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What does it mean to be a woman or man? Whether we are women or men is not determined just by our sex organs. Our gender includes a complex mix of beliefs, behaviors, and characteristics. How do you act, talk, and behave like a woman or man? Are you feminine or masculine, both, or neither? These are questions that help us get to the core of our gender and gender identity.
There are few easy answers when it comes to gender and gender identity, so it is normal to have questions. Here are some of the most common questions we hear about gender and gender identity. We hope our answers are helpful.
Each person has a sex, a gender, and a gender identity. These are all aspects of your sexuality. They are all about who you are, and they are all different, but related.
Some people find that their gender identity does not match their biological sex. When this happens, the person may identify as transgender.
Feminine traits are ways of behaving that our culture usually associates with being a girl or woman. Masculine traits are ways of behaving that our culture usually associates with being a boy or man.
Clearly, society’s categories for what is masculine and feminine are unrealistic. They may not capture how we truly feel, how we behave, or how we define ourselves. All men have some so-called feminine traits, and all women have some so-called masculine traits. And we may show different traits at different times. Our cultures teach women and men to be the opposite of each other in many ways. The truth is that we are more alike than different.
People who express masculine and feminine traits equally are sometimes called androgynous. Among androgynous people, neither masculine nor feminine traits dominate.
Gender roles are the way people act, what they do and say, to express being a girl or a boy, a woman or a man. These characteristics are shaped by society. Gender roles vary greatly from one culture to the next, from one ethnic group to the next, and from one social class to another. But every culture has gender roles — they all have expectations for the way women and men, girls and boys, should dress, behave, and look.
Children learn gender roles from an early age — from their parents and family, their religion, and their culture, as well as the outside world, including television, magazines, and other media. As children grow, they adopt behaviors that are rewarded by love and praise. They stop or hide behaviors that are ridiculed, shamed, or punished. This happens early in life. By age three, children have usually learned to prefer toys and clothes that are “appropriate” to their gender.
A stereotype is a widely accepted judgment or bias regarding a person or group — even though it is overly simplified. Stereotypes about gender can cause unequal and unfair treatment because of a person’s gender. This is called sexism.
Hyperfemininity and Hypermasculinity
Hyperfemininity is the exaggeration of stereotyped behavior that is believed to be feminine. Hyperfeminine women, as well as some gay men and male-to-female transgender people, exaggerate the qualities they believe to be feminine. They believe they are supposed to boost men's egos by being passive, naive, innocent, soft, flirtatious, graceful, nurturing, and accepting.
Hypermasculinity is the exaggeration of stereotyped behavior that is believed to be masculine. Hypermasculine men, as well as some lesbian and female-to-male transgender people, exaggerate the qualities they believe to be masculine. They believe they are supposed to compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive, worldly, sexually experienced, hard, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding.
These exaggerated gender stereotypes can create difficult relationships. Hyperfeminine women are more likely to accept physical and emotional abuse from their sex partners. Hypermasculine men are more likely to be physically and emotionally abusive to their partners.
Although most of us are not hyperfeminine or hypermasculine, many of us have anxieties and inhibitions about our femininity and masculinity.
We see gender stereotypes all around us. We also may see sexism. There are ways to challenge these stereotypes to help everyone, no matter their gender or gender identity, feel equal.
If you have been struggling with gender or gender identity, you’re not alone. It may help you to talk to a trusted parent, friend, family member, teacher, or professional counselor.
Q&A with Dr. Cullins