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Fitting In Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

image3What’s worse? Being a teen who fits into society’s stereotypes or not? It turns out, neither is great. I recently attended a webinar focused on the impact of gender stereotypes on adolescents. This is an issue we’ve explored ourselves from various angles – first, from our perspective as allies and trainers on sexual diversity sensitivity; and secondly, from our view as researchers studying the early sexualization of girls.

In this webinar, Dr. Bryn Austin from Harvard’s School of Public Health presented new research that examines health disparities among adolescents, across a spectrum of gender conformity. The study showed that young people who are most gender non-conforming (i.e., those who least fit into society’s preferred gender roles), had higher rates of PTSD, depression, cigarette use and pain impairment. Researchers suggest this is because of stress pathways—that people who don’t conform to gender norms are more likely to suffer bullying and abuse. In fact, these young people have higher rates of psychological, physical and sexual abuse than their gender-conforming peers, and the harassment they suffer comes from both peers and adults alike.

However, study participants who most conformed to gender stereotypes (i.e., those who ‘fit the mold’ of masculine or feminine ideals), were at high risk for negative outcomes, too—just different ones. For example, highly gender-conforming males were more likely to smoke cigars or chew tobacco, and to abuse steroids or other supplements, while females on this end of the spectrum were more likely to use tanning beds, be physically inactive, and abuse laxatives (as a diet aid). So, whether young people are being punished by the ‘gender police’ for non-conformity, or whether they’re buying into dangerous gender roles themselves, the bottom line is: gender stereotypes are bad for virtually all adolescents.

This particular study focused on increased cancer risks, but as discussion leader Sophie Godley from Boston University’s School of Public Health pointed out, the impact of gender stereotyping reaches into every corner of public health. How do our own research decisions and program practices contribute to the ‘gender policing’ of young people? Are we reinforcing the gender binary—the traditional idea that gender only comes in two opposing options? In most cases, yes, and it’s probably because we don’t understand the alternative. Do we even consider gender-related factors when evaluating program effectiveness? What about the activities we offer to young people engaged in our services, the language we use, the way we label our bathrooms?

Youth Catalytics’ own work on early sexualization was sometimes criticized for its sole focus on girls – “What about boys?” became a common refrain – so we’re attuned to questions about how what we study impacts how we think about and present the issues. Webinar presenters encouraged people not to become embroiled in a battle over whether stress pathways or societal norm pathways were more important to address, but instead, to take a larger view—to examine how systems themselves perpetuate gender stereotyping, including acknowledging the feminization of the public health field as a whole. When asked for examples of how to do better, presenters offered two programs that move the needle on gender stereotyping: Rowing Strong, Rowing Together (a rowing team for teen moms in Holyoke, Mass.) and the school-based Coaching Boys into Men model.

I took away several questions, which I pass on to you for consideration: What are three ways your work unwittingly encourages young people to conform? Where are you making space for non-conformity? And finally, how can we ensure that when we talk about the alarming trajectories of various subpopulations of youth (e.g., young men of color or disadvantaged girls), we’re not overpowering the stories of the most resilient gender non-conforming youth we know?

~ Jen Smith

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