Gender and Gender Identity at a Glance
- Gender is our social and legal status as girls and boys, women and men.
- Gender identity is how you feel about and express your gender.
- Culture determines gender roles and what is masculine and feminine.
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.
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What Is Gender? What Is Gender Identity?
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.
- Sex is biological. It includes our genetic makeup, our hormones, and our body parts, especially our sex and reproductive organs.
- Gender refers to society's expectations about how we should think and act as girls and boys, and women and men. It is our biological, social, and legal status as women and men.
- Gender identity is how we feel about and express our gender and gender roles — clothing, behavior, and personal appearance. It is a feeling that we have as early as age two or three.
Some people find that their gender identity does not match their biological sex. When this happens, the person may identify as transgender.
What Is Feminine? What Is Masculine?
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.
WORDS COMMONLY USED TO DESCRIBE FEMININITY
- sexually submissive
WORDS COMMONLY USED TO DESCRIBE MASCULINITY
- sexually aggressive
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.
What Are Gender Roles?
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.
What Are Gender Stereotypes?
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.
FOUR BASIC KINDS OF GENDER STEREOTYPES
- Personality traits — For example, women are often expected to be passive and submissive, while men are usually expected to be self-confident and aggressive.
- Domestic behaviors — For example, caring for children is often considered best done by women, while household repairs are often considered best done by men.
- Occupations — For example, until very recently most nurses and secretaries were usually women, and most doctors and construction workers were usually men.
- Physical appearance — For example, women are expected to be small and graceful, while men are expected to be tall and broad-shouldered.
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.
How Can I Challenge Gender Stereotypes?
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.
- Point it out — From magazines and television to film and the Internet, the media is filled with negative gender stereotypes. Sometimes these stereotypes are hard to see. Talk with friends and family members about the stereotypes you see and help others recognize how sexism and gender stereotypes can hurt all of us.
- Walk the talk — Be a role model for your friends and family. Respect people regardless of their gender.
- Speak up — If someone is making sexist jokes, challenge them.
- Give it a try — If you want to do something that is not normally associated with your gender, think about whether you’ll be safe doing it. If you think you will, give it a try. People will learn from your example.
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.