The Harm of Gender Norms

Gender stereotypes are everywhere; they are deeply ingrained in our society as well as our psyche. But, they may also be dangerous to our health.

Sugar and spice and everything nice

A recent study found that, by age 10, children are already aware of gender norms and have begun to conform to them. Girls, the study says, are taught to be nice and submissive, and that their physical appearances are vital to their self-worth.  Whereas, boys are expected to be tough, outdoorsy, and assertive.

These lessons have lasting effects into adulthood, not just on careers and relationships but also on health and mortality. For instance, another article published in the same journal found that women had a higher risk of domestic violence and infectious diseases.  According to Dr. Samir Sabbag, a psychiatrist at the University of Miami Health System, women also have a much higher rate of anorexia and bulimia linked to body image issues.

“Negative body image has been linked to poor quality of life, functional impairment, depression, unhealthy weight control behaviors and reduced wellness behaviors in women when compared to those who have a positive body image,” explains Dr. Sabbag.

Jack fell down and broke his crown

The negative effects on men’s health may be surprising – they are at greater risk of accidental deaths and suicide.  Both could be a byproduct of the fear of appearing weak and societal pressure to be brave and “manly.”

From the years 1999 to 2014, Men committed suicide three times more often than women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Sabbag says that several factors, such as using more violent means, having less concern about bodily disfigurement and having more aggression are reasons why suicide rates in men are higher. “Women on the other hand,” the doctor adds, “have higher rates of attempted suicide, but use less severe means such as overdosing or cutting their wrists.”

Tips for parents

Gender “lessons” begin practically in infancy with the assertion that girls should wear pink lacy clothing and boys should wear blue. In preschool, kids hear nursery rhymes that reinforce gender stereotypes.  And as they grow older, children have more influences – media, commercials, teachers, friends – they all are guilty of perpetuating harmful gender norms.

Even the most progressive of parents, upon reflection, will find that they are subconsciously reinforcing stereotypes. With a little thoughtfulness, however, you could protect your child from the negative effects of gender norms. Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Emphasize that toys aren’t just for boys or girls – if your little boy wants to play with dolls or your little girl wants to play with trucks, support that.
  2. Point out examples that challenge gender stereotypes – take your child to meet the female firefighter or show them the work of gender-defying creative artists, like the musician Prince.
  3. Talk about commercials – TV ads are a big perpetrator of gender norms. If you see one where a mother is cooking dinner and the dad is in a suit and tie, ask your child if they think it could be the other way around.
  4. Correct your child’s stereotyping – as your child picks up behaviors from school, they will likely bring them home. When your daughter tells your son that they can’t play with the play kitchen because it is a girls’ toy, use that as an opportunity to talk about gender expectations.
  5. Let your child be themselves – this is perhaps the most important one. Encouraging individuality and personal expression at home will give your child the support and confidence to do the same when they are out in the world.