At least 17 times a day, whether it's while taking out the trash, washing the dishes or working to a deadline, I mutter to myself: "I need to marry rich." I daydream about bumping into my mysterious benefactor at a fancy bar and never having to work again – until I’m rudely awakened by the sound of an email notification pressing me on something I’m late for. Securing a rich man, otherwise known as hypergamy, is no easy feat; it requires time, dedication and impeccable attention to detail regarding behaviours as well as aesthetics which, according to the exploding love coaching industry, fall under the umbrella of 'femininity'.
It turns out that anything can be packaged and sold to you under capitalism.
But what does 'femininity' mean in this context and, crucially, who gets to define it? The practice of femininity coaching can reinforce archaic gender roles; it can be classist, anti-Black, exclusionary. Yet it has risen in popularity, at once alongside and in opposition to contemporary feminism.
The emphasis on performing femininity when it comes to dating for women is nothing new. For years now, dating and love coaches have pointed to the ‘divine feminine’ energy (or, rather, a lack of it) as an explanation for why many successful women are single. Dating coach Sami Wunder makes over £1 million a year supposedly helping "high-achieving women attract lasting romantic love". Her blogs detail how ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ energy should coexist when dating. "[Women] accidentally devalue themselves in the eyes of men by practising masculine 'business'-like behaviours in their romantic relationships," she writes. This reinforces gender norms, binaries and long-established conventions according to which women who dare to leave the domestic sphere are overstepping.
So what exactly is this ‘masculine’ behaviour Wunder is talking about? She calls it ‘doing’ and ‘giving’ which, she explains, includes initiating contact, giving him presents or going Dutch on dates; this all means that women are ‘making it all too easy’ for men. I may not be in total disagreement with some of these ideas but I feel like this narrative is continuing to tell women that they should be passive and wait to be picked. The implication is that love is something that happens to women, not something we have agency in.
I put this idea to love coach Persia Lawson, who describes herself as "one of the UK’s most successful love coaches for successful and high-achieving women". "[Women] achieve a level of success in their career by operating very much out of their masculine," she told me, "that sort of ‘do’ ‘go’ mentality, and there is an element of control with that. But that doesn't work so well in our love life because when we’re showing up romantically, we need to be in our feminine."
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Between March and April last year, as much of the world went into lockdown, messaging on Tinder increased globally by 52%. Loneliness was at an all-time high and those who were single suffered because of the restrictions. With more time on their hands, who could blame single women for seeking out advice about how to secure the relationships they want? I have to say, again, I don’t necessarily blame them. It’s easy to be squeamish about this but, even in 2021, for women, who you decide to marry has huge implications for your life. According to a 2015 study conducted in the US, marrying someone less educated and with less earning potential than you can cost you $25,000 a year.
The problem isn’t acknowledging the above. It’s that femininity coaching encourages women to practise a version of 'femininity' or 'feminine energy' which is not truly authentic to them and is rooted in ideas about respectability which are deeply exclusionary. If you’re a Black woman, for instance, it tells you to idolise rich, thin, light-skinned women who have far more financial capital than the average person and emulate them. Black women who engage in this will find themselves chasing an impossible ideal.
Consider also what the growth of this industry means for trans women and non-binary people. Beyond securing relationships with men, femininity coaches like Monica Prata help trans women 'pass', which means they are seen as women despite being assigned male at birth. Jae Alexis Lee, a trans woman and researcher, explains the complexities of this for HuffPost: "Passing is situational, and it’s complicated," she writes. "Some trans people work very hard to pass both because it eases their dysphoria and because life is safer if you pass. Some trans people push back against the pressure to pass. Some people dislike the term ‘passing’ as though it’s an arbitrary measurement of our success or failure at… what? Being trans? Performing gender ‘correctly’?" Passing can provide a much-needed level of safety to an otherwise systemically unprotected and marginalised group of people but positioning it as desirable – as Prata does – equally undermines those who do not. Prata, however, insists that her practice involves working with her clients to 'undo' what they think femininity means and looks like.
There are a million ways to be a woman. Yet as these coaches proliferate, women from all walks of life are being taught or even groomed to secure a financially stable marriage where there is no incentive for the man to be perfect for the woman. All he has to do is fulfil the nondescript role of 'provider'.
Surely the fact that 'femininity coaching' is trending signifies a backlash or at least a pushback against feminism which, ultimately, centres gender equality and women’s economic liberation. Cate Campbell is a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; she also runs a sex education podcast with her son. "I think what the coaches are capitalising on is this sort of backlash against gender fluidity – people are looking for affirmation and are coming across these coaches," she explains.
