If Gender’s Learned, Why Do You Feel You’re Born in the Wrong Body?
Posted by BroadBlogs
Tami Hamilton recently wrote about the intersexed babies that her niece gave birth to. Since their sex was indeterminate the doctors chose to make them into girls. One child has thrived, the other has not. The whole experience leaves Tami wondering whether gender identity is grounded in biology or sociology.
Some parents have hidden the sex of their children, hoping to offer them a wide range of experience and keep them outside limiting boxes. Like the Canadian couple who are raising their child “Storm,” sex unknown. Or the British couple who only announced the sex of their son, Sasha when he entered kindergarten. These kids were allowed to play with or wear whatever they like.
Last I heard, Sasha seemed just fine, and thinks arbitrary rules like, “pink is for girls and blue for boys” are silly.
Gender is certainly learned. We know this because it isn’t expressed the same way in all places. “Masculine” means different things in different times and places. Ancient Roman and Scottish men wore dresses or skirts. Romeo wore tights. King Louis XIV wore lace, ruffles, curls, and color. The Founding Fathers posed gracefully. Rock stars and the Wodaabe of Nigeria wear makeup.
Most of us “adequately” conform to whatever the cultural expectations are. If men wear dresses and make up, men don those things.
So if gender is learned, how could anyone be “transgendered”? Why would anyone feel like they were born in the wrong body? Why does one of Linda’s grand nieces feel “out of sorts” in dresses or playing with “girl” toys?
As it turns out, kids aren’t blank slates who passively sit by while society imprints itself on them.
Children are born with personalities — strongly masculine or feminine, or points between — that may or may not fit comfortably with what’s deemed masculine or feminine in the place they grow up.
So boys who are strongly or moderately masculine (as defined by the culture) will come across as just that. Slightly feminine boys will seem like boys, even if they’re more sensitive, gentle, fashion-conscious, or neat, for instance.
But boys with male genes and hormones but strongly feminine interests or personalities won’t feel comfortable, or fit in, playing hopscotch, jump rope or wearing dresses. At least not in the modern, western world. These kids may feel they are trapped in the wrong body, entirely. But if they had been born into a culture in which masculine were seen as what we call feminine, they may feel much more at home in their skin.
So what about Tami’s nieces? Looks like one has a strong masculine (as defined in the US) personality that does not fit well with little-girl things. While the other niece’s personality is not so strongly comported in that direction.
But who knows, maybe the parents’ worries about nonconformity exaggerate the matter. When I was young I didn’t like playing with baby dolls. What was I supposed to do with them, I wondered? And for a period of time I would not wear dresses. But my mom didn’t freak out about it. She let me play with coloring books, Legos and Lincoln Logs, my tricycle, and stuffed animals. The sandbox was a favorite.
If she had fussed and forced me to wear things and play with things I didn’t like I may have rebelled. (And as I got older I decided I did like dresses and even Barbie dolls.)
But why not let kids be who they want to be, and not force them into slots?
About BroadBlogsI have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.
Posted on June 27, 2014, in feminism, gender, LGBTQ+, psychology and tagged Cross-dressing, feminism, gender, LGBTQ+, psychology, social construction of gender, transgender. Bookmark the permalink. 70 Comments.