Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
In recent decades, it has become increasingly normative—at times, even desirable—for women to possess traditionally masculine personality traits. The pressure on women to maintain a feminine physical appearance, however, has not waned. Past research has demonstrated that unlike men, women do not experience distress when their psychological gender stereotypicality has been threatened. This does not mean, however, that they are immune from the harms of gender stereotypicality threats altogether. In this dissertation, I explore the possibility that women experience distress when their physical femininity has been threatened. In Chapter 1, I lay the foundation for my empirical work. I provide an overview of the constructs at the center of this dissertation: gender stereotypes, gender identity, gender stereotypicality threats, and identity invalidation. Further, I highlight three major gaps in the existing literature on gender stereotypicality threats: attention to women, consideration of physical appearances, and exploration of underlying mechanisms. In Chapter 2, I present four studies that test my hypothesis that physical femininity threats are distressing for women. I find that women experience anxiety and reduced self-esteem in response to information indicating that their appearance is less feminine than average (versus more feminine than average). Further, I find that these effects are not simply the result of women interpreting this information to mean they are unattractive. I also find that these effects are indeed domain specific, such that physical, but not psychological, threats produce anxiety and reduced self-esteem in women. In men, in contrast, masculinity threats produce anxiety across domains. Finally, I find preliminary evidence that identity invalidation—and specifically, a discrepancy between the feedback one received and one’s internal sense of self—can help to explain the effects of gender stereotypicality threats on both anxiety and self-esteem. In Chapter 3, I describe the unique contributions of these studies to the psychology of gender and propose three directions for future research. I suggest that additional studies be conducted to explore the null effects of psychological femininity threats. Additionally, I propose that future research approach the subject of femininity threats from an intersectional perspective, considering whether and how experiences with these threats differ between dominant and minoritized social group members. Finally, I highlight the importance of considering the broader consequences of femininity threats, both for women who have been threatened and for people in general. In sum, this dissertation explores a highly consequential phenomenon that has been largely overlooked in the literature: femininity threats. In doing so, it highlights unique ways in which gender stereotypes can harm women and paves the way for further research on this phenomenon, as well as interventions to mitigate its harm.
Wittlin, Natalie, "Femininity Under Threat: How Women Respond to Feedback about Their Physical Appearance" (2021). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 131.