Gender, Sexuality and the Body

Gender is defined as “the expectations of thought and behavior that each culture assigns to people of different sexes” by Ken Guest in The Essentials of Cultural Anthropology. The idea of gender is not organic; it is formed within a culture and societies’ expectations. Gender involves social norms, attitudes, and activities that are deemed appropriate for one sex over the other in society. A person must conform to the norms, attitudes, and activities associated with their assigned gender to fit within society. In many cultures gender is divided into two categories: female and male, and these genders always correspond with a person’s sex. Gender categories allow society to see how different social groups define and maintain them in daily life. Once gender is attached to a person, the social order holds that individual to strongly gendered norms and expectations. The social construction of gender is used to describe how societies determine and manage sex categories, the cultural traditions associated with each category, and how individuals understand their identity.

Gender is a learned behavior used to manage the sex categories of humans. According to Ken Guest, “humans are born with their biological sex but learn to be women and men”. Since childhood humans accept expectations from the people around us like parents and relatives to grow up as a masculine male or feminine female. Parents use gender markers once the sex and gender are determined. These include how to walk, talk, eat, dress and think to emphasize a baby’s gender status. At a young age we learn what is expected and react in an expected way therefore solidifying the structure and preserving gender norms. The process begins with the parents choosing the child’s name based on their sex, dressing them in their designated gender clothing, assigning colors to match their gender, and giving them suitable haircuts. For example, it is expected that only girls can like pink and only boys can like blue. Seeing a boy wearing pink would be perceived as inappropriate by those around him as well as seeing a girl wearing blue. Another example is that boys are geared toward playing sports as a young child and girls might be taught to be female by imitating their mother’s actions. This “cultural construction” draws a line between the genders at an early age making us believe that we are completely different from one another and have different needs and aspirations.

We are expected to adapt the expectations of what ii means to be feminine or masculine when we present ourselves to the world. The expectations of how each gender should act are displayed in mass media like movies and magazines. These forms of media provide a clear image of what it means to be feminine or masculine. This influences the minds of both young and old people on how they should present themselves to humanity. An example is how in the media femininity is often portrayed as sexual conglomerates that emphasize how women should be to satisfy their assigned gender role. Camille Sweeney emphasizes these standards in her article when she writes about a child who “didn’t feel like a woman” and “was disappointed that breasts didn’t follow.” When a female does not possess a key feature that distinguishes her gender role she can start to feel disconnected and experience low self-esteem. Humanity makes humans feel that women must have female characteristics like breasts to categorize themselves as a woman. These unrealistic standards lead humans to take drastic measures like cosmetic surgery to satisfy the gender role. Many women aspire to look like the females in media and magazines in terms of wanting to be beautifully perfect, popular and thin. This leads them to have eating disorders and depression.Feminity is seen as an unrealistic and unattainable standard set and perpetuated by society through the media.

In contrast to women, men are held to appear masculine in society to satisfy their gender assignment. In many cultures’ men are expected to adopt masculine traits of aggression, competitiveness, and assertiveness. These are traits that align with their gender identity. One way to assert their dominance is through organized sports matches. For example the setup of sports in the United States is geared to enforce the masculinity of males.[footnoteRef:6] The sports arena gives them a space to work on their physical strength and reflect on stereotypes associated with masculinity such as aggression and athleticism. This turns the sports arena into a men’s only field as sports become associated with manliness or manhood. Men are expected to act in a way to show their aggression and dominance in society. They cannot be weak in society; they can’t express their emotions or be too sensitive. In the media men are posed to be muscular and toned making young boys believe that in order to be a man they must embrace these characteristics. If this is not achieved, then men may become disconnected from their gender roles and less masculine.

Our gender identity is expressed through gender performance. Once our gender identity is assigned we use our actions to express it to society in the choices we make. For example, due to women having biological functions of reproduction, breast-feeding, and childbearing[footnoteRef:9] and have a more nurturing side to them they are expected to perform better than males in the home setting. While women perform in the private sphere, men take advantage of using their masculinity in the public sphere participating in roles dealing in politics, economics, and religion.[footnoteRef:10] They use their masculinity to make decisions in these high-position roles. The increase of dominance and status through their expression of masculinity leads to men being expected to be the main provider of the household due to their access to work. This strengthens identification of gender as it creates gender norms of expectations of a man and a woman in the public and private spheres and shapes the life paths of each gender. Gender ideologies like this are stemmed from the tale of “Man the Hunter, Woman the Gatherer.” This context allows males to perform in what is deemed masculine through being big and powerful to hunt and provide for the whole family. Women are given the task of being home-oriented with the focus of taking care of the children as they are more nurturing. This tale lays out the guidelines of how each gender is expected to perform in their roles and has carried through to present times.

Lastly gender is used for individuals to best understand identity in their respective cultures. For example, in western cultures it has become popular to disassociate yourself with your assigned gender which causes confusion among traditional and conservative folks who are used to identifying others through gender categories. People use gender to analyze and compare groups and when there is a disturbance in the system it is hard for people to adapt. At this point many people are familiar with gender norms and classification systems as this is what is taught to us from a young age . People mislabel the act of changing or disassociating with your gender as a mental disorder. The A.P.A uses the category of “gender dysphoria, a technical term for people unhappy because of their gender incongruence.”This increases the stigma and prejudice towards those who cannot stand for the sex they were given at birth. Classifying this as a mental disorder is a way for people who abide by gender norms to cope with those who don’t agree with their gender. They are a threat to the system solidified in gender classification and disrupt the social construction of gender. The idea of being transgender should be classified as a social identity and not as a psychiatric one. This makes them more vulnerable to stigmatization by the environment around them for not accepting the social construction of gender. The reactions to gender nonconformity deeming it as a “violation of nature”[footnoteRef:13] are invalid as there is nothing natural about limiting sexual behavior and gender identities to male and female.

In many other cultures outside the United States there are multiple genders that are not presumed as mental or psychical disorders. The sexual lives and identities are determined by cultures in each respective region. In these cultures, sex doesn’t fit into two categories of female or male. In the cultures of India, Indonesia, Polynesia, and the Navajo some people do not identify as men or women or there are multiple genders and sexes found in the society.This shows that even though gender is not categorized into two neatly identities it is still used to best classify people and categorize them for comparison in every culture. Characteristics of female and male are still expected but have more fluidity in these cultures.

In conclusion, the construction of gender is not based on biological differences between men and women, but instead created by our long held perceptions and traditions surrounding behaviors and expectations placed on the performance of gender in society. Through tradition, the youth is doctrinated into a system that instills clear expectations of how a specific gender identity should act in society. This is further proliferated through the media which acts as a platform to promote these ideals in the mainstream. Ancestors continually pass along these traditions to their offspring and the cycle continues. The system is challenged by those who reject their gender assignments, often causing further opposition and tension from conventional society. Thus, gender identity, although rigid in Western society, exhibits the possibility of adopting fluidity from other cultural perspectives. The stigmatization and restriction against those who don’t identify with either category are basically opposing a system that is fabricated and perpetuated by a set of rules and conditions that are arbitrary.

Works Cited

  1. Grinker, R. (2019). Opinion | Being Trans Is Not a Mental Disorder. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/06/opinion/trans-gender-dysphoria-mental-disorder.html?rref=collection/sectioncollection/opinion [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
  2. Guest, K. (n.d.). Essentials of cultural anthropology. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  3. Sweeney, C. (2019). Seeking Self-Esteem Through Surgery. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/fashion/15skin.html [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
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Gender, Sexuality and the Body. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved July 25, 2021 , from
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