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The Price of Conforming to Gender Norms

We benefit from reflection on our “femininity” and “masculinity”

CCO Pixabay/Public Domain/Permission to Use
Source: CCO Pixabay/Public Domain/Permission to Use

What is striking about the image to the left? For most of us, there is something “queer” about it. ;-) The man appears to be neither masculine nor feminine-–he is both. This may be disturbing to some, liberating to others. It is useful for us to reflect on our own perceptions and values with respect to what society considers appropriate as “male” and “female.”

People who don't fit into either masculine or feminine gender roles often call themselves "gender queer." The gender queer believe being masculine or feminine is something we learn living in our particular society-–masculinity and femininity are not determined by our biological sex. Being a male doesn’t make us masculine; being a female doesn’t make us feminine.

We learn how to behave in a masculine or feminine manner through socialization.

Males and females from different societies are the same biologically. But different societies have different ideas about how men and women should behave. For example: in some Middle-Eastern societies, it is normal for straight men to walk about town holding hands-–it means they are friends. In Western societies, the same behavior means something quite different.

How is Gender Engendered?

These days there is a wide range of what is considered appropriate behavior for males and females. With the advent of the metrosexual and the man-bun, norms have certainly changed over time.

But some time-honored examples will make my point. As males, we may be taught at an early age to disown our nurturing side-–boys aren't supposed to play with dolls. As females, we may be taught to disavow constructive aggression-–girls aren’t encouraged to engage in rough and tumble play.

As we become socialized, peers continue the process our families started. Young children learn to put pressure on each other to conform to gender specific traits-–“You throw like a girl.”

By the time we are adults, we may not even be aware of how society has shaped our gender-conforming behavior. But we are all affected. We often police our own behavior. A woman may ask herself, “Am I being too manly by being a competitive and aggressive presidential candidate?” A man may worry, “Am I acting like a woman when I become emotional?”

Most of us are reasonably comfortable adhering to the gender norms of our society. But if we are not aware of the ways in which we are complying with expectation, we may reject an essential part of our self.

We should ask ourselves, have I disowned some essential part of myself in order to conform to a gender role?

Sometimes we are overly identified with gender-conforming behavior . . .

Kay is comfortable with her femininity but feels immobilized by her fear of appearing too ambitious. She hears her mother saying, "No one likes an ambitious woman." She feels uncomfortable showing people her ambition-–the part of herself that identifies with her successful father. So, she hides her desire to succeed and suffers the loss of the crucial support and encouragement she would get from her friends, if she would only let them know.

Or we can overly resist gender-conforming behavior . . .

Laura fears becoming like her mother. As a typical housewife of her time, Laura’s mother was financially dependent on her husband. She took responsibility for raising the children. She suffered quietly as her husband engaged in a series of affairs.

Laura modeled herself on her father. She is an independent woman who would not rely on any man. She has disowned her femininity. Although she married, she keeps her husband at an emotional distance. Now she finds herself desiring an affair with a man she fantasizes will take care of her. This affair would allow her to realize her feminine side, while avoiding feeling too emotionally vulnerable with her husband.

Awareness is Key

Whether we conform to, or resist, gender norms, they play a role in how we see and judge ourselves. They also influence how we perceive others. They impact our behavior whether we are aware of them or not. If we are going to be subjected to such powerful influences, we need to reflect on the ways in which they impact us. Without doing so, we may be prevented from realizing our true potential.

By David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.

David will be presenting a paper on the above topic at the Queering Psychoanalysis Conference (click here, more below). He is a graduate of The William Alanson White Institute. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Associate Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in The West Village/Chelsea in Manhattan. Visit his webpage:

The Queering Psychoanalysis Conference

For more information or to register for the Queering Psychoanalysis Conference, click here:

Sat. Oct. 22, 2016 at 8:30 am

William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology

20 West 74th Street


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