My friends and I prepared a baby shower this summer. Planning the event involved a lot of frantic Facebook messaging and late-night Google Doc editing, as well as coming up with creative game ideas, such as “Pin the Sperm on the Egg.” We also spent a decent amount of time shopping for baby-related things, which led us to several gender-stereotypical items. Encountering these signals from society made me realize that gender roles really do start from within the womb – or at least they begin early enough to affect children from the beginning of their existences.
Studies show that children detect gender differences by the age of three: at that age, they already differentiate between “boy” activities and “girl” activities, “boy” clothes and “girl” clothes, and “boy” careers and “girl” careers. Much of this labeling stems from society – with the title of my post I do not intend to imply that biology leads to differences in gender, rather, I suggest that we as individuals inflict humans with gender stereotypes before they even come into existence. In her book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine includes a statistic about how the 18 children’s books that won the Caldecott Medal from 1967 to 1971 featured zero working women, even though 40% of women in that time period held a job. We enforce inaccurate perceptions of gender to make ourselves feel better, even though these standards do us harm.
Gender roles might not come from within the womb, but they do start while babies rest in the womb, due to parents’ desire to know more about their children right away. At first, a baby is nothing more than a bump in its mother’s stomach: we cannot detect its personality, its intelligence, its potential kindness or its quirkiness. This lack of information might intimidate parents, so when they learn their baby’s sex – one of the first nuggets of information they receive about their child – some parents automatically form associations in regard to society’s preconceived ideas of gender, in order to guide themselves and make themselves feel better. Instead of floundering in the dark, parents now have a light to lead them toward understanding their child, even if that light comes from a faulty source.
The use of gender roles reflects our lack of self-understanding. Instead of allowing children to formulate their own self-concepts from the start, parents and other people within society slap labels onto kids based on their sex because it takes so little effort. Stereotyping is easy: it takes just a couple of seconds to think “boys play baseball and girls do ballet” or “girls write well and boys excel at math.” It requires much more time and effort to help children discover who they really are for themselves – it calls for experimentation and imperfection, as well as an eventual acceptance no matter what anyone else thinks.
I do not suggest that I know more about parenting than anyone else. Rather, I feel that all of us, since our time in our mother’s wombs, embark on a journey of self-discovery. Parents or other people might try to use gender roles as an aid to that process of self-understanding, but we should all strive to define ourselves based on our own characteristics, traits, and emotions – not just the ones given to us by other people. As George Bernard Shaw said, we all create ourselves, one authentic piece at a time.
What do you guys think? Agree of disagree with my thoughts on gender roles and where they come from? I wrote this post at 1 AM last night and worked on it a little bit more this morning, so I hope my thoughts come across with at least a little coherence. I apologize for my absence as of late; I move back to college on Thursday, so I have been preparing for that and dealing with family and life drama. I intend to write more soon, and in the meantime if you want to check out my thoughts on Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, I Want It That Way by Ann Aguirre, and On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, you can do so here, here, and here respectively. I hope everyone has had a wonderful week!