Forcing Kids To Stick To Gender Roles Can Harm Their Health

Life & Love | Gerren Keith Gaynor | 08/07/2014 | 11:45 AM EDT

Researcher discovers the harmful physical and mental of rigid constructs of masculinity and femininity

It’s no secret that we live in a society where gender roles rule the masses, however, one study says that such constructs of masculinity and femininity can be harmful to a child’s physical and mental health.


The study observed 14 year olds’ interactions over a three-month period, with results being published by lead researcher and University of Warwick professor Maria do Mar Pereira.


“Usually we think of gender as natural and biological, but it’s not…We actually construct it in ways that have problematic and largely unacknowledged health risks,” Pereira told Think Progress.


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For her results, Pereira observed and interviewed boys and girls and their behavior as it relates to adhering to gender norms. For example, girls who enjoyed sports chose to sit out on physical activity at school out of fear appearing less feminine and unattractive to their male counterparts. Girls also put themselves on diets because of the desire to be or remain skinny.


All of the girls were within very healthy weights, but they were all restricting their intake of food in some way. So what we’re really talking about here is 14-year-old girls, whose bodies are changing and developing, depriving themselves at every meal,” Pereira said. “In the extreme, that can lead to things like eating disorders. But even for the women who don’t reach the extreme, it can be very unhealthy for them.”


Boys on the other hand, research found, felt pressured to exert their masculinity through “everyday low-level violence,” such as slapping and hitting each other. They also tended to feel compelled to get physical whenever they were mocked or offended.


The study concludes that the “constant effort to manage one’s everyday life in line with gender norms produces significant anxiety, insecurity, stress and low self-esteem for both boys and girls, and both for ‘popular’ young people and those who have lower status in school.”


Think Progress writes: “The Lisbon findings could also give people hope about the possibility of creating a different kind of approach to these issues. It’s important to remember that teens are still shaping their attitudes about what it means to be a man or a woman.”


But Dr. Pereira points out that it’s not just teens who feel the negative effects of gender roles - adults do too.


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“Sometimes adults think it’s impossible to change gender norms because they’re already so deeply entrenched. But they’re much more entrenched in adults than they are in young people,” Pereira said. “It’s actually fairly easy to reach young people if you create opportunities for discussion, if you get them to think about their own experiences.”

(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Corbis)

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