The Stigma Surrounding Gender Expression

There is a common trend in just about everything we encounter and everywhere we go. Namely, the distinction of what is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. We can easily witness this in things such as clothing, hairstyles, and behaviour. But if you really want to go in-depth, you can find this separation subconsciously manifested in people’s way of thinking. This includes how they think of and treat others and themselves.

This distinction is taught to us from the moment we start developing an understanding of our surroundings; when we learn something as simple as the colour pink being strictly for girls and blue being for boys. We learn this when as children, we are only to play with dolls if we are girls. Or cars if we are boys. But its never the other way around or with both, even if that is what we’d prefer.

It is ingrained in our subconscious when we are told girls should dress, walk, and talk a certain way, and always carry a more submissive role. Or when boys are told emotions are a “sign of weakness”. These are the most common amongst the several microaggressions that assure us of our social roles, simply based on the sex we are assigned at birth.

These seemingly insignificant comments, or “corrections” of behaviour and self-expression in children, are actually impactful gestures that have deep roots in sexism and even homophobia. Despite the prefix “micro”, they can have a big, life-changing impact on an incredibly large group of people. These microaggressions are what allow, later in their adult lives, for people to be trapped in what is expected to be their role in society, not allowing them to express themselves and their uniqueness – which most often they don’t even get the chance to discover – as individuals. Consequently, as would be logical in any case in which people are oppressed, their mental health is affected, sometimes so subconsciously that they don’t even realise it. This causes their behaviour towards others to also become negative.

How Gender Expression and Social Roles Are Associated

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Social roles based on gender determine the way we should behave, the positions we should assume in society, and the way we should portray ourselves, based on gender stereotypes. Social roles are what attribute to every woman the role of the nurturer, the mother, the caregiver, and attribute to men the role of autonomous provider. These roles are not always aligned with the way someone might want to express themselves, and their gender identity.

At this point, I feel like it is important to take note of some distinctions in terms: gender identity is the way you identify yourself. It is what you know yourself to be, regardless of what you were assigned as at birth – designated as the sex. Your gender identity could be synonymous with your sex, and it can also not be. Regardless of your gender identity, your gender expression can be manifested through mannerisms, appearance, or clothing, in whatever way you feel to be right for you, and it goes beyond what could be considered stereotypically male or female.

In simpler terms, a woman who expresses herself in a way that would be traditionally considered masculine, is not any less of a woman. A man who expresses himself as more traditionally feminine, does not become less of a man. A person who identifies themselves outside the binary (man or woman), can express themselves however they want, without having any identity inherently associated with their form of expression.

The Expression of Gender, Regardless of Identity

I think the main question we should ask ourselves while discussing the topic of gender expression is: Who decides how I should express who I am?

There is no inherent gender to clothing, for instance. It is just fabric, and it could be worn by everyone, so why are there certain things I can and cannot wear, as a woman? There are no jobs only for men, or jobs only for women. They are just activities, so who is to tell a man they cannot do a job they desire, just because it’s stereotypically feminine? As an individual, you should be completely free to express yourself however you want, and completely disregard any bias or bigoted opinions of how you should look like, and how you should behave. As an individual, you should also have the same recognition that, just as you are free to portray yourself however you want, so are others around you, despite your own personal biases and opinions.

The inherently human freedom of expression

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying men can’t take on the traditional masculine role, and women can’t be traditionally feminine. If you feel these roles are right for you, then it’s within your power to express yourself in these ways. But the need to take on these roles should not come from the belief that, as a woman, you must be submissive and conservative, because you must please a man and have a family. Or that as a man you must always be strong and disregard your own emotional health because you shouldn’t appear “weak.”

These are the beliefs that keep you oppressed, that don’t allow you to explore your complexity as a human being, and that repress your freedom. When you don’t allow yourself to be free and leave the box of social roles, you don’t allow yourself to be your true self. This leads to unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. You are living based on the approval of others, and not for yourself.

The conclusion here is that you are a free human being. You should be free to be who you were born being. All of those around you are just as free to be who they are. If we all come from the same place of mutual respect and love for one another as human beings, we will allow ourselves to understand that no one needs to fit our standards, and we do not need to fit others’ standards, because, despite our differences, we are all one.

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Written by Nahya Khan