“You play ball like a girl!”
Sound familiar? This schoolyard taunt is not often heard nowadays, though the idea that girls are weaker than boys exemplifies today’s ideas of masculinity and femininity, and ultimately exposes the problems these standards bring to youth.
Society has a fairly rigid idea of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine.” Femininity means liking the color pink, gentler activities such as housework and so on. Young girls are often encouraged to play with dolls, wear dresses and participate in tender play.
Masculinity is associated with notions such as bold, daring, dominant and aggressive. Little boys are not often reprimanded for playing rough, because, as the saying goes, “boys will be boys.” This mindset can later contribute to sexual harassment and assault, both of which are pressing issues in today’s society.
So what about the boy who likes to play with dolls, or learns that he’s gay? Research shows that society’s idea of masculinity can be damaging to them as well. A study in Portugal showed that a group of teenage boys believed that they needed to consume unhealthy amounts of alcohol and suppress their emotions in order to be considered masculine.
This idea of masculinity can extend to transgender people as well. Transmen may be seen as “lesser men” because of their assigned birth sex, and those who identify as women or as non-binary are at risk of having masculinity forced upon them.
These hazards aren’t restricted to boys. The Portuguese study showed that teenage girls believed that they needed to be physically attractive in order to have any sort of “worth.” These girls participated in unnecessary dieting, bordering on eating disorders.
Thinness is heralded by Western culture, especially among women. Physically attractive women are more likely to be hired for a job that they are not qualified for than less attractive, more qualified women.
Gender socialization is damaging in itself, for queer and non-queer children alike. For the little girl who likes to play with trucks and the transgender boy who is forced to wear dresses, it discourages them to be themselves.
In regards to gender roles specifically, many children raised by LGBT parents find themselves at a disadvantage in their education. Teachers often make references to traditionally gendered parents, and not all children may share this experience.
“What does a mommy do?” is a question that can potentially confuse a child who has two fathers. Children who are told to line up by gender may experience detriment if they do not identify with either end of the binary.
So why do people still use gender roles? It’s likely due to the fact that the majority of the world’s population identifies as cisgender. Furthermore, the gender identity of these people exists on a binary scale of man or woman. Gender is hardly a black and white matter – or, in this case, pink and blue.
Can gender roles damage children? It’s difficult to say. As more gender identities and sexualities are coming into the light and out of the closet, we may see a shift in how children are raised. In the meantime, steps can be taken to encourage children to be themselves.
Graphic by Pam Black