Gender Norms: Creating New Instructions

by wildfeministappears

I wish there were a way for me to be an expert in everything that I write about, but given that I’m 26, I don’t think I’ve had the time.  So, feel free to start the conversation about this when you want to!

Ah, the need to conform to gender norms.  I’m sure we’ve all struggled with this at some point, feeling constrained by what society tells us is right for us to feel, do, wear.  In feminism, I feel like we’ve reached an impasse on what is right.  On the one hand, some of us feel that we can be perfectly happy sticking to gender norms, as long as it is our choice.  On the other hand, some of us feel as though we’ve taken a step back and are objectifying ourselves through being what society considers attractive.

I for one feel good about my gender lines and don’t mind how other people view me.  I’ve already shed my shame about what I wear and do, and I certainly don’t owe apologies to people who consider me trashy.  So why does it matter to other people?

Research has time and again told us that people will stick to gender norms.  People tend to feel positive when they adhere to the social norms that they see and mimic.  Gender norms allow us to comprehend “normal”, and when we succeed in reaching the coveted “normal”, even for a moment, we’re pleased to think that we are more socially acceptable and therefore more lovable. (Gendering the Self: Selective Magazine Reading and Reinforcement of Gender Conformity by Sylvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Gregory Haplamazian)

In fact, when we find materials like magazines that reinforce those stereotypes and we engage in them, we tend to feel more like the gender that we are influenced to be. (Same reference as before)

So why wouldn’t women, even feminists, feel better about themselves when they adhere to social norms?  Feminists may feel an inner guilt for giving in, but the reward system is so strong that we can’t argue with how it makes us feel.

Guidelines and rules are important to human beings, and even if those rules constrain us, it’s a comfort to have them there.  How overwhelming is a model of a plane or a car if there are no instructions?  How much more slowly do we have to build and contemplate what to do?  The stress is more intense!  What if we’re doing something wrong right now, and the model can’t be salvaged?

Likewise, we base our personalities on models of people we grow up around, and what culture tells us our gender is supposed to do.  While some of us break away from these gender norms and rules, many people struggle with the idea that maybe they are doing something wrong, even if they do break away from the norms.  There are no instructions for people who don’t fall into a neat little place in the “normal” scale!  (Conformity to Gender Norms Among Female Student-Athletes: Implications for Body Image by Jessie Steinfeldt, Hailee Carter, Rebecca Zakrajsek, and Matthew Steinfeldt)

This lack of instructions can cause us more stress in all life situations.  Female athletes, for example, can’t grow their strength to their full potential for fear that it will ruin the femininity of their bodies.  They still strive to fit in the gender and sexual norms despite doing what they love to do, and it hinders them.  It may seem as though a woman can’t be as physically strong as a man because they appear to be naturally smaller, but in truth women limit the way their bodies grow in order to stay within the norms. (Same reference as before)

Gender norms also force us to have personalities that are on the opposite spectrum of the opposite sex.  Researchers found that women who tended to be more gender normal were far more different from men than women who moved away from the gender norm.

Together, these results clearly indicate that the social learning of gender, operationalized as the level of conformity to gender norms, plays an important role in personality styles. This would mean that greater or lower compliance to a given set of gender norms leads to differences in personality, and that, regardless of sex, the degree of conformity to these norms establishes differences between people, even within the same sex. Furthermore, those women who adopt and are more identified with what is traditionally expected from them regarding what they should do, think, or feel have personality styles that differ more from those found in men, and those women who comply less with the expectations and feminine norms differ less from men regarding personality styles. Thus, we can state that our data suggest that gender socialization plays an important role in personality differences between men and women, because, when the degree of adherence to gender norms in women is taken into account, the differences with respect to men decrease.

(M. Pilar Sánchez-López, Isabel Cuéllar-Flores, Rosa Limiñana and Javier Corbalán  Differential Personality Styles in Men and Women : The Modulating Effect of Gender Conformity)

Just imagine what kind of lives we could lead and what kind of stereotypes we could crush if we moved away from what society told us gender should be.  Women and men don’t have to be so different from each other, and identifying yourself as a man or a woman despite your genitalia should be no special issue.  Society is dictating our personalities and confining us to being a certain way just because of the way we were born.

The temptation to stay with gender norms is a strong one, and we all struggle with it.  But we can make instructions for other ways of life!  We can learn about different choices and because we would be able to understand them, we could respect them.  Education first, people.  Create instructions for your gender lifestyle, and let other people know that it’s okay to be the way that they are.  The reward system to be happy with yourself will follow.

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