A client recently told me about an upcoming school assignment and it made my blood boil. Every member of the senior class at her all-girls high school is required to “plan her wedding” — from the budget to the color scheme to the dress.
Now some of you might think that this sounds like a great exercise in organization, decision-making and financial responsibility. Fair enough. But these same exact skills could easily be learned by asking our girls to “design their future company” or “buy property and build their dream house” or “invent a new product and develop a marketing plan”!!
But no. We’ll have them plan a wedding—because that’s what every girl dreams about. Right?
Why, WHY, do we continue to reinforce the insidious gender stereotypes that our kids are already bombarded with every single day?!
Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. But here’s the thing:
We are constantly receiving messages about what is required to be worthy of love and acceptance based on societal ideals. And when we don’t measure up to those ideals, we experience crippling emotions like insecurity, embarrassment, self-doubt and shame.
These messages are so deeply rooted in our daily experiences with media and society that we often fail to even notice when we’re being groomed to think and behave within these limiting boundaries. These expectations apply to everything from how we should look, to how we should parent, to how much money we should make, etc. And to me, this school assignment completely perpetuates the societal expectation that women should prioritize finding a husband over planning their own future. Furthermore, it subtly reinforces the notion that if a woman ends up single, there must be something wrong with her.
Sure I could brush it off and say it’s just a silly assignment. Or I could say that I’m being hypersensitive and overthinking things. But that’s exactly the problem: we rationalize away the harmful effects of these messages and continue to wonder why we never feel like we are enough.
One of the primary reasons we get caught in the tornado of society’s gender norms is because we’ve simply stopped paying attention to them. At this point, we are essentially programed to expect these stereotypes and therefore we mindlesslessly accept them.
We become mindless when we see, hear or read something and accept it without questioning it.
For example, when was the last time you paused long enough to question a magazine that only features women with light skin, a tiny waist and curves in all the right places? Or when was the last time you reflected on a TV show that only highlights men who are wealthy executives with six-pack abs?
The messages about who and what we have to be in order to be accepted are everywhere. And they are wreaking havoc on our kids’ self-worth.
For girls and women, there is a set of conflicting expectations that sets girls up to harshly judge themselves based on unrealistic criteria:
- Be enthusiastic, but also quiet and demure
- Be smart, without definitive opinions
- Be popular, but not the center of attention
- Be pretty and thin, but don’t obsess over food
- Be independent, but don’t go against the grain
- And above all else, do it everything perfectly and never let them see you sweat
For boys and men, the criteria are not conflicting but are equally rigid:
- Be tough; vulnerability is a sign of weakness
- Be the breadwinner; if you can’t provide you’re not a real man
- Be strong, tall and have a muscular build
- Be a winner; power comes from being #1
These impossible standards are being reinforced all day, every day! In addition to the messages we receive from friends, colleagues, teachers, coaches, parents, etc., we ingest anywhere from 300-700 pieces of media per day. These messages are subtly (and not so subtly) woven into our daily lives. But once again, because we’ve stopped paying attention and fail to question these messages, we get trapped inside the societal pressure cooker. And when we don’t measure up, we wind up feeling like failures.
So how can we break the cycle?
Step 1. Start Paying Attention. Deepening awareness is a critical first step in creating change. Practice mindfulness to start catching the insidious messages that you are receiving. Some are incredibly subtle so developing a critical eye will take some time.
Step 2. Question The Standard. It takes tremendous courage to stand up against the accepted norm. It’s not easy for a boy to practice vulnerability or for a girl to refuse to base her worth on her weight without suffering the consequences of not fitting in. It’s our job to remind them that questioning the standard is a true act of bravery.
Step 3. Make Diversity a Priority. Research indicates that showing girls images of body diversity is a powerful intervention for cultivating a healthy body image. This same practice can be applied to any area of life. Show your kids examples of real-world people who transcend societal standards: men who stay at home with the kids while mom reports to the office, women who are assertive and well-liked, men who openly share their feelings or cry, women who lovingly accept their cellulite and scars. Broadening the scope of what is possible will help our kids to eventually embrace diversity.
Step 4. Be The Change. Your kids are watching your every move and listening to your every word. Are you perpetuating the stereotypes? Are you inadvertently sending messages about worthiness being attached to upholding impossible standards? No need to beat yourself up if, upon reflecting, you find that you’ve been playing into the game. You were groomed to do exactly that. But now is the time to be the change and give your kids the kind of role model they deserve.