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Boxed in by Gender

By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: July 14, 2014 Revised: April 3, 2017

Like many little girls, I wanted to be a ballerina—the epitome of grace, beauty and femininity. As a child, I’d flip through sparkly picture books, play with Barbie dolls and stare at TV screens as dancers pirouetted across stage; all of those things only reinforced my love for tiaras and tulle. From there, my childhood affinity for all-things pink and flowery grew. Everything just seemed so right and perfectly girly. I always preferred wearing dresses instead of pants. I mean, it was the norm. I was enjoying doing what was expected of me as a girl.

But now that I think about it, I wonder what it would have been like if I aimed to be a football player or racecar driver instead. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to ask more questions about gender. Why was I always expected to help my mom cook dinner while my brothers got to help my dad build things outside? Why do my best friends cake their faces with makeup to impress their crushes? Why do the guys in my school never admit to their feelings? Why is it such a problem if someone doesn’t want to identify as male or female?

These are all questions that relate directly to expectations everyone faces. Whether it’s living with societal or familial rules about gender, there will always be molds that we are expected to fit into. This starts very early, when the nursery is painted baby blue or peachy pink, when the birth certificate reads “John” or “Abby,” when the first toy gifted to a child is a toy car or a doll. As we mature, we realize that these expectations for who we should be as a girl or a guy can be complex, affecting how we express our emotions, how we dress and how we make decisions about sex.

No one should have to feel like how they express their gender, even when it doesn’t match their sex, is unacceptable.

Girls Will Be Girls

There are lots of expectations for girls, especially when it comes to how we dress. When friends or family members decide a girl isn’t dressing “appropriately” and tell her about it, a girl can feel bad about herself and how she chooses to express herself. Such is the case for Melisa, 17, from Oakland, California, who is often slut-shamed by other girls for wearing short skirts.

“Yeah, some girls like to call me mean things because they think I’m being too promiscuous or whatever. It makes me feel like an outcast and sometimes, like I’m being looked down on,” she explains.

Sixteen-year-old Alex from Newton, Massachusetts, knows what Melisa is going through, only it’s her family that lays out the expectations for how she should dress as a girl.

Alex says, “My parents are Indian and fairly conservative compared to my friends’ parents. This means that I can’t just go out shopping and buy whatever looks nice to me. I need to think about what would be culturally appropriate and acceptable to my parents and relatives when they see photos of me on Facebook. I do believe, however, that it is a woman’s choice how she chooses to dress or express herself. In India, many people think that men rape women because they are asking for it by dressing provocatively or being out at night. To me this is unjust and a pitiful attempt at justifying a horrendous and inhuman act.”

Melisa and Alex’s experiences are examples of gender policing—when someone is encouraged or forced to meet gender expectations in terms of appearance or behavior.

Girls all around the world are expected to maintain a certain type of appearance—to look “proper” and “respectable.” At the same time, some of them are taught to aim for perfection through beauty. For example, Barbie has been a role model and a female standard for decades—a blonde bombshell with a lean figure, clad in heels and a skin-tight dress. So do girls strive for the “appropriate” look or the beautified one? Expectations for girls are often contradictory. They can be torn between being modest in order to be respected (which, like Alex’s situation, is often related to family and peer pressure) and being super sexy in order to be valued by men, an idea perpetuated by advertisements and movies.

Boys Will Be Boys

Boys are expected to be muscular and physically fit. This is part of a “tough guy” archetype, which also requires guys to only express certain emotions, like anger. Crying is seen as a sign of weakness and a lack of masculinity. Seventeen-year-old Neel from Shelton, Connecticut, knows exactly what it feels like to be judged for behaving in a way that doesn’t meet the “tough guy” expectations set up for guys.

He says, “I will never forget one time during my freshman year of high school when my dog was undergoing surgery. I was so attached to her and was concerned throughout the entire school day. Some people thought it was unusual for a male to show so much concern for an animal, particularly a small female Pug….”

Guys get judged as not manly enough for having and expressing human emotions, like sadness or kindness.

And when it comes to relationships, Neel says guys are “expected to be ready to pounce on females and become dominant.”

Sarah, 16, from New York City says, “Guys are expected to make the first move, carry condoms and be the ones who always want to have sex. Girls are never expected to do any of that.”

What Sarah describes is definitely true of expectations for guys in the U.S. The sad thing is that a guy who doesn’t want to make the first move, who isn’t only interested in sex or who isn’t heterosexual can be expected to chase girls and can be bullied in subtle or violent ways when he doesn’t.

David, 16, from Jersey City, New Jersey, says, “In fourth grade, someone called me a girl, and I cried in my bathroom at home…. I’m not the conventional guy; beer is disgusting, guys are hot and I openly display my crazy wrecked emotions. But this doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t make me less of a man. I’ve been beaten over the head with this stupid belief that boys should like blue, and boys should marry girls, and boys should be friends with mostly boys. But you know what? Blue may be my color and I may love Ferrari model cars, but dammit, I love Sex and the City, and I think I’m falling in love with a junior who has a penis. And that should be OK.”

Challenging Expectations of Gender

No one should have to feel like who they truly are and how they express being a guy or girl is unacceptable. No one should have to feel like how they express their gender, even when it doesn’t match their sex, is unacceptable. We shouldn’t have to feel like we’ll only be accepted if we fit neatly into a gender box. Everyone should be able to dress and behave in whatever manner they please, regardless of their sex or gender identity. Hopefully, one day, children won’t be packaged into pink and blue boxes. And none of us will be forced to live up to these gender expectations

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