‘Boys will be boys.’ ‘She’s a typical girly girl.’ All around us are indications that boys and girls, women and men, are undeniably different. The trouble is, when people are put into certain boxes, it makes it very difficult if they so happen to not like being in that box. 

Many little girls like wearing pink, but does that mean all little girls should have to wear pink? Many little boys like to play with cars, but does that mean that all little boys should have to play with cars? Does that mean that boys can’t wear pink, or girls can’t play with cars? 

In this article, we’ll be exploring what gender stereotypes are and how they can be damaging in today’s society, as well as exploring the modern sexualization of children. As a modern parent, these questions are hot topics and many people have strong opinions on the matter. Read on to discover what to be aware of as you raise your children.

What are Gender Stereotypes?

In society, we are expected to act, dress, speak and conduct ourselves in a certain way depending on our gender. While many people behave in a way that is typical or usual for people of their gender, everyone is an individual, and views on our gender roles are changing. Gone are the days where we expect all men to be the same, or all women to be the same.

Gender-Stereotypes

However, gender stereotyping is when society imposes expectations upon people to behave in a certain way, even if this isn’t how they want to behave.

Typically, gender stereotyping tries to make people conform to what is the norm for their gender. For example, girls and women are expected to be good-looking, feminine, demure and maternal. On the flip side, boys and men are expected to be sporty, aggressive, bold and strong.

UN Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) says that ‘A gender stereotype is a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by women and men.’

Gender stereotyping is prohibited by the international human rights law framework, as it can hinder an individual’s enjoyment of their fundamental freedoms. People should be able to act how they choose, even if this isn’t a way that people of their gender normally behave. Campaigns that promote this sort of equality are becoming more prevalent, and are particularly evident in high-profile movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up.

How Stereotypes Can Influence Our Lives

Gender stereotypes can influence peoples’ lives in negative ways. It’s never easy being the odd one out, and if you behave in a way that is contrary to how your peers are behaving, it can make you the subject of bullying, ridicule or isolation.

Gender-Stereotypes

Being different to other people can brand you as ‘weird’, which can have knock-on effects for your whole life. The trouble with much gender stereotyping is that it’s ingrained into our society and seen as a ‘traditional value’.

Most of us look at tradition as a purely positive thing – we get nostalgic about the past and sometimes people wish that things could be ‘as they were’. However, the past is rife with social injustices. In many places around the world, it wasn’t all that long ago that women weren’t allowed the vote.

It’s also true that women have been prohibited from accessing certain careers, or even from working at all. In many places around the world, there are still restrictions as to what jobs women are allowed to do – read more in this article.

non-pregnant-and-non-nursing-women
Are non-pregnant and non-nursing women allowed to do the same jobs as men? (Source: ourworldindata.org)

Women of the past were expected to stay home and raise children, whereas the men were expected to work. In the modern day, these stereotypes are outdated, although they prevail in many sectors. Perhaps in the past it made sense for these stereotypes to exist – before powdered milk, it made sense for women to stay at home so they could feed their baby, but this is no longer the case.

Before birth control, women had little control over when they got pregnant, which made it difficult for them to make free life choices. Going back to prehistoric times of the hunter gatherers, it made sense for the fasted and strongest in society to hunt for food – and these were typically the men. But for the values and norms of our modern society to still be based on practices of generations ago makes no sense at all.

UN Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) says that ‘A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives.’

In this modern day, when both men and women are able to access the same education, learn the same skills, and manage their health in a way that won’t render them powerless, there is no reason why both men and women, boys and girls, shouldn’t have the same opportunities and power in society.

Can Girls Do What Boys Do? What is Girl Empowerment?

While it’s true that one gender can generally be better at something than the other (for example, boys are typically faster and stronger than girls, and girls are typically more nurturing and empathetic that boys) that doesn’t mean that all boys and girls conform to these norms. 

Just because being a care assistant (a nurturing, empathetic job) is usually done by women, doesn’t mean that a man can’t do it if he’s able to. Just because being a builder (a job requiring strength and good use of tools) is usually done by men, doesn’t mean that a woman can’t do it if she’s able to.

In recent years, there have been several movements that promote girl empowerment – equipping and enabling women to have the same powers in society as men have.

In 2014, the Always sanitary towel brand asked the question ‘What does it mean to do something “like a girl”?’ in their #LikeAGirl campaign. It highlighted the fact that when ‘like a girl’ is added to an action, it connotes weakness and ridicule.

However, when the same question was asked to young girls, they didn’t react in the same way, showing us that perceiving differences in our abilities and strengths is not innate, but taught – society teaches children that boys are faster, stronger, smarter and better than girls. And if these things are taught, they can also not be taught – we can instead choose to teach children that boys and girls are the same, have the same capabilities, the same opportunities, the same dreams.

Gender Tailored Marketing and Sexualization

Sexualization is when something is made to be sexual either in its quality or character, often when it is inappropriate or irrelevant. The sexualization of young children is becoming increasingly common, seen in how adverts might portray children wearing typically ‘adult’ clothing that might be revealing in a sexual way, or acting in a way that is more akin to adult behavior.

There are some influences on children which are clearly inappropriate – for example:

  • If children are watching TV shows or movies that are targeted for audiences;
  • If they are playing video games with violent content and have an age rating on them; or
  • If they are consuming products (such as alcohol) that are prohibited for children

However, the problem doesn’t stop with ‘adult’ influences, as even things which are designed specifically for children can contain sexualized content.

