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.
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 school
- at home, with family or romantic partners
- at work
- 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.”
Toxic femininity vs. benevolent sexism
Toxic femininity and toxic masculinity are both intertwined with another concept rooted in misogyny: benevolent sexism.
This subtler form of sexism may seem well-intentioned, but it can still cause harm. It’s based on the idea that men are meant to be providers and protectors, says Vermani, while women are vulnerable, fragile, and ultimately dependent on men for safety and support.
“A man’s protection and support is transactional and only granted in exchange for a woman’s compliance with traditional gender roles,” explains Vermani.
Some common signs of toxic femininity to pay attention to — in yourself or others — include:
- Feeling you should always have a male partner, even if you don’t particularly want a relationship. Rice notes this may stem from toxic femininity when you feel as if you’re somehow incomplete without a male partner and need to depend on them for certain things.
- Judgment or shame for not having children. Those who choose not to have children, or who experience fertility issues, should never be made to feel less like a woman, says Abby Dixon, MS, a licensed professional counselor and owner of The Joywell.
- Sacrificing your health to fit societal expectations for women. Rice explains this can mean trying overly restrictive diets, investing in procedures that are risky or beyond your budget, or otherwise going to extreme lengths to meet society’s beauty standards for women.
- Putting men’s needs and desires before your own. This could mean suppressing your own needs and feelings in order to accommodate a male partner, colleague, or family member, Vermani says. For example, you might agree to do something you don’t want to do for a co-worker so you seem polite and easygoing.
- Downplaying your capabilities. Pretending you don’t know how to do something or aren’t physically capable of something — especially in an effort to avoid emasculating a man — plays into perceived feminine weakness, says Vermani.
- Avoiding confrontation with men. Since traditional gender norms dictate that women should be obedient and submissive, Lurie says toxic femininity can manifest as not challenging men when you disagree with them or when they do something that bothers you.
- Judging other women or experiencing judgment from other women for not being “feminine” enough. Dismissing or belittling women who don’t conform to societal expectations for their gender is a common sign of toxic femininity, according to Vermani.
“Toxic femininity supports a rigid, restrictive, repressive, and limiting definition of womanhood,” says Vermani, who emphasizes that toxic femininity can harm people of any gender, just like toxic masculinity.
Some of the potential consequences include:
Physical health effects
Toxic femininity can also factor into unrealistic expectations when it comes to nurturing romantic partners and children and keeping up with housework.
These expectations can create a lot of stress, especially when you have school or work obligations to keep up with, too. Vermani notes that many women may over-commit themselves in order to live up to expectations of being helpful, selfless, and nurturing.
“Toxic femininity can result in severe burnout from taking on the physical and emotional labor of those around you. Chronic stress can also contribute to serious health conditions, like ulcers, cancer, stroke, and heart disease.”
Mental and emotional effects
Strictly adhering to gender norms may leave you with a sense of powerlessness, Vermani adds. You might feel stuck, or trapped by your lack of agency over your own life.
If you start to equate your self-worth with your ability to find a partner, get married, or have children, Lurie explains, you may have a harder time feeling satisfied or fulfilled with your life as it stands.
Since toxic femininity means adhering to a predefined set of very limiting ideas about what femininity means, Lurie says it can also breed insecurity or even self-loathing when you stray from the mold.
As noted above, toxic femininity can also fuel workplace bullying, which can have a mental health impact, too. Research from 2016 links workplace bullying to:
Toxic femininity doesn’t just harm cisgender women, either. Many nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks feel the impact, too.
If you don’t identify exclusively as a woman or man, toxic femininity can bring up shame and guilt and leave you feeling out of place in society, says Rice, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation.
Toxic femininity can also affect your personal and professional relationships.
According to Vermani, toxic femininity can encourage unhelpful behaviors, including:
- neglecting to set and communicate boundaries
- avoiding confrontation
- approval-seeking or people-pleasing tendencies
You might, as a result, experience power imbalances in romantic relationships or friendships. This dynamic can lead to:
As for its impact in the workplace?
A 2020 study suggests women in higher managerial positions are more likely to experience bullying from men in the same positions. Researchers theorized this may stem from sexist beliefs that women lack the ability to handle leadership positions. They also noted that women with stereotypically masculine traits also tend to experience more workplace harassment.
