Unveiling the Dichotomy: Probing the Definitions of “Manly” and “Womanly”

Article Author

Sushmita Shukla


Sushmita Shukla

Research Intern, ICRW Asia

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]


Photo Credit: Juan Marin/Unsplash


Over the past few months, I have been working on a literature review for an upcoming project titled, “Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality.” During this process,  I found a frequent use of the term “manly,” sparking my curiosity about finding an appropriate synonym for this word. This also prompted me to search the internet for a synonym for “womanly”. After consulting dictionaries such as – Cambridge University Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Collins, and Oxford, I found it striking that synonyms commonly associated with “manly” are heroic, robust, vigorous, courageous, fearless, gallant, bold, and brave. In contrast, synonyms for “womanly” included effeminate, ladylike, epicene, petticoat, effete, voluptuous, buxom, Rubenesque, and Junoesque.

This enraged me. It made me think about the stark contrast in expectations that social and gender norms put on men and women, how these expectations are almost considered natural, how they find their place in our daily language, in tools like dictionaries, and how they shape our perspectives.

Male aggression is often valorized as a robust innate trait, in contrast with the expectation for females to adhere to a more delicate demeanor and not to be too aggressive as this might be perceived as ‘over-reaction ‘and ‘improper’. This is evident in our media and in the speeches that politicians make. Female athletes, for instance, are expected to excel in their sport and win medals while maintaining a “ladylike” physique. This is  exemplified by the scrutiny that female wrestlers face for possessing “large biceps and mold-breaking muscular frames.” This contrasts sharply with the standards applied to male athletes, where physical appearance is rarely a defining criterion for success. A notable example of this double standard is seen in the case of Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli, who was subjected to disparaging comments about her appearance, including being labeled as “Never going to be a looker.”

These beguiling remarks on women’s physical appearance are even evident during transitional stages such as adolescence or post-pregnancy, when their bodies undergo significant changes. An anecdote from within my own family is where new mothers are pressured to conform to certain body standards shortly after childbirth. In one such case, a new mother was given a weight-loss guide and a weighing machine by her own mother within the first week of post-partum. The grandmother prioritized her daughter’s physical appearance over her mental well-being. These are merely a few examples, indicating a larger narrative extending beyond these isolated incidents.

The classification of individuals into “man” and “woman” is traditionally based on their biological and physiological characteristics. However, the attributes commonly associated with these terms, such as heroic, courageous, poised, courteous, intelligent, voluptuous, or curvy, should be viewed as individual traits rather than exclusively tied to one’s sex and/or gender.

In the current era, we must start recognizing individuals based on their qualities instead of reducing their existence solely to their physical appearance and objectifying them. This shift is necessary to break free from a restrictive and confining cycle. These norms not only harm women but also have repercussions for men, as those who do not conform to traditional notions of masculinity may face bullying and ridicule. Even a slight deviation from these roles can lead to humiliation and coercion to conform, ultimately depriving them of the freedom to express their authentic selves. This highlights the importance of cultivating an environment that allows free and uninhibited expression of individuality. Perhaps a key crucial step could be for dictionaries to revisit their definitions of what it means to be a man and a woman.

Edited by: Anurag Paul, Communications Coordinator, ICRW Asia