We all have a good idea of what society expects a boy or a girl to look like, but how much of that actually comes naturally to kids? Many of the gendered traits we start to assume are inherent are actually reinforced by parents and peers – generally for the worse. According to research, placing these unnatural gendered expectations on kids actually is a detriment to their physical and mental wellbeing.
To study gender roles more closely, Dr. Maria do Mar Pereira lived as an eighth grade student in Lisbon for three months. During this time, she observed repeated “gender” roleplaying and encountered several problems with this behavior:
1. Suppressing Emotions
Boys have emotions, just like any human. However, since “masculine” boys are taught to be emotionless, they’re forced to suppress feelings that come naturally to them. The walls they build in interacting with their peers contribute toward becoming emotionally stunted individuals who have difficulty building interpersonal relationships.
2. Avoiding Sports
Even girls who loved sports and participated in leagues reportedly downplayed their athletic prowess in front of male peers. Since girls are “supposed to be” dainty and not as strong as guys, they were afraid to show off any physical capabilities. Their intentional restraint just further reinforces the idea that girls cannot compete with guys physically.
3. Conscious Dieting
Sadly, the modification of behavior extends further than physical activity – girls who felt pressure to be “girly” also changed their eating habits. Dr. Pereira noticed that most girls, well within a healthy weight range, deprived themselves at mealtime in order to achieve a more slender figure that would appeal to boys. This deprivation is the sort of thing that spurs eating disorders or a lifetime of unhealthy dietary choices.
4. Drinking Alcohol
Teenage males who adhere to masculine stereotypes drink a lot more. Part of the reason is that boys are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and want to prove they can drink as much alcohol as their friends. The other part is that the general pressure to perform as masculine creates a lot of anxiety, which thereby drives people to drink.
5. Sexual Harassment
Unfortunately, one of the most common ways males exerted their dominance over females was to make sexually suggestive and demeaning comments toward their female peers. Sexual harassment wasn’t just used to reduce the esteem and comfort of women – it was also used to impress fellow males. Because masculinity is tied so strongly to heterosexuality, objectifying females is a transparent way to demonstrate to fellow males that they are heterosexual.
6. Acting Stupid
Girls consistently demonstrated fear of looking smarter than male peers. In order to not threaten male ego and intelligence, girls were observed stifling their smarts and creativity to come across as more desirable to guys.
When boys had conflicts – even trivial ones stemming from a joke – they felt obligated to respond with minor acts of violence. While the incidents didn’t often result in full-on brawls, Pereira witnessed punches, kicks and other acts between men trying to exert dominance. Males feel the need to show their physicality to be masculine, so not responding with some sort of aggressive act is considered weak… a routine that ultimately reinforces violence as a way to handle uncomfortable situations.
8. Self-Esteem Killer
With all of these pressures to behave in ways that they might not naturally feel inclined to behave, kids felt like they weren’t living up to societal expectations. As they felt themselves failing to live up to the ideal image of a normal boy or girl, their self-esteems suffered as a result.
Following the observations, Dr. Pereira interviewed her subjects and found that nearly all of them privately admit that they felt overwhelming pressure to be more of a girl or more of a boy. When she brought the class together afterward and revealed this secret, the kids stripped some of the expectations they had for themselves and each other for the remainder of the year. They later reported to Pereira that they were pleased with the freedom.
In other words: there’s hope. If we stop pressuring our youth to be more of a specific gender and let them build characteristics of their own choosing, they’re bound to become happier, healthier and more well rounded people.
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