There is still, sadly, a worrying implied link between your inherent value as a woman and the extent to which you are prepared to perform vague and abstract ideas of 'femininity' which, particularly in the context of our shifting ideas about gender and sexuality, can be pretty rigid and isolating. "One of the really noticeable things that people bring into therapy is the feeling that women need to be the custodians of the emotional terms of their relationship," Cate tells me. "So women have to be the ones who are together, who don't fly off the handle, who apologise, who make things better when they go wrong, who are caring and loving."
When you think about how restrictive that is, how it denies women the right to express themselves, the rebranding of gender roles by love coaches who appropriate the quasi-spiritual language of 'energies' is pernicious. When we attribute certain behaviours to gendered 'energies', we tell women to become passengers who put themselves second in their relationships.
These femininity-focused coaches prime women for relationships with men by cementing gender roles instead of eliminating them. Cate adds: "A lot of men are looking for the sort of nurturing and management of their confusion and feelings that women are supposed to be able to do, and when you mix that up, e.g. if you have women who are confused themselves and out of control, it's scary to men because a lot of men can't look after themselves, so if women start behaving like men, who's going to look after the men?"
Chloe_ is a femininity influencer with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers and the founder of The Hypergamous Life. She also runs the New Feminine Finishing School where women who are tired of being ‘masculine’ can learn about "hypergamy, practising radical self-care, learning social graces, having polished etiquette, learning high-value dating strategies and getting top-notch advice on how men think".
She and I spoke over email about why she feels hypergamy requires ‘femininity’. "Feminine women possess softness, nurturing, vulnerability, and an ability to complement the masculine divine to create harmony," she tells me. "A High-Value Man will desire the complement of the feminine divine to feel inspired, protect, provide and feel needed. It’s human nature, and it’s how men and women are wired." I balk. This rigid, patriarchal idea of femininity which is supposedly required to secure a ‘high-value’ man seems, to me, to be more about being easily controlled than anything else. Campbell touches on this during our discussion. "People, women in particular, are not always self-validating; they are going to look for whatever society says is good to look for," she said. "You’re told having a successful, beautiful man is going to make you feel that you're okay but so many women do not feel okay. Though it looks different in different societies, it always comes down to the same thing: control."
Alongside the sprouting of Instagram pages dedicated to achieving a long relationship shelf life by channelling femininity, YouTube femininity coaches have also increased in number and reach. Many of them create content that specifically targets Black women, encouraging them to embrace femininity to counteract our historical masculinisation. These YouTubers cynically play on the insecurities of Black women by blaming our maltreatment and issues with finding partners on our perceived inability to be vulnerable and the aggressiveness projected onto us.
Tali Ramsey has explored this for Black Ballad: "Femininity training is indeed a code of conduct marketed to Black women to lose the aggressive and combative labels that they didn’t give themselves. But can Black women break away from this trope without traditional femininity? Maybe it’s not on them to dismantle a stereotype that they didn’t create," she writes. I put the idea that these practices are anti-Black directly to Chloe. She argued that "femininity is not only about cosmetics and foundationally has nothing to do with European beauty standards or European practices of etiquette." She added that, as she sees it, "femininity is an energy, a wiring, a practice and a complimenting and creative force to the masculine divine."
Cat Shanu is a plus-size lifestyle influencer and film student based in the UK who runs The Femme Guide, another femininity coaching service. Her Instagram page has over 50,000 followers and she works with clients across the globe. Cat describes herself as a cross "between Betty from Ugly Betty and Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl growing up," when we talk. "I was the outsider," she says. "I also grew up in a little village in Ireland so for the longest time, I was the only Black girl in my school. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that I went to 13 schools in 10 years. I was really struggling to make friends because I thought, What's the point?"
Cat explains that she was interested in dating and relationship coaching from a young age when she always ended up as a friend, never the girlfriend, to guys she liked. In her early adult life, she attended seminars hosted by infamous dating coach Matthew Hussey, author of Get The Guy. She was, she says, always the youngest woman in the room.
Cat religiously read books like How To Win Friends and Influence People and became obsessed with studying people and relationships. She now runs her coaching service and has seen an uptick in engagement over the last year. She speaks candidly about the issues with ‘femininity’ coaching online when I ask her about its obvious pitfalls. "Shame is big in our community, unfortunately," she laments, "and people often don’t discuss toxic femininity which is when women are encouraged to be weak or even too dependent on someone. If you come across a femininity coach who demonises masculinity, run! They don't even understand that as women, we need feminine and masculine energy."
The idea of having to perform a version of femininity to appeal to a certain kind of man rewards men for being average and averse to change. It does nothing to challenge power structures, beauty ideals or the patriarchal version of femininity that still exists in mainstream culture. There is no one way to be a woman, there is no one way to be feminine – it doesn’t belong to a particular kind of woman or require following specific rules. Why waste time and money lapping up toxic femininity content to become someone else when, instead, you can learn how to be happy as yourself?