Don’t Look at Me, There’s Nothing to See (I’m Playing Femme)

I’ve read the submissions to the recent carnival of aces about nonbinary people, and both Stormy’s submission, and an essay linked to the Thinking Asexual’s submission bring up the notion that many people consider sexually pleasing others / sexual objectification to be an essential part of being femme. Stormy says:

If femininity is supposed to be centered around pleasing a partner (usually men, but not always), then how can I even be considered femme? I’m always reading queer anthologies, blog posts, articles, and critiques trying desperately to find a gender journey I relate to. Every femme/non-binary narrative I find is saturated with the role that sexuality played in the writer’s gender. I look and look but never find someone like me. I often ask myself if I can exist as a femme without a fuck given about sexually pleasing others.

The Thinking Asexual says:

I realized recently that I’ve always felt the most sexy when I’m dressed up femme, and I associate that feeling of sexiness with being in someone else’s sexual gaze. On the other hand, when I’m dressed masculine and feeling masculine, I love the way I look and I do feel very good-looking, but the “sexiness” factor isn’t there in the same way. The admiring looks of strangers are toned down and less openly lustful, than they are when I’m provocatively femme.

Now, I am binary cis-female and tomboy. I’ve sometimes said that I am ‘occasionally venture into butch territory’ or something like that, but to me, ‘butch’ is something I might do, just as I sometimes do ‘femme’, whereas ‘tomboy’ is something I simply am.

However, when I have put on a ‘femme’ performance, I haven’t experienced intense sexual gaze the way that the Thinking Asexual (and many others) describe. I used to present as femme at work, yet never received concentrated sexual attention.

To me, the ‘sexually pleasing (masculine) people’ thing is just one aspect of being femme, and I always felt it was a disposable aspect. I was able to dress as what I think was a very femme way without being sexy.


I wore a clean, simple black skirt with black pantyhose and simple black shoes. These aren’t particularly pretty, but also not ugly – ugliness attracts attention.

My blouse was silver-lavender, and again, was nothing beautiful, but also visually non-offensive – great for smoothly sending the gaze any stray eyeballs to something else.

In a way, I made an equivalent of a hijab for using femininity to deflect instead of attract attraction.

I dressed this way partially because I don’t want sexual attention, thank you very much. I also tend to be loud, and can sometimes seem a bit forceful to people, so this ‘don’t mind me’ manner of dress helped soften the blow.

See, another aspect of ‘femme’ is making oneself silent and unnoticed. This is obviously just as rooted in patriarchy and sexism as sexual objectification of the ‘femme’. However, given that it’s there, it can be used to present as femme *without* sexually pleasing others.


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18 thoughts on “Don’t Look at Me, There’s Nothing to See (I’m Playing Femme)

  1. I find your perspective on this really interesting, because I’m another person who avoids a typically feminine presentation because of the sexual connotations that I feel it has. While I don’t think that femme and sexy are equivalent, whenever I look feminine–and I almost never wear skirts or dresses and never wear or jewelry or makeup, so “looking feminine” for me has just meant having long hair and wearing a tighter shirt–I feel vulnerable to sexual objectification by other people, just by virtue of presenting as a woman. So for me, it isn’t really about what exactly I look like (or any specific reactions I’ve gotten), but about the fact that being a woman in a patriarchal culture–even a woman who’s not dressed up, who obviously isn’t going for a “sexy” look–leaves one open to sexualization. So I definitely feel less noticeable, more under-the-radar, when I’m presenting in a gender-neutral way. But what you said does make sense, and I definitely think it’s good for femme and sexy to be decoupled, so I’m glad you brought up that it is possible to have the first without the second.

    • I don’t actively avoid presenting as feminine, it’s just that I only present as particularly ‘feminine’ when I specifically choose to do so. I also have long hair, mainly because I don’t feel any particular inclination to cut it.

