Summer has arrived and through the hayfevered mists it’s clear to see the femininity industry is thriving. It smells amazing. The parks, the streets, they’re alive with flicky skirts, clicky heels, bronzer dusted 2cm thick in order to make up for those lost lockdown months. I have purchased a tinted lipbalm, some herbal tea and a pair of high-leg period pants this week alone. But it’s not just the vanilla-scented accessories of femininity that are available to buy today; no, these are simply the scaffolding on which the project leans.
A piece I read on Refinery29 this week introduced to me the trend of “femininity coaching”, and the rise of femininity-focused Instagram profiles. Sami Wunder earns more than £1m a year coaching “high-achieving women” on how to “attract lasting romantic love” by teaching them how to use their “feminine energy” and refrain from masculine “doing” or “giving”. The Instagram account, Levels of Women, has 16,500 followers, here for content from a psychologist whose advice includes “learn to cook”, “never swear” and “don’t be impressed by a man’s wealth unless he’s spending it on you”. Instinctively, I bristle. Of course I do, a person so slathered in various posts of feminism I must complete a mental guilt worksheet before I allow myself to shave even my shins. But the timing of this trend, it interests me.
Sami Wunder earns more than £1m a year coaching women on how to use their ‘feminine energy’
The feminine-industrial complex has been successfully whispering fresh problems into women’s right ears while singing solutions into their left for many years, whole female-led industries having successfully replaced many of the cultural restrictions previously upheld by men, with new agonies and their expensive cures. It creates templates of womanhood, marked out in small pains and large cheques. It’s very clever. But what’s new is also old; the promotion of traditional femininity, a trend which has included, in recent years, the rise of “cleanfluencers”, the domestic thrill of baking a cake, and this, a reclaiming of the Rules, but with the radical, modern twist of labelling it “self-care”. It reads as a reaction to feminist liberation from such binds, and it interests me because it comes at a time when anxieties about what it is to be a woman seem to be peaking.
Over the past decade there’s been a 400% increase in the UK’s coverage of trans issues. Throughout June (also Pride month) there has been a negative article about the LGBTQ rights charity Stonewall almost every day, centred on reports that institutions have withdrawn from a diversity and inclusion programme it runs, with campaigners alleging this is due to its support for the transgender community. One impact of these criticisms is that our right-wing government is being given tacit permission to cut ties with Europe’s largest LGBTQ+ rights charity. It takes little imagination and even less cynicism to see where this moral panic will lead.
Debates about “women’s spaces” are set up weekly as if jolly village fetes, a battle of vulnerabilities, with “gender-critical” feminists on one side and trans people (who make up around 1% of the population) on the other. Except, in these debates, a trans person is rarely present. And except, rather than fear the fabled “men in dresses” harassing them in bathrooms, the feminists I know empathise deeply with trans women, partly because of that same itchy fear – we know what it is to want to move freely through the world without being harassed, policed or insulted, but we also know predators feel no need to put on a disguise.
I can see why, if I were trans, I might decline the opportunity to debate, to get up very early in order to argue my right to exist, but if the conversation is happening it is only right that the invitation is made. On the Today programme last week, when the chief executive of PinkNews asked presenter Justin Webb why producers had invited three men, none of whom are trans, to debate Stonewall and trans issues, Webb replied, defensively, “You don’t know anything about me.” The implication, of course, being that he might be trans, its top note a belittling of the issue, its base note a suggestion that trans people may choose to shrug on womanhood for the purpose of an argument, or worse.
I bristle at the idea of femininity coaching, but once I have smoothed that bristle out with two or three stabby group texts and a calming biscuit I remind myself that other women’s desires, choices, identities and femininities have no reflection on my own.
I remind myself of the importance of solidarity, of acknowledging the many paths we’ve all taken to arrive here, in adulthood, in uncomfortable shoes and awkward hair, the differences and similarities in our childhood memories, what some man once said to us on a bus. I remind myself there are a thousand different ways to be a woman. And fine, if one of those ways means a woman thinks she’ll be more loved if she cleans the oven and refrains from swearing, then girl, fucking go for it.