Most of the consulting work I do eventually links back to one thing—helping adults become comfortable talking about gender, gender identity, and gender expression with other humans. The social limits of discussing these topics are deeply ingrained, especially in the workplace. Anything that seems to stray into this very personal aspect of life becomes awkward and uncomfortable.
Parents, counselors, executives, community leaders, educators—all need to be able to talk about gender identity. It starts with differentiating between gender as an innate aspect of being human vs. thinking about someone’s bikini area.
Not many people genuinely associate their gender identity with the contents of their bikini zone. Sure, it’s nice to be in touch with your nether regions, but is that really the crux of defining a sense of self? Masculinity, femininity, and every point on the spectrum are all so much more than that.
I used to break the ice (if you will) at workshops by talking about the identity iceberg; our physical presence representing only a small fraction of the core aspect of self. Specifically, I’d break down how much our gender identity is applied to us by others based largely on external features. This concept makes some people uncomfortable at first. I’ve since found that discomfort can be a good starting place—especially for those in the predominant culture.
When we talk about gender expression, these are the many ways that people convey their personal sense of gender.
Dress, vocal features, mannerisms, how much space one occupies—all mechanisms to communicate ourselves to others. The problem is when our culture segments expectations differently by gender. And that’s where social attribution comes in.
Social attribution includes the labels, limitations, and expected behaviors assigned based on one’s presenting gender. It starts with the first instance of social attribution—a visual observation at birth (sometimes earlier, if detected through an ultrasound). The outcome of that observation becomes an ‘F’ or ‘M’ indicator on a birth certificate and determines quite a bit about that human’s potential future.
All through school and community events, gender is used to segment groups of children. Directing a child to join “their side” of the hallway line-up makes a choice for them. We are telling them who they “are like”, as well as who they “are not like”. Differences in gender are prescribed to them and used as a key indicator of who goes with which group.
Our identities shape our experiences; social attribution influences our opportunities. These two elements converge and create the diversity of each individual’s perspective. Our identities tell us how to interpret ourselves in the world, as well as how others should interact with us.
I used to visit a friend’s office that was full of books and steeped in the smells of old papers, leather, and good scotch. It felt like a deep connection to this sense of masculine that was equally embraced by people—irrespective of how their bikini zone was configured. Putting myself in this space felt very much aligned with who I am. This is what I mean when talking about gender expression and identity being different than a set of specific body parts.
Define your own identity and set your intentions accordingly.
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