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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.

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • CynthiaV
    2 weeks ago

    Wonderful article. Thank you once more @tamara. Such a timely topic especially your insight into valuing our internal determination vs. societys external beauty barometer and our honest appraisal of it.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    2 weeks ago

    Thanks for your comment, CynthiaV! I’m glad you found it of some value. Thank you for being here! Wishing you all the best, Tamara

  • MrsT
    3 weeks ago

    I was diagnosed with RA at age 11 and I’ve always had issues with my femininity. I am not able to walk very ‘lady-like”….I’m always stiff and gimpy. I don’t have pretty feminine hands….I have thick ankle and what I call “grandma legs”…lol I’ve just never been able to have a nice, graceful body. I even have some stretch marks along my jawline from when I had a “moon face”(results of steroids).

    I love being female, but I’ve never been able to feel like a woman.

    Yes I know, it really shouldn’t matter what your body is like…but I’m human and it’s just how I feel.

    Then again I’m getting older and I don’t think it matters anymore…hahahaha

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    2 weeks ago

    Hi MrsT,

    Thank you for sharing the ways that RA has impacted your appearance and the challenges that come with trying to accept ourselves – which can be hard enough regardless, but it’s all the harder when contending with realities that are hard to accept even without taking appearance into consideration.

    I appreciate you sharing your reality with us, and I’m so glad you’re in our community.

    All the best,

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    4 weeks ago

    I feel you. I have so many female friends in both the diabetes and RD communities who have similar complaints. In diabetes it is about pockets, pump placement, injection selection and shoes.

    In the RA community it is about shoes, pain and comfort of clothes.

    In both communities it is about sex, but for different reasons. In diabetes it is about being tied to an electrical / mechanical appliance while in the RA community it is not being taken seriously and pain.

    My take away is that I need to invest in comfortable clothes, with shoes that are stylish and practical with pockets all with pockets of course.

    Maybe we can form a partnership my contribution will be pockets. I swear I can see the money rolling in already.

  • CynthiaV
    2 weeks ago

    Wonderful contribution @lawrphil! I never have enough pockets.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 weeks ago

    Pockets! Yes, I love some pockets.

    Thanks for sharing these additional aspects and crossovers of RA and Diabetes. My sister has both autoimmune diseases, and you are right on the money with the insecurities that come with them.

    Knowing others share similar insecurities makes it easier to address them.

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    4 weeks ago

    @tamara Usually being the only dude in the room with RA, I can’t relate to the femininity part, but I can certainly relate to the problems of RA and gender. That, and the whole “being in the mood with pain,” thing – it isn’t easy. Also, I’ve had stuff go tragically wrong during, and that’s pretty much a direct hit of humiliation mainlined into your jugular. Although, with RA, we kind of gave up on dignity a while ago I suppose, but still! As I always say when people say anything about how I appear, “hey, it takes work to look this good!” 🙂 Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 weeks ago

    Thanks so much for sharing your male perspective about insecurities. I’m sure with the gendered way our society looks at sex, having RA impact a man’s “virility” must carry its own weight for men. I’m glad you’re sharing your male perspective, as it both helps other men with RA know they aren’t alone (just outnumbered) in having this disease, and it lets all of us know that the insecurities that come with RA aren’t male or female, they’re human. Thanks Daniel.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    Thank you, @frazzled for sharing the ways this disease impacts you and for your kind words. I have also had to sit back while my friends bowl or go for a run, but I imagine this may be even more common with men, as it seems like men often gather around an activity. Thank you for sharing that.

    It feels like medicine to read people sharing their stories, some aspects similar and some different, but all of them human and real. That doesn’t happen enough nowadays, as too often differences lead to people shutting down and discounting one another. Thank you for making this forum harmonious, as in many different voices and experiences coming together to create something multi-textured and beautiful.

  • Frazzled
    3 weeks ago

    I echo Daniel’s comments. I am definitely not setting your feminine concerns aside, because I know how much it does take for a woman to get ready in today’s world, and I am talking about my wife who doesn’t have RA/RD or any other chronic condition. But because RA is considered in many circles a “woman’s disease”, it can be hard for other men to relate to the pain, plain discomfort, and feelings of being “less than a full man” due to our disease process. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to decline…golf, bowling, other team and family events where I would be in pain and not enjoy the activity.

    I definitely appreciate your perspective @tamara, and love reading your down-to-earth articles.

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