Raising Boys to be Boys

Gender Norms
Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

    The gender reveal of a pregnancy is often an exciting time for parents who wish to discover the sex of their child before the baby is born. This revelation is often followed by purchases of colored coordinated items that a baby may need when they arrive. Over the past several decades, this entails blue items for baby boys and pink items for baby girls. This is the first of a long line of instances in which many parents reinforce socially constructed gender norms. At first glance, this color differentiation holds a functional explanation as babies are often born without gender determining cues like smaller body frame for females or facial hair for males.

     These gender norms are even more heavily reinforced after infancy for men. This dissimilarity is the result of the lesser value placed on women and therefore the traits associated with women are undesirable for men to possess. In terms of colors and toys, little girls have a wider range that they are socially permitted to use and little boys are limited to a smaller group and they are explicitly prohibited from the use of some. This trend is also seen throughout the lives of men on a number of other issues. Ben-Zeev and Dennehy (2014) explained this amplified level of limitation by referring to the cognitive dissonance a person experiences when an individual possesses traits of more than one gender. To reconcile this incongruity, they develop a type of thinking that proscribes all of the traits of one gender to an individual based on the category of the trait that is the source of the disorder. In other words, when a male exhibits signs of femininity they are then given other characteristics associated with femininity such as weak and unstable and decrease in value of society. This results in male defensiveness in which men exhibit only characteristics of masculinity and zealously avoid all characteristics of femininity (Heesacker & Snowden, 2013). They believe the precariousness of masculinity has a negative effect on the physical and mental health of men as they struggle to maintain their masculinity and the shame they experience when they fail to maintain it. Their rationale also explains why women are not limited to the same degree that men are in terms of which gender characteristics they are able to possess as if a woman is seen to possess a particular masculine trait they are attributed other masculine characteristics like independent and strong and increase in value. A positive outcome is not always the case for females deviating from femininity but it is more commonly seen for women than it is for men. 

            The value that society places on individuals who adhere to the norms of the gender that is associated with their biological sex is incentive for parents to enforce gender norms so strongly. The protection of their child is a major concern for most parents so by enforcing these gender norms they are setting their child up to be accepted by society. A study conducted by Ben-Zeev et al. (2014) looked at the decisions made by 31 participants about taking risks with the health of infant boys dressed either in blue or in pink. They found that when the boys were dressed in blue, the participants were more likely to avoid risks of the child’s health whereas they were more likely to take risks more often when the boys were dressed in pink. In addition, a study conducted by de Vissér and McDonell (2012) supported that these masculine gender norms often encourage male-related healthy behaviors which also reinforces the actions of the parents. For example, lifting weights is seen as a masculine exercise so if a male wishes to increase their masculine capital, a term used by de Vissér et al. (2012) they would lift weights which would decrease their likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease and increase their ability to physically protect themselves in a threatening situation. For males who do not adhere to this gender norm of lifting weights, they may be at a higher risk for injuries.

Boys and men directly experience the discriminations and consequences of not adhering to a masculine role. From an early age, they become very aware of the effects that their actions have on how they are perceived and of how vulnerable their masculinity is that they become very susceptible to internalizing stigmas (Vogel, Heimerdinger-Edwards, Hammer, and Hubbard, 2011). They are told that boys are not allowed to cry and that they should keep their emotions and their problems to themselves. The superheroes that little boys often look up to are an example of like as heroes like Batman and Superman are strong and daring but have weak alter egos which they work to keep hidden (Heesacker et al., 2013). When men fail to uphold their masculine role, the shame that they experience puts them at a getter risk for developing depression which further increases their vulnerability. To avoid these discriminations and consequences, men are forced to hide their faults for fear of coming off as weak and losing value in society. As a result, fewer men seek help for mental, physical and emotional health issues. Vogel et al. (2011) explained that society’s push for men to be stoic and self-sufficiently hinders their willingness to seek assistance. Heesacker et al. (2013) explained that masculinity has become a mask or a performance to hide a man’s vulnerability but this disguise does not resolve the issue.

Gender norms are developed very early in the life of a man and they last throughout his lifetime. Society forces men to maintain a masculine identity that masks all areas of vulnerability or else they face consequences. The accrual of masculine points may be beneficial to a male’s health in ways like physical health but it has been shown to be harmful to his mental health. Vogel et al. (2011) argue that since these gender norms are socialized into an individual at such an early age, any change is expected to be small and slow-coming. The high level of value that society places on males may be beneficial in some ways but appears to be harmful in others.