What Is Toxic Femininity?

Man yelling at woman

South_agency / Getty Images

Toxic femininity is a broad term that refers to a rigid and repressive definition of womanhood, including pressures women face to restrict themselves to stereotypically feminine traits and characteristics.

Toxic femininity refers to the adherence to the gender binary in order to receive conditional value in patriarchal societies. It is a concept that restricts women to being cooperative, passive, sexually submissive, gentle, and deriving their value from physical beauty while being pleasing to men.

Toxic femininity posits that women are without agency and exist to be defined and judged of their value by a male in their life such as a father or a husband.

If toxic masculinity encourages violence and domination in order to uphold an unequal power dynamic, then toxic femininity supports silent acceptance of violence and domination in order to survive.

While toxic masculinity states that men should act tough, show no emotions, and reject anything considered feminine, toxic femininity pressures women to be quiet, nurturing, submissive, and attractive. “Womanhood” in this instance is defined in a very shallow manner that objectifies and harms women.

What Is Toxic Femininity?

Toxic femininity includes any thoughts, actions, or behaviors by women that benefit or defer others, usually males, at the expense of a woman's independence, agency, full range of emotions, and emotional and mental well-being.

Toxic masculinity and toxic femininity appear to be two sides of the same coin, but power is the undercurrent that pressures men to play an aggressive, violent, intimidating, and sexually dominant role in order to stay in power, and women to seek to please those in power in order to avoid punishment and pain.

Both toxic masculinity and toxic femininity are performed by men and women to attempt to keep their value in society. Toxic masculinity and toxic femininity tell men and women that their worth, value, and validity as men and women is conditional upon their adherence to these roles. These social constructs reinforce women's submissive behavior and enable men by claiming that violence is to be accepted.

Like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity is made up of a myriad of culture-specific rules. However, through research and references in pop culture, the following core components have emerged:

  1. Docile: This is the notion that women must be ready to accept control or instruction. They should be “flexible” in their thinking and only live to be of service.
  2. Hyper-femininity: This involves the strict adherence to stereotypical feminine behavior. This behavior is reinforced through punishment, such as being at fault for experiencing gender-based violence, being called a "slut," or being seen as “compromised”—for instance, confident women are often told that their attitude is unattractive or an unwomanly trait.
  3. Policing of femininity in others: This involves pressuring others to emulate behaviors that are seen as feminine — for example, commenting negatively over someone’s choice to remain child-free.
  4. Sabotaging others by abusing traditionally feminine qualities: This refers to the idea that all other women compete for male attention and recognition. In this instance, an individual may resent or act harmfully to other women as a means to prove themselves. This could be done to receive the attention of a man—perhaps a romantic interest, teacher, boss, client or male peer. Behaviors utilized can consist of: gossip, spreading rumors to discredit someone, and the threat of social exclusion.

What Toxic Femininity Is Not

Like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity is the product of a patriarchal society. These toxic notions of femininity further deny women agency or identity. That said, discussions of the term outside of academic spaces can verge on the antifeminist side. They are used as a reactionary argument against feminist discussions of toxic masculinity.

Some uses of the term toxic femininity spread harmful stereotypes of feminine behavior while suggesting men as the primary victims of this—for example, the claim that women are naturally very emotional, manipulative, or gossipy.

This interpretation of the term is used to negate discourse on how power is gendered , seeking instead to place feminism as the cause of gender inequality.

Because of this, scholars have suggested people consider what is toxic about some approaches to femininity versus using this term in an inaccurate or manipulative way. Most behaviors given as examples of toxic femininity are actually examples of misogyny or internalized misogyny.

Pressure to Abide by Contradictory Standards

Toxic femininity is comprised of person-specific rules and regulations that are constantly in flux. For example, some may believe wearing heels to work is essential.

Others stay away from drinking beer because it is “masculine.” Women who adhere to toxic femininity may be rewarded in society and those who do not may be punished, which is a dynamic enforced by those with power in order to to maintain their power.

There is no correct, blanket, or exact way to be feminine as expressions of femininity are personal, intimate, and not to be policed.

Grooming Habits

For example, a 2016 study of 14,600 individuals in the workplace found that less attractive but well-groomed women earned more on average than women who were more attractive but less groomed.

This means that the women’s grooming habits accounted for almost all of the salary differences in this research pool. Whereas for the men in the study, their grooming habits accounted for roughly half.

Thus the researchers concluded that while good grooming is beneficial for men, it is imperative for women should they seek to access labor market rewards.

Cosmetic Use

In contrast, a 2018 study into the cosmetic use of women in the workplace found that makeup used for a social night out negatively impacted the perception of a woman’s leadership ability.

The researchers theorized that this might be due to makeup enhancing traits that are important for relationships and having families, which is incompatible with the notion of social dominance in leadership.

