a support system can reduce stress and improve wellbeing. That’s why community is an important aspect of Mindvalley with each Quest having its own tribe to connect with like-minded people.

And all this goes for you too, you know. It’s recommended to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help others with theirs.

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Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is an SEO content writer for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. With a background in spa and wellness as well as having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.
Written by

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is an SEO content writer for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. With a background in spa and wellness as well as having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.

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