How do Culturally Sanctioned Gender Roles Hurt Adolescents’ Mental Health?

Anna Drattell, Blogger

Gender roles signify how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex. For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in feminine ways as dictated by society, and to be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be strong, aggressive, bold, and are oftentimes cautioned against showing their emotions. Gender norms can be anything from the way you look/dress, your behavior, and even your professional occupation. But these age-old standards set by people who have no bearings cannot be feasible in the long run, no matter what sense of ‘order’ and ‘tradition’ they may appear to support. Although they may have allowed for some form of a ‘structured society,’ as some might say, I’d ask them: at what cost?

First, let’s dive into the concept of toxic masculinity, which lays the groundwork for much of the issues that arise in regards to gender identity. Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive definition of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, status, and aggression. It’s the cultural concept of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a sign of weakness, ultimately leading to the commonly known retort to much of the harassment allegations “boys will be boys.” But it is vital to remember that both sexes suffer from toxic masculinity and that men can be negatively affected by it, too.

It’s best described as a “box,” and men have to contort themselves to fit inside it. Don’t cry. Don’t do anything that could be considered weak. Show no emotions other than bravado and rage. It’s not just the women you’re hurting by systematically teaching them to be submissive, to apologize for everything, and to embody the ideals of a “good girl” – quiet, patient, ladylike, always says and does the right thing, etc. Think about all of the young boys whose minds are being tainted with toxic masculinity and the preconceived notions of what manhood is “supposed to be. The World Health Organization has recognized that men’s tendency to die at younger ages may correlate to the harmful ways that masculinity has been defined in society and the ways that men have been conditioned to practice it. The gender roles, norms, and practices socially imposed on men reinforce a lack of self-care and neglect of their own physical and mental health. They determined that risk-taking behaviors and lack of willingness to seek help were among the reasons for negative health outcomes that men experience. This lack of willingness to seek help is not limited to physical injury and illness. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the suicide rate for men is about four times higher than it is for women. Moreover, neuroscientist Gina Rippon wrote that the brain is “flexible” and is “more affected by external demands, including social attitudes and expectations,” meaning that if we’re being told we’re a failure for not fitting into someone else’s mold, we become trapped in a downward spiral, becoming a lose-lose situation.

Madison Blake ‘22 tells us that “Being progressive is something challenging in the black community, too, especially with the older generations. They think what they were taught is the only way to go and that being gay or trans is against God and social norms.” This definitely takes a huge toll on the men and women in our community who just want to love who they love and be themselves, Madison reminds us. It’s the systemic societal expectations that come into play here.

Simply put, culturally sanctioned gender roles have hurt adolescent’s mental health more than we often realize because we’ve gotten so used to these “rules” that we perceive them as normal and don’t even realize that we’re hurting. But this isn’t the end-all, be-all. Consider how masculine norms are taught and reinforced, how gender inequalities show themselves in the lives of both men, women, and non-binary people. Focus on non-violent prevention approaches directly addressing gender and power. Read books by women in schools, and allow people to talk about women breaking through in a variety of fields, whether that be STEM, politics, or anything in between. We are not – and cannot be – defined by our manufactured identities that were predetermined before we were born. It has never done us any good.