Have you ever wondered why you were too afraid to do something you wanted because you were nervous about what people would think? Girls can’t cut their hair short, or they’ll get a thousand sly comments about their sexual identity. Boys can’t cry during movies, or they’ll be ridiculed by their friends about being too girly and emotional. A common reason for this struggle that men and women everywhere experience is gender socialization.
Gender socialization is the constant influx of influences that we experience from the moment we’re born that governs the way we’re supposed to think and conduct ourselves based on our sex. It’s the reason girls are dressed in pink and encouraged to play with dolls, and the reason boys are discouraged from dressing up as princesses for Halloween and pressured instead to wrestle and play with trucks. Gender socialization is the source of throwaway phrases like “Boys will be boys” and “Don’t be such a girl.” A UNICEF article about early gender socialization says, “Boys are told not to cry, not to fear, not to be forgiving and instead to be assertive, and strong. Girls on the other hand are asked not to be demanding, to be forgiving and accommodating and ‘ladylike.’”
Gender socialization persists for our entire lives. It determines how we dress, the careers we aspire to, the chores we’re assigned and the social expectations that cause us embarrassment and anxiety when we deviate from them. Gender socialization also determines the relationships between boys and girls, and men and women. Boys are socialized to be dominant, tough and bigger and better than the rest. But girls are socialized to be dainty, polite and subtle. This poses a bigger problem than meets the eye.
The problem is that boys are socialized to dominate girls. Because they are constantly exposed to comments like, “Man up” and “Don’t be a girl,” society has automatically placed women in a subordinate position – men don’t want to be women. In fact, they avoid engaging in any behavior that would appear womanly. And conversely, this ensures that women, the “weaker sex,” can rarely gain positions of genuine power, influence or authority because they can never surpass the most powerful societal entity: a man.
Women are therefore socialized to feel inadequate. Because they are pressured to feel weaker, they are also pressured to fulfill that role by altering their bodies and minds. This is one of several reasons women may develop eating disorders and become obsessed with image. Society has socialized women to believe the most powerful thing they can be is beautiful.
Gender socialization is far more dangerous for women than it is for men because for women, it emphasizes a denial of self. Women must always be improving physically, constantly altering their bodies to be more beautiful. Two ways society informs women that they are inadequate are through eating habits and appearance.
Many women have felt guilt when contemplating their food cravings. The fact that we are meant to deny ourselves something we want is obscene. And not just for a week or a couple of years – for our whole lives. Girls as young as elementary and middle school are judged harshly for craving a couple of slices of pizza or a big bowl of ice cream. “Think of what it will do to your figure,” mothers and magazines say. Every second of every day, girls are taught to deny themselves the things that would make them happy. One slip up in the strict regimen of self-deprivation is seen as a disappointment.
In her article titled “Eating: A Manifesto,” Krista Burton of the online girls’ empowerment magazine RookieMag discusses this issue with exasperation. She says, “(Do) you ever, ever hear dudes say ‘I just want a little bite’ or ‘This is so bad, you guys, but I totally ate a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s last night’? No! Because it’s OK for men to eat! … Boys are allowed to grow into men, but ‘attractive’ women in our culture are expected to stay at pretty much an eternal pre-adolescent weight.”
This socialization runs so deep even women will demean other women for eating. As much as women feel pressure from men to be competently attractive, women feel pressure from other women to compete in the beauty race. Women are so socialized to feel guilty for indulging themselves that we feel the need to keep, as Burton says, “rationalizing our ‘bad behavior’ … with statements like ‘I’ve been really good lately,” or “I’m gonna need to walk this off later.”
In addition to demonizing eating habits girls are often told from a very young age that their bare face is offensive to the general public. Girls are demeaned and stared at if they step out of their house without a fully made-up face, or at the very least, some eyeliner. Women who go to school or work or even to meet friends without any makeup are questioned almost comically, getting barraged with questions and comments like, “Are you sick?”, “You look awful” and “Rough night?” Women who don’t wear makeup are viewed as lazy, often prude-ish and lacking in personality or vigor.
So why aren’t men subjected to the same standard? Because they are (and we are) socialized to believe that the faults in their skin are natural and have no cause for improvement. Women are socialized to believe that anything less than perfectly groomed hair, a flawless complexion, rosy lips and smooth legs is unnatural.
We’re tired of being put down for our cravings and naked faces. We’re tired of being viewed as lacking in self-discipline and self-respect. We’re tired of being told that it is unattractive to believe that our bodies are beautiful without having to deprive or alter ourselves. We’re tired of the fact that gender socialization allows men to feel powerful and commanding just the way they are, while women are forced into unrealistic molds in order to gain respect from others and even from themselves.