Raising children in societies that adhere to rigid gender roles, with fixed ideas about what should be considered “masculine” and “feminine,” can actually be detrimental to their physical and mental health, according to a study that observed 14-year-olds’ interactions over a three month period.
“Usually we think of gender as natural and biological, but it’s not… We actually construct it in ways that have problematic and largely unacknowledged health risks,” lead researcher Maria do Mar Pereira, the deputy director for the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, explained in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Pereira drew her conclusions after being embedded in a class of teenagers in Lisbon, Portugal. The kids in the study knew they were being observed by Pereira — who participated in all aspects of their everyday lives, including attending classes, eating lunch in the cafeteria, playing on the playground, and joining them on trips to the mall after school — but they didn’t know her specific area of focus. In addition to her one-on-one interviews with each teen, her observations allowed her to track the ways they interacted with their ideas about masculinity and femininity.
Pereira observed both boys and girls regulating their behavior in potentially harmful ways in order to adhere to gender norms. For instance, even girls who enjoyed sports often avoided physical activity at school because they assumed it wouldn’t be a feminine thing to do, they worried they might look unattractive while running, or they were mocked by their male peers for not being good enough. The girls also put themselves on diets because they believed desirable women have to be skinny.
“All of the girls were within very healthy weights, but they were all restricting their intake of food in some way. So what we’re really talking about here is 14-year-old girls, whose bodies are changing and developing, depriving themselves at every meal,” Pereira said. “In the extreme, that can lead to things like eating disorders. But even for the women who don’t reach the extreme, it can be very unhealthy for them.”
Meanwhile, the male participants in the study all faced intense pressure to demonstrate the extent of their manliness, which led to what Pereira calls “everyday low-level violence”: slapping and hitting each other, as well as inflicting pain on other boys’ genitals. They were encouraged to physically fight each other if they were ever mocked or offended. They felt like they had to drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol because that’s what a man would do. And they were under certain mental health strains, too; struggling with anxiety about proving themselves and suppressing their feelings, all while lacking a strong emotional support system.
Ultimately, the study concluded, “this constant effort to manage one’s everyday life in line with gender norms produces significant anxiety, insecurity, stress and low self-esteem for both boys and girls, and both for ‘popular’ young people and those who have lower status in school.” The findings ended up forming the basis of a book, Doing Gender in the Playground, about negotiating gender roles in schools.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The teens who participated in the Lisbon study — including the kids who bullied others and the kids who were victims of bullying themselves — weren’t happy about the gender roles they were expected to follow. In their one-on-one interviews, they all said they didn’t actually like paying so much attention to the right “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors, and just assumed that’s what they were supposed to do. When Pereira concluded her research and held a group meeting to explain her results to the kids, they were amazed to learn that everyone was on the same page about that.
“It was a revealing experience for them to be in that room and realize they were all performing and no one was happy about it,” she recounted. Slowly, things started to change. Pereira acknowledges it’s not like it was “suddenly paradise,” but she noticed the kids stopped mocking their peers as much for falling outside the bounds of traditionally gendered behavior. Girls and boys started to become more integrated in athletic activities. There was less physical fighting. And some of the kids’ parents even started calling Pereira to tell her about positive changes in their behavior.
Although Pereria’s observations took place at a school in Lisbon, she believes her results have widespread implications for Western nations that are subject to similar cultural messages about gender. Indeed, previous research in British and American schools has reached many of the same conclusions as her study. Sociologists agree that children “learn gender” from being subjected to society’s expectations, even though pressuring kids to conform to those rigid roles can end up having serious mental health consequences for the children whose parents try to over-correct their behavior. There are countless examples of schools becoming environments where gender stereotypes are strictly policed and kids are even sent home for wearing the “wrong” type of clothing.
The Lisbon findings could also give people hope about the possibility of creating a different kind of approach to these issues. It’s important to remember that teens are still shaping their attitudes about what it means to be a man or a woman.
“Sometimes adults think it’s impossible to change gender norms because they’re already so deeply entrenched. But they’re much more entrenched in adults than they are in young people,” Pereira pointed out. “It’s actually fairly easy to reach young people if you create opportunities for discussion, if you get them to think about their own experiences.”