The Softer Sex





Life moves from softness to constriction, then back again.

Babies are swaddled in flannel, dressed in soft cotton shifts that slide right over their downy heads. Then, little by little, life becomes uncomfortable. First the tight plastic pants, then the zips and buttons and layers. Long, itchy pants and awkward tights. Bras and high heels, strangling ties, heavy jewelry.

Young women suffer a double burden: not only are Western clothes often overtight and rough (all that cheap, shiny fabric pretending to be luxe), but any inclination toward pastels or gauzy fabrics reads as Unserious, a betrayal of feminism, an abdication from the responsibility to be smart and assertive and always proving something to somebody.

Years ago, when a St. Louis woman opened Soft Surroundings and chose her merch by the fabric’s feel and the garment’s loose ease, I wanted to weep with gratitude. More recently, when Bo Burnham mocked “White Woman’s Instagram,” I nearly died laughing, because he nailed it. All those pastel details, all that self-conscious focus on avocados and inspirational quotes…. The softening had gone too far, mushed a few brain cells.

Still, I sense a secret rebellion when I am with women who are lawyers, physicians, or college professors, and we sneak a minute to enthuse about scented laundry detergent or a new plush robe, so soft….

Somewhere between cottagecore and the hardcore expectations of the work world, there is an invisible fulcrum on which we wobble. Why is it our fault that softness automatically equates to fluttered-lashes femininity? Anybody would rather wear a soft robe than a hard wool one. Yet we are still, after all these years, trying to balance any interest in soft colors and comforts with self-possession and a strong, independent mind.

It is perfectly possible to be an astrophysicist and still love pale pink cashmere.

I say this because a friend just sent me a link to a BBC piece about the #SoftGirl aesthetic. It is striking a blow for—no, wait, soft girls don’t strike blows—wrapping a cozy throw around those old tensions. Started by Nigerian social media influencers, it fast become #SoftBlackGirl, embraced by young Black women all over the world. Now everybody else is joining in, eager for a #SoftLife.

Most of the enthusiasts are young enough to feel no guilt about the sisterhood, but they have already realized that they have to defend certain preferences. Vox explains the aesthetic as “an over-exaggeration of the things that teen girls have been trivialized and undermined for loving.” Having come of age in a time when the personal was politicized, I chafe at any overemphasis on fashion and beauty. But the soft aesthetic ignores my resistance. The girls wear carefully exaggerated eyeliner and tennis skirts and bralettes and barrettes, and all of it is pastel, sometimes floral, hyperfeminine.

Is this progress? Is girlie not socially manufactured but an instinctive preference wired into some of us, and therefore as entitled to free expression as an aptitude for math? Softness just might be an equal right.

Its origin story suggests that it could be. Nigerian women were thoroughly sick of being Strong Black Women, expected to bear the world’s pain and fix everybody’s problems at their own expense. They were thrilled to put on their most comfortable clothes and add more ease to their everyday lives. This was a grassroots demand for something more real than the commercialized “me time.” This was political.

Here in the States, we have a similarly gentle rebellion in the form of the Nap Bishop. Tricia Hersey is a Black woman who had an epiphany while she was wearing herself thin raising a child while doing graduate work in theology. She began finding soft surfaces—padded bus seats, cushy library chairs—and sleeping whenever and wherever she could, and she regained her strength and sanity. Startled by the power of an act that was the opposite of action, she began preaching about the insistence on carving out time to sleep and renew yourself as liberating, disruptive, and redemptive. Rest Is Resistance explains the title of her new book.

Soft living does not sound like resistance. Soft living cuddles up on the couch with a sherpa throw and listens to the rain fall. It is vulnerable, admits to needing a rest, resists pressure and expectations. Countercultural in the mildest of ways, it looks a lot like slow living. Slow food, biking to work, less crazed consumption, shorter to-do lists. Mindfulness all round (and yes, we are sick of that word, but we only bore easily because we have not yet mastered the concept). Here is a question cribbed from the BBC piece: “How often do we ask ourselves what we need, what makes us feel good, and then find ways to meet those needs without having to rely on others?”

The friend who sent the email has been close since our days at an all-girls high school. Below the link, she typed, “Are we soft?” Sometimes, I write back. At other times, I can literally feel something inside me harden, like a muscle tensing for an uphill climb. Those are the times I need to push myself, push somebody else, fake confidence, pretend I am all that and a bag of chips. I tend to wear darker colors those days, tailored jackets. I get less sleep, grab whatever food is available, work well into the evening, feel a macho sort of pride that I am pulling it off. Whatever “it” is.

But if I were to live in pastel pashminas, soothing away every stressor? I would slide into that White Woman’s Instagram. Compared to the burdens borne by most women in this world, my life is already soft. The people who desperately need simple joys, relaxation, ease, healing, and “self-care” (another word hollowed by our inability to do it right) are the people who literally cannot take the time, because it means forfeiting a paycheck or leaving children unsupervised or letting the furnace explode. The soft aesthetic is a deceptively cute attempt to counter forces that are not cute at all: unfair working conditions, social inequity, superhuman expectations, a lack of compassion that rationalizes itself as capitalism, and an overzealous feminism that tries to erase anything that could be used to weaken us.

For centuries, women were expected to be soft. “Easy to mold, cut, compress, or fold,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. “Pleasing or agreeable to the senses: bringing ease, comfort, or quiet,” according to Merriam-Webster. Now we have stepped back from the obligation to be malleable, to please, to ignore our own needs, to speak in the tones Shakespeare described as “soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Instead, we are pulling softness around us.

Maybe we should all figure out how to surround ourselves with softness. How to seek it when we need it and wear it when we like. How to pop it out of its niche in the luxe world of spas and resorts and make it available to people who sleep on hard sidewalks or live behind steel bars. If we all felt forgiven, cared for, and permitted to take our ease, we just might find the right balance. Women’s old obligation would be released, and so would its stigma. Naps and pastels would not have to double as acts of political resistance.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.