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Back to School: How Gender Stereotypes Put Pressure on Boys

As students across Western Pennsylvania head back to school this month, some may do so with a sense of dread. Bullying is still common among kids of all ages, which can often lead to anxiety about going back to school.

Boys may feel a particular type of pressure from their peers and adults alike: to act a certain way. As we discussed in a previous post, stereotypes about how boys should behave are often rigidly enforced from a young age. It may start with parents and other adults, and then continue with other kids. From telling young boys that certain colors or toys are for girls to discouraging them from crying or showing weakness, there are a number of ways in which boys are pushed into what is known as the “Man Box.”

In the Man Box, boys are expected to meet certain hyper masculine ideals — to show aggression and dominance, to never show weakness or openly express emotion. They should also be tough, athletic, and courageous, and always demonstrate power and control (especially over women). While some of these traits are not inherently bad, they can all be limiting — especially if a boy isn’t naturally inclined to be athletic or does not have a dominant personality.

A recent study from France found that boys feel a significant amount of pressure to be “masculine.” In this study, researchers examined 1,104 tweens as they moved from sixth grade to ninth grade. They looked at how they felt about their gender identity, how they felt about adhering to a particular set of gender roles, and if their cultural identity had any relation to the pressure that they felt.

Overall, girls felt less pressure to conform to gender roles, and the amount of pressure that they felt decreased over time. Boys felt more pressure to conform to traditional notions of masculinity, particularly if they were from certain cultural backgrounds. According to the researchers, this result was not surprising, as “violations of gender norms tend to be tolerated less in boys and men than in girls and women because masculine traits tend to be valued more highly than feminine traits.” In other words, if girls deviate outside of gender roles, it is to be more masculine — which is more valued. But if boys stray from masculine gender roles, then they are moving towards the feminine — which is often seen as unacceptable.

While this study was performed in France, similar research has shown that American boys feel more pressure than girls to conform to gender stereotypes. This pressure can lead to mental health issues.

Girls do face pressure to conform to gender roles, and are often criticized for acting “like a boy,” or taking on so-called masculine traits. However, there is something uniquely damaging about the type of bullying and pressure experienced by boys. It has the potential to cause tremendous harm to boys who do not fit into traditional gender norms. It also teaches boys and girls alike that there is something wrong with being feminine — and that only the masculine is to be celebrated. Finally, it often degrades LGBTQ+ people.

This school year, let’s help our kids overcome this type of thinking. Encourage the children in your life to embrace a wide range of gender roles, and let them know that they don’t have to act a certain way just because they are a boy or a girl. When we foster this kind of thinking in kids, we will equip them with the ability to accept others as they are — and make our schools kinder and safer.

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