       Disney products – from movies and books to coloring pages, toys, outfits and stickers – are clearly designed for children. While many adults also enjoy Disney products (usually as a sort of nostalgia from their own childhood) it is undeniable that these products are designed with children in mind. All the same, many elements of Disney products (and other products ‘for children’) have a sexual element.

From the way that Disney Princesses typically act (coquettish, flirtatious, coy, accommodating) to the way they dress (off-the-shoulder revealing dresses with tiny waistlines, bikini tops and high-heeled shoes), Disney Princesses are not exactly great role models – particularly for girls who don’t happen to be naturally skinny, have luscious long hair and dazzlingly clear skin. 

The princess outfits easily lend themselves to sexy fancy dress, with sexualized versions of their outfits being a popular choice for Halloween parties.

That said, in recent years, there has been a definite shift in the sort of princess movies that Disney is producing – Rapunzel (Tangled) and Anna (Frozen) wear more conservative frocks (though still with improbably tiny waists and generous bosoms) and narratives in recent films have been less about the importance of finding a suitable husband, and more about friendship (Wreck It Ralph), family (Frozen) and personal quests (Moana). For further reading on the sexualization of Disney Princesses, read this opinion piece.

While it might not be the best idea to boycott such influences (particularly if your child really likes these things), it is certainly worth trying to introduce other influences that have less potential to damage self-esteem and create negative stereotypes. 

different-family-toys

Having a variety of influences by letting children watch a number of different movies and play with different sorts of toys, will encourage children to have a wider range of influences and not become obsessed by one thing. However, some children do become obsessed by one particular brand or style, which parents can find very challenging.

Toys That Are Designed to Separate Boys and Girls

Traditionally, toy stores would be separated into different sections with ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ clearly marked. This feeds into the gender stereotyping ideas that there are only certain toys that children of either gender should (or should want) to play with, and that it is incorrect to buy children a toy that is designed for the opposite gender.

separation-boys-and-girls

For example, typical boys toys include trucks, building equipment and science kits. Girls toys would include dolls, make-up sets (which are also an example of sexualization, as wearing make-up is an adult behavior), teddy bears and nursing outfits.

Are Some Dolls Inappropriately Designed?

While a doll, such as a fashion doll like Barbie, seems like a normal toy for a child to play with, it is one example of a toy designed for girls which is often overly sexualized. 

Many fashion dolls are designed to have faces heavy with make-up, large breasts, tiny waists, generous buttocks and slim legs with petite feet. A doll designed in this way is giving an unrealistic view to the child playing with it out what an adult female should look like. Similarly, boys’ dolls (such as Action Man) might be designed with chiseled good looks, bulging biceps and a six-pack.

There are several small companies that are trying to combat the sexualization of dolls by creating bespoke, ‘natural’ dolls that don’t have faces thick with make-up, but natural appearances that even include freckles, gaps between teeth and other ‘imperfections’.

One such creator is Evergreen Dolls, based in the UK, which creates ‘Dolls that celebrate diversity, and represent real children.’ Another top choice is Toy Like Me that sources toys that represent real children – children in wheelchairs, with vision impairments, cochlear implants, wearing glasses and with hair loss.

American-Girl-Crutches
American Girl Crutches

 The availability of these toys is a great step forward – not only is it breaking away from the idea that children’s toys need to be ‘perfect’ as opposed to ‘normal’, it reminds us that ‘normal’ is a stereotype too, and that many children and adults have differences to their peers.

How Does This Affect Girl’s Self-confidence and Self-esteem?

For young girls to be surrounded by these highly sexualized images can severely knock their self-esteem. When fashion dolls are all modelled on a stereotypical image of what is beautiful, it teaches young girls that anything else is ugly. In reality, very few people are naturally as good looking as the perfect, air-brushed images we are surrounded with. 

Everybody has their faults, but when the media surrounds us with perfect images, we learn to believe that there is something wrong with us. To promote good self-esteem, children would benefit from a variety of influences that better mimic reality.

Conclusion

So if gender stereotyping is so ingrained in our culture, what can we do about it? How can we raise children in a way that allows them to be themselves, rather than making them conform to social norms? 

There is no easy answer, and the battle gets harder as the children get older and have more negative influences in their lives, but if you start trying to implement positive stereotypes when children are young, it will better equip them to fight the battles for themselves when they are older. Here are a few top tips on how to combat gender stereotyping in your child’s life (click open to read more):

Even from a young age, children can take an active role in picking what they’d like to wear. In playtimes, ask your child what colors they like best, or even take them on a shopping trip to choose for themselves.

Also, don’t fight it if your child so happens to like the color that’s typical for their gender – banning a little girl from wearing pink isn’t going to make her any more open to fighting gender inequality, and many children go through phases where they’d obsessed with a certain color

Don’t assume that little boys will want toys to do with fighting and girls will want toys to do with fashion. Check out this suggested list of gender neutral toys, which includes things like puzzles, building blocks, puppets and bikes

If you tell your little boy he’s ‘strong and brave’ and tell your daughter she’s ‘a beautiful princess’, what message does this send out? There are all sorts of lists online of things you can call your daughter instead of ‘princess’, such as this one

Don’t let your little ones play video games with violent content – those age ratings are for a good reason. Don’t automatically buy whichever toy or brand is popular at the moment – think carefully about how things will influence your child

Don’t underestimate what your child will understand – it might be appropriate for you to explain to them why you’d rather they didn’t watch a certain movie or have a certain toy, rather than simply prohibiting it

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