I am female. I cannot become “more female”. Unless I were in the process of gender reassignment or was afflicted with a rare chromosomal abnormality, my gender is not a graded scale; it is a black and white, only-two-options phenomena, determined by my chromosomes. So- if I am as “female” as I am ever going to be, why would I waste time trying to be more female, or more “feminine?” It would seem rather silly, unless of course I equated “truly feminine” with an external checklist of subjective or objective qualities and attributes my adherence to which determined my femininity.
I do not make such an equation, because I do not believe that there is a list which defines “true femininity”, or “godly femininity”, or “attractive femininity”, etc. Of course, there are external things which identify me as female in my culture. (My hairstyle, the cut of my clothes, wearing makeup, and so on) These things, however, are completely culturally relative (much like wearing one’s hair up or down or wearing head coverings in the culture of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians) and thus a matter of personal choice, never morally prescriptive, and not indicative of any internal gender identity. For example, I would not cease to be a woman, nor would I begin to feel male, if I buzzed my hair into a high-and-tight. (think short, stereotypically male military haircut) It would not necessarily be the traditional hairstyle for females in my culture, but that alone will probably not make anyone think I am male. I don’t believe that the Bible endorses purposeful gender androgyny, or attempts to impersonate or become the opposite gender, but it’s rather difficult to do that without a great deal of conscious effort. I really doubt there’s anything I could do, wear, etc. on any given day that would make people wonder about my gender.Having said all that, it troubles me that christian culture in general makes such a big deal about women being “feminine.”
We have “feminine” hairstyles, “feminine” souls, “feminine” colors, “feminine” ways of speaking and relating to men, “feminine” ways of sitting, standing, walking…. it seems there’s a “feminine” way to do pretty much everything. I’m not trying to say that doing or wearing or exhibiting much of the typical cultural trappings of femaleness is a negative; there’s nothing wrong with proclaiming oneself culturally female. Some of these cultural trappings I enjoy myself; I watch Downton Abbey, I love chocolate, I like scented bath products, and I get my hair cut at a nice spa, complete with relaxing music and complimentary wine. The problem comes when we take things that are amoral, culturally-dependent expressions of gender and make them a prescriptive requirement to embody that gender, when we define “biblical” or “appropriate” femininity by external qualities that must be studied and adhered to, and when we hold women’s female identity hostage to a standard of gender roles and expected codes of behavior; when we tell women that they aren’t real women, or they aren’t womanly, unless they subscribe to our idea of what they should be. Being feminine isn’t something I must endeavor to do; it is something that I inherently am. I do not need to live up to anyone’s definition of feminine; by virtue of being a female, I define feminine. I. Define. Feminine. Not the other way around. Yes, there are ways to be more culturally, stereotypically feminine. But those things are external, relative, and generally optional.
What happens when we make cultural externals the measure of “godly femininity?” We tell some women that their natural, God-given expression of the female personhood isn’t right, isn’t good enough, needs a tweak or a tweeze or a wax here and there. We teach women that don’t like makeup, don’t go crazy for every baby in sight, don’t like to spend hours on their hair, don’t like to giggle or paint their nails or shop or do brunch, don’t like romantic books or movies, don’t cross their ankles, don’t act reserved and understated enough around men, like hunting or guns or fishing or serious physical challenges, or have serious professional and intellectual goals that may supersede their desires for immediate motherhood or wifehood, that their expression of femininity is somehow inferior to the women who adore babies, shopping, shoes, and taking a backstage role in conversation. The truth is, neither one is better or worse. Some women are bent to nurturing and emotional empathy; some are not. Some women delight in intellectual analysis of any sort; some do not. Some care whether their hair is done and their nails manicured; some do not. When we teach women that there is only one way to be a godly woman, we rob the women who do not fit that stereotype of living their calling to their fullest potential and being the best and most effective version of themselves.
Being culturally female, and the ways that the female gender is culturally expressed, have changed drastically through the ages. Being a woman, and more importantly a person, has not. I think it’s very, very important to separate the cultural externals that we sometimes use to define femininity from those things that actually make a Godly Christian Woman. Mercifully, that list is short: Be a follower of Christ. Preach the gospel, in whatever way you are best equipped to do that. Love God. Obey God, and follow the gifts and callings that God has put within you. Love your neighbor. If you are married, love your spouse. If you are a parent, love your children. Be chaste, be rational, be faithful, be humble, be merciful, be just. And yes, that list can be applied to either gender. Funny thing- being a Godly Christian Man requires pretty much the same stuff as being a Godly Christian Woman. (Yes, there are some social differences between the genders. But they are not uniform, universal, or prescriptive, and they pale in comparison to differences in background, culture, and personality type.) The most important feature of Godly Christian Womanhood isn’t having a family, or being a wife, or anything else. It’s being an authentic follower of Christ.