By Alexandra Cochran
Blog Content Contributor
Social norms are understood rules for accepted and expected behavior. Norms prescribe “proper” behavior and help people know what to expect. So why do we continue to live with these norms? In other words, who do we impress with these norms if it’s not for ourselves?
Created by society itself, these norms put pressure on those who choose to not conform. Unlike biological sex, which is assigned at birth based on physical appearance, gender identity relies on a person’s sense of being male or female (or both/neither). While it’s most common for a person’s gender to align with their biological sex, it’s not always the case. There is no proof so far that the postnatal social environment has any crucial effect on gender identity or sexual orientation – we were born the way we are, accepted or not.
In contrast to gender identity, gender expression is moreover external and based on the individual and societal expectations of gender — It portrays our gender to others through our choice of clothing, hairstyles, body language, mannerisms, speech and roles. Most people have a blend of masculine and feminine. But why do I have to choose between one or the other? What if I don’t feel completely either? Just as our parents and those around us influence us, we’re also fed into stereotypical gender role expectations from things like fashion magazines, reality television, and social media. People have the right, or freedom of expression, to pursue their interests without being isolated.
Through controversial occurrences, I have been told that hair, the stuff that naturally grows on my body, is gross and not beautiful when it grows on my armpits, legs, and crotch. According to this person, it’s not beautiful because it doesn’t fit the social norm portrayed by the cover girls on magazines and movies. This is where I decided to make a statement. I chose to stop worrying about what others think of me, and more of what makes me feel beautiful, whether it’s when I can’t shave my legs because my hot water ran out too quickly, or when I feel like I want to feel dolphin smooth. Either way, I feel beautiful and myself. But a lot of women feel comfortable keeping their bodies hairless. And that’s totally awesome! It’s important to be able to embrace self-identifying women or anyone for that matter, with their choices towards their bodies. I want everyone to know they deserve to feel comfortable in their own skin without needing to feel judged. “I have no problem with men or women wearing dresses, a suit, or expressing themselves any way they wish, but I don’t accept that these preferences or behaviors literally make you the opposite sex—a male or a female.” The reality is that I act in ways that aren’t considered “feminine” and I really don’t think twice (in reality, we shouldn’t have to) whether my actions fit my gender identity, if it would oppose a major societal norm or whether I will be made fun of. I do however, have to take into consideration that I was born female and do identify as female and therefore, I am privileged.
Stereotypes don’t affect just one gender, but I wanted to speak specifically based on conversations with friends and personal experiences. It can get much more complicated and overwhelming when it affects other self-identifying females such as transgender women. People are led to believe trans-women are reinforcing sexist stereotypes, and I can only believe it’s related to the struggle of finding acceptance from society. Pressure and ignorance in our society leads more trans-women to conform into a more feminine stereotype to avoid being rejected by the same society but those who identify as transgender, seek acknowledgement and validation for being, not just dressing like the other gender. “For transgender females, femininity covers a wide range of expression, just as it does for any girl or woman. However, the general public is probably going to be more captivated by a trans woman who is super feminine. So the media will deliver trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner.” In other words, those who don’t understand the transgender community could possibly never understand how much pressure they feel just to pass as their gender by sometimes using these stereotypes.
I took photos of myself, as a cis-woman, to create a story. One of the photos taken was of myself wearing my high heels and without shaven legs. It’s “masculine” to forget to shave, leaving my hair to grow long, but “feminine” in the sense that I still feel myself and pretty in heels and I still have a choice in self-identification. I’ve grown closer to understanding myself more than when I was a teenager. It’s critical to try and not let gender stereotypes become harmful and oppressive towards anyone. I’ve come a long way with self-compassion and feel comfortable enough to understand that it is my freedom to create what beauty means to me. I don’t feel ashamed for not fitting into society’s model of beauty, but that does not mean I should shame those who follow in more traditional roles –we shouldn’t be the ones to decide what beauty means to everyone. What you might find unattractive would surprise you to know how someone else might feel.
In terms of expressing ourselves, we shouldn’t feel required to solely relate our gender identities and gender expressions, but more take account of who we are and how we choose to live out lives as individuals and appreciate ourselves for who we’ve become. Social norms like masculinity and femininity that are put in place to enforce behavioral expectations from genders, could never categorize exactly who we are. Therefore, respect for others is highly needed to create a more unified nation.
Featured image by Alexandra Cochran.