One 2018 study explored the potential negative effects of makeup on perceptions of leadership ability.
Researchers asked 168 male and female participants — who self-reported either Caucasian or African ethnicity — to look at photographs of women wearing the makeup they might wear for a social night out and judge their leadership capabilities. The participants looked at photos of women of both ethnicities.
According to the results, makeup can negatively affect how people of any gender asses your leadership capabilities — though it might certainly boost your advantages when it comes to finding a romantic partner.
And therein lies the paradox of toxic femininity: Society expects women to adhere to certain beauty standards in dating and social contexts, but these expectations can actually hinder them in professional settings.
These “standards” can cause plenty of distress, not to mention confusion about what’s expected when. What’s more, women may — with great reason — feel unfairly judged whether they choose to wear makeup or not.
Once you have a clearer understanding of toxic femininity, you may find yourself beginning to notice it in your everyday life.
Experts suggest a few ways to respond to this construct.
If you notice it in yourself
- Consider where your beliefs came from. Rice says it can help to consider where you first picked up on notions of toxic femininity. Parents? Friends? The media? Identifying the source of these ideas can help you begin untangling them from your own true beliefs.
- Question your motivations. Toxic femininity can be so ingrained that certain behaviors may feel automatic. That’s why Lurie suggests getting curious about your actions. Do those choices truly represent what’s best for you? Or do you believe you’re expected to make them? Before agreeing to take on a task, you might consider whether you genuinely want to help — or simply feel you should.
- Practice self-validation. “Women are often socialized and conditioned to minimize their experiences and discount their feelings to make men feel comfortable,” says Vermani. So, make it a point to validate yourself. You might, for instance, reach for daily positive affirmations like, “It’s natural to feel this way,” “It’s OK to feel angry,” “I tried my best, and that’s enough,” or “My feelings matter.”
- Notice when and where you feel most authentic. Rice suggests noticing when you most feel the urge to conform to stereotypes and distancing yourself from those scenarios. Creating distance may involve setting boundaries with people who would rather pressure you to fit their expectations than celebrate your uniqueness.
- Make space to explore. “Allow yourself to discover aspects of your identity that go against the norm, and honor those parts of yourself when they arise rather than reject them,” says Lurie.
- Be mindful of the media you consume. If you recognize that certain channels, publications, social media accounts, or other outlets promote toxic femininity, you might consider avoiding those as much as possible. Instead, Lurie recommends taking in inclusive media that challenge gender norms and represent the wide array of gender expressions that exist.
If you notice it in others
- Approach the subject with curiosity and compassion. Making accusations can put the person on the defensive, so Dixon advises calling it out by asking a question. If your sister keeps commenting on the fact that her friend doesn’t want kids, you might ask, “It seems like you have some strong feelings about that. Why do you think it bothers you?”
- Ask if their actions are genuinely in their best interests. If you believe toxic femininity is affecting someone in your life, Lurie recommends asking whether their choices bring them joy and fulfill their needs. You could, for instance, ask a friend why they chose to leave a job or neglected to pursue a career.
- Show them judgment-free love. Lurie suggests affirming and supporting any self-expression not colored by societal expectations. Remind them of everything you love and appreciate about them, especially the qualities that may not align with gender norms.
No matter how you decide to approach the topic, Rice emphasizes the importance of:
- asking open-ended questions
- practicing active listening
- avoiding criticism so they feel emotionally safe and supported, since this can prompt a more honest and productive conversation
Keep in mind, too, that working with a therapist can have a lot of benefit, whether you’re looking for:
- help identifying and navigating the effects of toxic femininity on your own health and well-being
- guidance bringing up difficult or uncomfortable questions with a loved one
- support with exploring ways to shift your mindset
Toxic femininity, to put it simply, describes behavior that reflects or supports gender-based stereotypes or social norms for women.
Exposure to these social norms and stereotypes typically begins at an early age, and this mindset isn’t your fault. Still, taking steps to explore what drives these often-harmful thought patterns and behaviors can make a big difference for your overall well-being.
A therapist can offer more guidance with identifying and replacing unhelpful tendencies with alternatives that support your well-being. They can also help you practice embracing all aspects of yourself, including those that don’t align with gender norms.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.