      As you say, a woman in a patriarchal culture is always open to sexualization to some degree – but as far as I can tell, there is no difference between ‘tomboy’ and ‘nonsexy femme’ in this regard. I actually … have very little experience with dressing up as ‘sexy femme’, because I have had little reason to do so.

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  3. The comparison to hijab is interesting. To me, femme has always seemed to be about makeup, hairstyles, and fashion. I don’t wear makeup and have no interest in styles or fashion. However, the way that I dress with hijab is very strongly coded as female. I ultimately did not find a place for myself in any femme discourse and therefore don’t consider myself to be femme even though I’m not interested in androgyny or any kind of masculine presentation. I do think that part of my lack of interest in makeup and fashion is because it often comes across as sexualized, and I have an aversion to being sexualized.

    I’ve thought about gender more than once, but ultimately felt that what I don’t fit into is conventional femininity. When I can avoid that, I am perfectly comfortable being gendered as female and thinking of myself as female. That didn’t seem to fit into any narrative of non-binary gender, even though I often feel a very strong sense of difference from most cis women when they talk about makeup or clothes. I also can’t untangle my asexuality and sex aversion from how I feel about these things.

    • Considering that I’ve taken college classes about makeup and fashion, it’s clear that I do have some interest in these things, it’s just that I don’t feel an inclination to doll myself up on a regular basis. Those classes also gave me a broader understanding of makeup and fashion – for example, the very same makeup techniques which can make oneself look younger can be reversed to make oneself older (I once has a little competition to see if I could look older than my mom). Oh, and makeup is just as effective for improving men’s aesthetic appeal as it is on women, and there have been times and cultures where men were/are just as inclined as women to use makeup.

      As a tomboy I think I’m still within ‘conventional femininity’. If ‘conventional femininity’ is so narrow that it excludes me, then I think it probably excludes the majority of women, and thus would not be so ‘conventional’ after all.

      My general refusal to wear makeup is mostly a matter of not wishing to deal with the expense, bother, and skin problems, not any particular aversion to makeup and fashion.

      • I’m curious, how would you define conventional femininity? I guess I’ve always seen makeup/styled hair/an interest in fashion as an integral part of it (since even though some men do wear/are interested in those things, those things are still generally considered “girly” in American culture), which is why I don’t relate to it myself.

      • (in response to cinderace)

        There are degrees of interest in makeup/styled hair/fashion. Some people are professionals (though the people who are professional generally have to at least be able to go beyond convention so they fall of the spectrum), some people make makeup/fashion/hair their primary hobby, some people make it a less important hobby, lots of people have a 1 minute makeup routine and try to look a certain way but don’t invest too much effort, etc.

        In terms of what I’m willing to do on a routine basis, I am pretty darn low for a woman of my social station (i.e. I stood out a little among my peers for this), but not to the degree that it made me unfeminine. However, the women who make this a primary hobby are also outliers.

        Oh wait a minute, this is a question about what is conventional femininity. I would say it has something to do with fitting with many of the gender role models offered to me, both real people and (mainstreamish) stories.

    • I relate to what you said in your second paragraph a lot; on one level I feel fine with being a woman, but then within the context of western society, being female has all these connotations and associations that I don’t fit with or relate to–makeup, fashion, sexuality. I haven’t seen a form of non-binary gender either that reflects, “I’m fine with being a woman [or man], but I don’t fit with the cultural stereotypes of one.” And I’m sure lots of people who consider themselves cis feel that way too, but I feel like most of the cis women I know are fine with being viewed as conventionally feminine, while I actively don’t want to be seen that way. “Genderless woman” is the best term I’ve come up with to describe how I feel; basically, female but without femininity.

      It’s also really interesting that, as you said, certain styles can be considered typically female but not fall under the scope of “femme”… there really isn’t a name for those that I can think of.

