When I first encountered the term ‘feminine conditioning’ a few years ago it burst through my consciousness like a beam of light. I heard the term from Jo Casey, an amazing coach for coaches. When Jo started writing about feminine conditioning, I realized the term perfectly captured an undefined swirl of issues that I was encountering in my clients, seeing in my life, and talking about with virtually every woman I know.
Feminine conditioning refers to an internal set of rules or beliefs that the majority of women hold about the nature of being a “good” woman. Over and over, in my work and conversations, I’ve seen this particular brand of social conditioning show up for women, including myself. It holds us back from speaking out, expressing ourselves, being seen for who we are, pursuing our goals, and following our passions. In most cases the effects of this socialization are unconscious, but it plays a huge role in the lives of women.
Not sure if you know what I’m talking about? For example:
Women have been convinced to declare war on our own bodies. Our size and shape determines our cultural value, and more importantly how we value ourselves. Eating, as in nourishing our bodies and minds, is often regarded a sign of weakness - an estimated 3 in 5 women have an eating disorder. Letting our bodies age naturally is practically considered a crime against society. We are raised to view our bodies as ornamental - what matters most is how we look, anything else is secondary.
The prevailing image of female goodness is that of sacrifice. Women are taught that, above all else, we need to be giving. And giving. And then giving some more. We learn from a young age that we're expected to put other people's needs before our own, whether it’s making people comfortable or giving others credit for the work we do. We’re told to ‘play nice’ and expected to smile.
One of the most revered compliments a woman can receive (other than comments on how she looks) is that she is “selfless.” As in - without regard for self. As in -"Check your true self at the door, because there is no room for you, your thoughts, or your opinions in this man’s world. You are ‘supposed to’ be the wind beneath someone else’s wings."
We learn at a young age not to speak up. “Good girls” are quiet, meek, modest and agreeable. If we dare to speak up, disagree, or get too loud or visible, we are labeled as shrill, bitchy, bossy, emotional, hysterical, nasty, and irrational. For the women who break this mold, the public backlash is immediate and intense. Just ask Leslie Jones, Hillary Clinton, or Jessica Valenti.
The #metoo movement may be the most recent evidence of how difficult that it can be for women to speak up, even when they have been harmed, and how much we (rightfully) fear retribution when we do.
Women make up more than half the world’s population and yet we wield almost none of the power and decision-making capability. There are a whole host of external reasons for this phenomenon, but right now I’m talking about the internal causes. We have internalized this conditioning to a point where it starts to look like Stockholm syndrome. I say this because the fact is that many women are the ones perpetuating this norm; turning on each other, rather than fighting the standards that hold us all captive.
How often do you hear women - in person, in the media, online - judge and trash other women for not conforming to the standards detailed above? When was the last time you heard a woman criticize another woman for being too brash, too loud, or too fat? How often do you hear women call each other bitches and sluts? Criticize each other for the way they look, dress, talk, or parent? It's getting better, but there are still women who are just as guilty of perpetuating these norms as men are.
So, how do we begin to overcome this?
Awareness is the key to beginning. The first step to overcoming your own feminine conditioning is by building your awareness. Learn the messages of your own conditioning and begin to recognize them when they show up for you. Download my free e-book for tips on how to get started.
Communicate about it. Talk about this with other women. When you feel yourself getting smaller or holding back from what you want to say or do, name what’s happening aloud to someone you trust. Naming something reduces its power over you. Help the women around you to do the same.
Sisterhood. I cannot overstate the value of finding sisterhood. Join or cultivate a group of women around you that you can count on for support and discussion of the things that matter.
Defend each other. When you see women being targeted, step in to defend them. Be the voice of reason in a conversation that is descending into petty gossip or harsh judgment. This isn’t easy, but it will feel better than just jumping on the bandwagon.
Feminine conditioning can be addressed and managed, but it takes a conscious effort. As individuals, we can learn to address this within ourselves and then help the women we know. As a culture, we can create change, one woman at a time.
To join the discussion about these issues, join my free Facebook group, the Unquiet Sisterhood.