You Do This Every Day
Can you remember the first time you “performed” your gender? Maybe this was the first time you played with make-up after watching mom in the bathroom, or maybe it was the first time you baked cookies with your mom and your grandma while the boys watched a game. Do you remember? Notice how these examples are taken from your childhood memories? That is because we learn how to perform our gender from a young age.
Gender is not biological. Sex is. Gender is a performance that we learn as we are socialized growing up. We learn from observing our parents, siblings, extended family, community, and media. We understand what “girls do” and what “boys do”. These rules we learn to live by seem natural. As if they are simply “the way it’s supposed to be”. Truth is, that’s not true.
Gender is something we learn how to perform. That is also why it can feel like SO MUCH WORK. Especially if you’re a woman. Right, ladies? The fact of the matter is, these “rules” we know so well are harmful to the development of girls and boys in a few ways.
From a very early age, boys are taught to keep their emotions to themselves. Don’t be too emotional. Anger is okay, but crying in front of anyone is not acceptable. Boys grow into men who have no idea how to articulate what they’re feeling or feel comfortable with vulnerability. Their emotional development is stunted and we all wonder why men are so uncomfortable with sharing their feelings.
Girls, on the other hand, are taught to put everyone else first and keep their emotions in check. As children, girls are given space to learn the full emotional spectrum. All except for anger. Girls are taught to be nice, happy, sweet, and kind. Fighting between girls should never be physical or, really, verbalized. Thus, girls learn to show their anger through passive aggressive strategies that are pre-meditated and extremely hurtful. These young girls grow into women who, generally, manage their anger in the same way.
What is a significant indicator of a man’s masculinity? His body. Men should be tall, BIG, and take up space. We muscular, athletic men as the most masculine. This, however, becomes a dangerous and unhealthy standard. This value is directly related to an antiquated notion of men protecting a weak woman.
Where men should be big, tall, and take up space, women should be small, thin, and uncomfortable when occupying space. More importantly, women should be pleasing to look at. Culturally, we have raised girls to believe that their value lies in what everyone else thinks when they look at her. She should be pretty, thin, and perfect. Any physical flaw is a cause for shame.
Being that May is mental health awareness month, I want to stress the consequences of the dangerous dichotomy we live in for both men and women. When either gender cannot reach the impossible standards we have for what is means to be masculine and feminine, it leads to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, a sense of isolation, and worse. We define gender from a very early age for our children without thinking about how the same “rules” have affected our own lives. We create the gendered experience that leads to our own demise. If we were to relax the rules for both genders we would live in a very different western culture. Imagine boys who felt comfortable sharing their fear or pain and girls who knew how to express anger in middle school. Would your life be different had that been the case? Would your life be different NOW if your body wasn’t “supposed” to look a specific way? Would you be a happier, healthier person if the “rules” weren’t quite so strict?
The silver lining of this is that it is a choice. You can choose to see gender as a performance and the “rules” that guide the performance as limiting beliefs that cause stress and anxiety. You can choose how you will live your life and what you will subscribe to as a PERSON, not just a man or a woman. You can choose brave.