Though they come to different conclusions, these studies highlight the paradox of female beauty, whereby women are shamed for seeking idealistic beauty standards while simultaneously judged for not prescribing to them.

In essence, the rules don't matter as much as the insecurity that they provoke. It is their rigidity and contradiction that make women so desperate to keep up. Within this desperation, women become easier to control and exploit.

Impact of Toxic Femininity

Toxic femininity, therefore, is dangerous as it posits the subjugation of women as natural and essential for social approval.

For example, the pressure to be quiet, nurturing, and submissive can lead to women falling victim to abuse or remaining in unsafe conditions due to feeling duty-bound to stay. Furthermore, these issues also go beyond the home.

For instance, toxic femininity in the workplace can create a hostile work environment that negatively impacts employees’ mental health. In addition, by blocking other women from climbing the employment ladder, toxic femininity also facilitates the lack of diversity in leadership positions.

In essence, toxic femininity is detrimental to the fight for women’s equality as it seeks to maintain the rigid, toxic gendered power structures and systems in place today.

What You Can Do About Toxic Femininity

Rather than encouraging, supporting, and celebrating women to be fully expressed as they are, toxic femininity pressures women to feel apologetic, confused, and ashamed for their non-gender stereotype confirming thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

Furthermore, the fear of de-gendering oneself through neutral human acts locks women into a rigid re-definition of femininity that is beneficial to no one.

Nevertheless, while toxic femininity may seem to be everywhere, there are also many examples of embodied and authentic femininity. These vast and varied presentations of femininity steer clear of rigid rules and center on autonomy and individuality.

Rather than being objectified or pigeonholed, women and non-binary folks are supported in being fully human and freely expressed in their femininity in ways that feel authentic, enlivening, and true for those celebrating it. These personal manifestations and expressions of femininity offer reprieve, rest, inspiration, and hope in the fight against misogyny.

Here are some things you can do on a daily basis to help combat the effects of toxic femininity:

  • Take time to reflect on what you've learned and begin to unlearn: Check in with yourself and consider what misogynistic ideology you’ve been taught or internalized. Are you doing things for yourself or for the male gaze? Are you making decisions based on what you really want or are you seeking male approval? Be gentle and honest with yourself and consider what other ways of thinking, being, and interacting may be possible and more true to who you actually are and want to be.
  • Speak up: Notice and call out toxic femininity within yourself and the circles in which you exist. Have curious and courageous conversations with others and explore whether what is being said or done is in the best interest of all, or if it is contributing to the upholding of patriarchal power dynamics.
  • Be careful with how you use the term "toxic femininity": Deploy the phrase ‘toxic femininity’ with careful consideration of the context. Remember, some uses of the phrase have been used to promote anti-feminist ideology to deter conversations around toxic masculinity. Perhaps the situation requires you to reflect on what may be toxic about some approaches to femininity instead. For example, calling gossip a product of toxic femininity alone is reductive. Gossiping is not an action done by women alone, and implying so may be considered anti-feminist. In reality, the true toxic trait is the policing of femininity; and gossip is one way that people attempt to do this.

After all, it is rigid gender structures as a whole that need to be fought against, and this may help us remember the bigger picture.

A Word From Verywell

It can feel overwhelming at times to consider the ways toxic femininity affects you, your life, and your full expression of yourself. Like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity limits the ways that people feel comfortable expressing themselves. The important thing is becoming aware of how gendered labels and stereotypes inhibit us, so moving forward, we can be more conscious of acting with authenticity and giving others the space and the respect to be their authentic selves, too.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Snider N. “Why Didn’t She Walk Away?” Silence, Complicity, and the Subtle Force of Toxic Femininity. Contemporary Psychoanalysis. 2018;54(4):763–777.

  2. McCann H. Is there anything “toxic” about femininity? The rigid femininities that keep us locked in. Psychology & Sexuality. 13(1):9–22.

  3. Wong JS, Penner AM. Gender and the returns to attractiveness. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 2016;44:113–123.

  4. James EA, Jenkins S, Watkins CD. Negative Effects of Makeup Use on Perceptions of Leadership Ability Across Two Ethnicities. Perception. 2018;47(5):540–549.

  5. Bonell S, Barlow FK, Griffiths S. The cosmetic surgery paradox: Toward a contemporary understanding of cosmetic surgery popularisation and attitudes. Body Image. 2021;38:230–240.

  6. Medium. Toxic femininity holds us all back.

  7. Rosander M, Salin D, Viita L, Blomberg S. Gender matters: workplace bullying, gender, and mental health. Front Psychol. 2020;0.

By Zuva Seven
Zuva Seven is a freelance writer, editor, and founder of An Injustice!. Follow her on Twitter here.