We’ve heard all the “harmless” comments: “Act like a lady,” “Man up and take care of it,” or “You hit like a girl.” And the biggest oxymoron of all: “Don’t act like a pussy.” We all know a vagina is strong enough to open up, give birth to a human being, then return to its normal size again. Talk about tough stuff. In fact, Betty White said it best with her epic quote asking the valid question, “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”
We’ve seen all the frilly pink items in the girls’ clothing section of every store, and the big men in beer commercials with muscles, looking at sexy ladies in bikinis. Society set these conflicting, gender-specific roles into motion long ago, but a new study published in the Journal Of Adolescent Health proves it’s time to change the way we do things because what’s happening now is dangerous and has harmful, long-lasting effects.
In 15 countries, 450 adolescent boys and girls and their caretakers were observed and interviewed. And while each person shared a different story, there was a common thread among them: Girls are perceived as the weaker sex; boys are dominant and strong. Everyone who participated in the study felt if they didn’t “conform” into their appropriate gender role, there would be negative ramifications.
So we are essentially telling our girls they are weak while telling boys they must be strong. By age 10 or 11, children have already “learned” how they should portray themselves, and the study shows this way of thinking has negative effects on their mental and physical health.
For girls, the research indicated depression, not finishing school, and violence. And boys were more likely to take drugs and engage in dangerous, violent behavior because, to them, being “manly” equals being strong and above reproach.
The study also found as soon as puberty hits, we are trying hard to keep our kids from engaging in risky sexual behavior. We are pushing them even further into their “role” by telling our girls to cover up and not be “easy.” At the same time, we are treating boys like predators before they’ve even had a chance to prove themselves by trying to scare them away from our daughters with our “cleaning my gun” nonsense. This reinforces the message, yet again, that women are weak, and men are not.
If we are telling our young kids how they should feel, dress, and act, somewhere along the line they are going to be repressing some behaviors that feel normal and natural to them, and that is going to have a major impact on their self-esteem and overall well-being.
A few years ago, we had a friend stop by our house, and my son was wearing a purple beaded necklace he got in a parade. He loved it and wore it every day. And when the friend asked, “Why would a boy would wear a purple necklace?” He responded, “Because I like it.”
I was proud of him and made sure I followed up with a conversation about how he could wear whatever he wanted, that it didn’t matter what anyone thought about it. But he never wore it again. And through the years, I’ve seen that self-confidence dissolve. Comments like that, what he sees in the media, and the music he listens to have pounded these gender stereotypes into his brain. And regardless of how his father and I tried to enforce a certain belief system in him — that he can be whoever he wants to be — I can tell he wants to be viewed as “manly.” He feels it’s what you do, and I need to up my game. Parenting is hard.
So to everyone who thinks it’s okay to send the message to our girls that they need to be “ladylike,” modest, and find a man protect them, and to the people who constantly make our boys feel that need to repress their emotions, stifle their feelings, and act tough…
Newsflash: It’s not okay. It’s damaging.
We need to start talking to our kids earlier about sexuality and equality. We need to stop saying things like “boys will be boys” and leading girls to believe they are fragile and need to be protected. The evidence shows it molds them — they want to conform to avoid trouble and heartache. Like everyone else they want to fit in and feel “normal.” And it’s our job to redefine what “normal” means.
We need to be having a conversation every time we see chauvinistic commercials, talking to them about the lyrics in music, and calling others out for their sexist comments in front of our our children — even if said comments are coming from sweet Aunt Barb.
We need to nurture the emotional, sensitive, sweet sides of our boys and tell them (over and over again) the most important thing is to be who you want to be regardless, that is it okay to cry and be vulnerable and share your feelings.
We need to tell our girls how strong and capable they are. And it’s okay to speak up and ask for what you want. And if a man ever puts his hands on them in a way they don’t like, it’s totally acceptable for them to give him a swift kick in the ballsack. Because we can all be sensitive, tough, strong, confident, and vulnerable. These behaviors are not exclusive to males or females.
This needs to change, and it needs to change now. And it’s going to take all of us, so let’s start talking.