CNN recently published a piece on social access and the perceived lack of support for boys venturing outside gender norms. The author, a parent who clearly supports equal expression for all genders, discusses an imbalance of acceptance that limits boys. Males—especially as children and adolescents—still receive cultural messages about the importance of being “a man” and excluding things seen as more “feminine,” such as nurturing, expressing sadness (rage is still ok), or being vulnerable.
Why are girls enthusiastically encouraged to challenge gender norms, while boys are not? Why do some boys recoil in horror at the thought of being called “a girl”? To paraphrase a decades old PSA, they learned it from watching you.
Our culture simply places less value on traits, interests, and activities that fall into “feminine” categories.
If parents cringe at the thought of their young son playing with Barbies and make-up—that’s on them. Reacting this way reflects a core belief that boys (or men) are somehow stepping down from their privileged position of “male.” When these same parents cheer for their daughters saying “you can do anything,” it echoes back as “even though you aren’t a male, don’t let that hold you back from trying.”
Think about that for a minute. Then start unpacking where these reactions originate.
Girls and women are exploring areas that offer substantial benefit; from which they have traditionally been excluded. Career options, academic opportunities, social status as an independent entity … all of these have traditionally been less available for women and girls.
And this lack of access doesn’t start at adulthood. The inequality starts early in childhood, by dividing people into two categories—boys and girls. It starts with telling children how to talk, act, play, interact, and dress based on their “group.” It starts with social access and toys.
Kids then receive years of overt and subtle messages about what it means to be included in either group. This forms a basis for not only of how they interpret themselves in the world but also acceptable ways to treat people in the other group. People are then also conditioned to view gender as a binary, but more about that in another conversation.
So, getting back to the initial point. There was no social infrastructure to support girls and young women to expand their opportunities. It took generations of personal revolution and pushing back.
For boys to have equal freedom to explore the full expression of being human—it starts with people advocating on their behalf.
Challenge yourself and others on gender bias. Be a visible and supportive promoter for social equity—not just by gender, but for all marginalized populations. The intersections of identity are what make us who we are, as well as who we are intended to be in the world. Have the conversations about why one child can have sparkly glitter bows, but their friend can’t.
It took a lot of women like Kathrine Switzer—the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon in 1967, despite being attacked by a race official—who were willing to be that one person forcing conversations about gender discrimination.
Use your words, and your position, to change things.
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