  4. I’ve always had a feminine look, but haven’t had a problem being sexualized (until now, but I’ll get to that). I’ve been wearing primarily skirts/dresses since high school. Long and flowery, it’s more on the cute (and perhaps old-fashioned) than sexy side. It took a long time for me to realize that I wanted to benefit from a sort of innocent, nonthreatening vibe.
    Two days ago I started up my OkCupid account again after they got their new asexuality option. I redid my profile and put up a new picture. A picture with hijab, though I only occasionally wear it in my daily life. In the past, I put right at the top about being asexual and mentally ill to scare away people who wouldn’t be okay with that, but this time I was thinking the way I wrote it was too negative, so I omitted it (it still says I’m asexual on the side bar). That’s the only thing I can think is different, but boy oh boy am I getting a different response.
    Message after message after message.
    Well. This is a new (and unpleasant) experience. I can only guess here is where my cute look catches up to me, for Muslim men who may prefer a sort of old-fashioned (yet fashionable (?)) type of “good girl”.

    • Yes, I think being a certain type of ‘old-fashioned’ is an element of the nonsexy feminine look. It’s not ‘old-fashioned’ as in ‘I found this marvelous eye-catching vintage dress’ but as in ‘an old woman who hasn’t paid attention to fashion for forty years might wear this’.

  5. Interesting look at femininity, thanks.
    I’d consider myself femme and present as such, unless I feel like messing with gender presentation and go for a shirt-and-tie-look. Being femme for me means digging into all those things coded “feminine” with gusto and preferably going overboard. So if I feel like it, I will color co-ordinate two colors of nail varnish, costume jewelry, clothes and a tea rose for my hair, thank you very much. The result is more playful than sexy, even though I tend to dress in bright colors and form-fitting clothes. At least, I don’t get much undue attention.
    This might be because while I present as femme, I don’t act particularly girly – I don’t do flirty behavior, try to school my body language into being non-submissive and ususally don’t invoke the “helpless woman” stereotype.
    So, being femme for me means reclaiming all that “superficial girly stuff” as being as freaking relevant as polishing my car every Saturday or showing off the newest smartphone, which is just as superficial, but somehow slightly more acceptable because it’s male-coded.

    • Sounds awesome. Even though I feel I’m a tomboy (which I consider to be feminine, but not femme), I’m all for reclaiming girliness as being relevant and just as good as any other kind of gender presentation.

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  8. I’ve always dressed very femininely in a chaste, frills and ruffles and lace kind of way, and I cannot associate feminine dress solely with an attempt to be sexually alluring, at all! Unless a lot of flesh is being revealed, or, certain garments typically read as sexy are being worn – such as see-through blouses, basques, leather, or, fish-net tights, (etc), I don’t think of feminine dressing as particularly or at all sexy! I dress femininely because I hope to be read as, and to be, gentle, intuitive, sensitive and caring, and appreciative of protection and nurturing, which to me is the basic thing femininity means, not sexiness. Why femininity in dress can’t be seen as a desire to look nurturing, not sexy, by so many non-hetero women who have criticised me for dressing as I do, I simply don’t know. I am a femme, and I’m largely asexual. I want to be seen as reminding people of a dear supportive female relative of theirs such as a sister, aunt, or mother, or like a supportive female friend of theirs – as understanding, caring, non self-centred, nurturing – not, like a typical guy/man, (though I like men, I’m not into playing male roles). That’s why I dress femme. And yes, it’s kind of old-fashioned femme, but not plain I do – you might call my style chaste romantic.

    • Frills, ruffles, and lace sound like fun. I can also imagine that as being totally chaste, but hey, I’m under the asexual umbrella too, so I am probably more inclined to interpret things as chaste than many people.

      I also appreciate that you point out it is possible to be femme without being sexy or being the way this post describes.

      You sound like you would be a wonderful supportive female friend.

  9. Thanks Sara. Yes I think everything’s down to interpretation and someone into say French Maids, may see lace and ruffles as sexy for example, as those are used a lot on French Maid costumes, but it’s just for me there’s more than one interpretation than “alluring lover” as women are typically nurturing and social as well as interested in sex.

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