-hannahM, Westchester, PA
As a participant in academia, I have been able to gain an interesting perspective on what “gender” actually is. It is important to see gender outside of the typical dichotomist way it is presented to us from a very young age. We are taught and shown that there are only two sides to gender. We are socially constructed to believe that sex and gender are, if not the exact same, fairly similar. I can say that with confidence because I was one of those people who did not know there was a difference until I came to college. I am fairly confident that change occurred because most of us don’t get to see the world in a different view outside of the lens of “normal society” until we are able and old enough to expand on our own.
From my early childhood, much like everyone else in the world, I was immediately “socialized.” I was identified as female from my first minute of life. Once that “F” went on my birth certificate, I had a childhood of the color pink and lots of barbies ahead of me. I can remember from my childhood taking an interest in sports. When I was in kindergarten, I chose playing basketball over taking dance classes. It’s interesting to notice now that when it was time to be involved in activities, things like dance or art classes were suggested to me first. I had an older brother growing up who was automatically signed up for baseball and basketball when he was younger. Not once did anyone suggest dance or art classes for him. There was a subtle way I started to learn gender. I was socially conditioned to assume things like dance and art were for girls and sports were for boys. I started playing basketball and instantly felt like I was different from the other girls in my class. When I found out how good I was at basketball, I started to feel even more separated. I began to feel this way from early on because as an athletic girl, family members and teachers always made it a point to express surprise when I showed interest in sports. At an age where the brain is so plastic and you are learning all about the world around you, subtle clues like the surprise of an adult at your choices makes you aware of what is and isn’t expected of you as a female.
I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me for always wanting to play with the boys. In reality, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with what society has taught me regarding the word “normal.”
Growing up, I came from an area that supports tradition. I grew up not even second guessing the binary that gender was to everyone influencing me. My community always made sure I didn’t forget that I was a little girl and I was expected to act like one. A lot of my teachers and family members dropped subtle hints about the dichotomy of gender, sometimes without them even noticing I think, but the education system was always more straightforward. It was always made clear that my brother and I had different roles. Not only did I see this comparison between my brother and I, but it came out a lot in the way married couples lived around my area. I grew up with the impression that women not only belonged in the house, but were supposed to enjoy it. That was never something I saw myself enjoying. I liked playing outside with the boys more than playing dress up or house with the girls. What is really scary for me is how little I recognized this during my childhood. I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me for always wanting to play with the boys. In reality, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with what society has taught me regarding the word “normal.” I used to try to dress up more or wear more make up to make everyone think I was growing up just like any normal girl would. I was basically trying to “do gender” as best as I could so my culture and my society can perceive me as normal.
It is interesting to look at how all that I took away from my community carried into life in school with my peers and teachers. I went to a catholic school for most of my life. Although I can say I gained a great education, it was a limited education. The type of education I got didn’t include teaching me how to be comfortable with who I am as an individual. If anything, it did the exact opposite. From the first day of school we are told what to wear and what not to wear, completely stripping of us any way to express who we are or who we want to be. If you were a female in the catholic school setting it got even worse. Females were taught to be ashamed of their bodies. Females were taught to hide their bodies. Sending the message to girls at such a young, impressionable age that it is our duty to hide our bodies so the men in our lives don’t get distracted is beyond damaging. We are taught that men can’t help but look at us like we are sexual beings and not much else. In reality, we should be teaching the young boys not to view women that way and to not see and think of their bodies as just sexual things for their enjoyment. If even our schools and teachers are promoting this kind of stigma regarding women’s bodies, how are we supposed to think or know any differently?
Elaborating on my earlier example of not knowing the difference between sex and gender, I didn’t understand that gender was something socially constructed. The evidence was all around me, but naturally, not talked about. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that any of these issues, things I’ve always felt, became a reality. I never knew other people felt limited by society or that there was even categories and other sub divisions all based on socially constructed gender views. I ended up taking a Women’s and Gender studies class my second semester here just to fill a general education requirement. I came into the class an Accounting major and left a more educated, more diverse Women’s and Gender Studies major. I find it interesting, but not surprising, I had to go away from my hometown and be on my own to find out these important social and political issues. Needless to say, my father wasn’t the happiest about my new life plan, but because of classes like these, I am able to not let him or anyone (including society) limit me.
Although I feel like college has helped me with learning how socially constructed gender is, I have to admit that I still participate in “doing gender” and there is still a lot of my life that coincides with the typical gender roles. I definitely am aware that the way that I dress and do my hair can be included in doing gender. Even my room, which is painted purple and decorated with somewhat “girly” paintings. I have started to notice even the way my posture is and how I am conscience of it can be considered doing gender.
Peers play a huge role in our ideas and sense of pressure to do gender. My freshman year of college, you weren’t allowed into a fraternity party if you weren’t wearing a short dress or skirt. It seemed in my friend group that we were all afraid to go against this because we feared to not be liked or not be seen as cool in this new place. When the people surrounding you are enforcing these societal gender norms, it becomes hard to escape it. At 18, even though you are legally an adult, you are nowhere near adulthood. You are nowhere near ready to stand up for yourself and push back on these norms. As you get older and it gets easier to surround yourself with the people who won’t make you feel weird for not accepting or enforcing these “norms,” then maybe peers can become more positive influences. When you are young and blind to anything but what you’ve been taught about women and men, it is hard to take a stand or make a change. At that age, doing gender is sometimes all one has to fit in, because that is how society has made it.
I think that is the important thing to take away from learning about gender is that, for all intensive purposes, it is whatever you want it to be.
I have definitely been able to learn how to own my decisions and regardless if they are going along with gender roles, the point is they are MY decisions and I am conscious that I can make them without worrying whether or not society is “okay” with it. I think that is the important thing to take away from learning about gender is that, for all intensive purposes, it is whatever you want it to be. I’ve learned that gender is not something you should let limit you. Gender is not something you have to fit into. Gender can and should become a positive way of becoming yourself and a way to help you feel comfortable within your own body. Whichever way you choose to identify with gender, it should be freeing.