Fashionable woman shrugging with a line of question marks behind her

Women, RA, and Femininity

While the roles of women in our society are continually evolving and changing, the June Cleaver dresses, aprons, and pearls of the past discarded for power suits and yoga pants, many long-standing associations of womanhood persist.

The word “femininity” suggests beauty, grace, caring, softness, and desirability. While I am grateful to be afforded far more opportunities and choices than the typical woman in the 1950s, I still embrace some attributes of femininity and want to feel feminine. However, having rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease [RA/RD] can make femininity seem a lofty goal.

How can I even feel feminine with RA pain?

It’s hard to feel beautiful when I’m in pain. Even though I often put extra effort into my appearance when I’m not feeling well, it’s difficult to feel attractive on the outside when the inside of my body is riddled with fatigue, joint pain, and muscle soreness. Sometimes pain does show through my interior to the outside world, as it steals the color from my face and replaces my smile with a pale grimace.

The disconnect: women's fashion and RA symptoms

On top of that, fashion often doesn’t mix well with RA/RD. To start, many women’s shoes are designed with aesthetics, not comfort, as the top priority. Heels are quintessential feminine fashion in our society, and these are torture for enflamed feet, ankles, knees, and hips. While it is possible to find cute flats and sandals without a heel, these are frequently not supportive enough for tender joints.

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Even when that holy grail of the cute, comfortable women’s shoe can be found, it can be hard to find clothing that completes a pretty, feminine look. When my body hurts, it is so much more sensitive to the subtle pressure of seams, buttons, and snaps. Bra straps on enflamed shoulders and sore, tight neck muscles crank the pain higher, and even the slight sensation of my underwear elastic can hurt. Therefore, when I’m in a flare and have to be in public, I opt for the loosest garments I own, which are not my most feminine outfits.

It's difficult to feel attractive when in pain

When I’m hurting, I often walk with an “RA shuffle” and sometimes limp when I must. This is a far cry from the confident strut of a woman on a runway. On guard, in a flare, I move slowly and tenderly, and sometimes clumsily. None of this bolsters any feelings of attractiveness.

RA's ability to hinders romance

Even when the man in my life continues to find me beautiful in spite of all this, RA/RD can squelch romantic feelings. It’s hard to feel turned on when in pain, especially since the physical sensation of being touched can ramp up the discomfort, and pressure can feel excruciating.

Society is slowly changing

As approximately two-thirds of individuals with rheumatoid arthritis are women, I imagine I’m not alone in my desire to feel more attractive and feminine than I do while contending with this disease. I am glad to live in a time when women have more socially-viable fashion options, such as going to the grocery store in work out clothes or wearing short hair cuts.

Changing my expectations

As our society’s ideas about what it means to be female shift, I’m trying to shift my own expectations for myself. There is now national conversation around the unequal emphasis placed on a woman’s appearance compared to a man’s. I recognize that I, in turn, do this to myself and that I need to focus on the strength it takes to look presentable during a flare versus whether or not I managed to achieve the height of femininity. As women work to expand the confines of what it means to be a woman, I too am working to value my internal determination the way I value external beauty.

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