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Creating a Balanced Society

by Julie Fischer, MSE, Licensed Professional Counselor 

"I am convinced that when we as women reclaim our full ancient powers and when men awaken to their loving and caring nature, a balanced society respecting all life is truly possible. My work stands in affirmation of this belief."
Jane Evershed, artist

I thank Jane Evershed for such enlightening words. These words touch me deeply because my work as a counselor at Full Circle is also an affirmation of this belief. I counsel women who need help finding their voice and reclaiming their power. I counsel men who have forgotten how great their capacity is for loving, caring and nurturing. I counsel many people who are in search of balance both within themselves and in the world around them.

What creates such widespread imbalance in the first place? Part of the answer to this complex question is, I believe, gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are the dominant culture's prescribed roles for boys and girls, men and women. They are myths that take away our unique selves as individuals and attempt to put us into neat little boxes as males or females. They tell us,

"Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, that's what little boys are made of..."

"Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of..."

They are destructive myths that prevent women and men from being whole people.

We are all getting messages, everyday of our lives about what it means to be male and female. Consider the list of adjectives below. These are the "codes", both silent and spoken, of being a "proper" male or female:

Males are: Males are NOT:
-strong -outwardly emotional or sensitive
-aggressive -passive
-achievement-oriented -too nurturing, caring or loving
-successful -too interested in anything "feminine"
-independent  (cooking, childcare, dancing, etc.)
-active -afraid
-athletic -needy
-sexually active ("studs")

Females are: Females are NOT:
-attractive -too strong or aggressive
-"ladies" (quiet, neat, polite) -assertive
-helpful and nice -too successful or smart
-caretakers -angry
-peacemakers -too opinionated
-passive -too loud
-emotional and needy -too independent

These stereotypes begin at birth. When asked to describe newborns, boys are described as alert, strong and coordinated; girls are described as tiny, soft and delicate. And research indicates that at the early age of two, boys and girls are aware of and adhere to these gender stereotypes. So an infant who begins life with the capacity for expressing all human emotions and abilities, is quickly socialized into giving up one-half of her or his whole self in order to fit into prescribed gender roles. By the tender age of two, girls and boys are limiting themselves to toys, colors and games appropriate for their gender. Parents, teachers, relatives and friends encourage and perpetuate these gender roles. They dress boys in blue and get them cars, trucks, guns and building sets. They dress girls in pink and offer them baby dolls, pretend make-up, tea sets and play kitchens.

So what? you ask. What difference does it make how we describe infants, or what toys toddlers play with? The imbalance and real harm, for both boys and girls, isn't necessarily visible until later in childhood after each gender has fully bought into their stereotyped gender roles. The consequences, for both girls and boys, of trying to live up to and fit into their prescribed gender stereotyped roles are disastrous and often life-long.

Consider the following:

Gender stereotype - Girls and women must be "attractive" to be valuable.
Attractive is defined by society's current beauty standards, which is becoming more and more unattainable for women. Beauty is defined mostly by thinness, and over the years a woman must be thinner and thinner to be considered beautiful.

"Miss America's have become taller and thinner over the years. In 1951, Miss Sweden was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 151 pounds. In 1983, Miss Sweden was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 109 pounds." Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher, PhD

Result - One in five young women in America have eating disorders; that's a total of eight million women in America who struggle with eating disorders. One million women develop anorexia each year, and more than 150,000 of these young women starve themselves to death each year. Studies show that dissatisfaction with body size is beginning as early as seven years of age (my experience as a school counselor bears this out -- girls informed me that they were dieting in 2nd and 3rd grades!) And this dissatisfaction with body size continues for most women well into adulthood. Nearly every woman I have worked with in counseling, regardless of their weight and size, has difficulty accepting and loving her body.

Gender stereotype - Boys and men are not emotional and not needy.
Once boys believe they cannot safely express their emotions, for fear of appearing weak, they quickly become men who are disconnected from their feelings altogether. Hurt, sadness, fear and insecurity are covered up, most often times with anger. Too often, that anger turns into violence.

Result - "One out of two women will be battered at some time in her life. In 1991, more than one million women reported being the victims of violent crimes at the hands of husbands or lovers; four thousand women were killed. Police estimated that more than six million assaults actually took place. In America, a woman is a victim of domestic violence every 18 seconds."Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher, PhD

Women who struggle with eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, men who are chronically angry and often violent, and the millions of women that are the targets of that violence are just a few examples of the disastrous results of these dangerous gender stereotypes. Sadly, there are many more (too numerous to detail in this article).

What can we do about the damage of gender stereotypes as individuals, parents, workers and members of our community? We can actively question our own attitudes about what it means to be male or female. We can question society's prescribed gender stereotypes. Dare to set an example of breaking the status quo by living as an authentic WHOLE person, embracing all aspects of yourself, both masculine and feminine.

To counteract these gender stereotypes that are sewn into the fabric of life as we know it is a huge undertaking -- one that must begin early. As a parent, caregiver, grandparent or community member teach the next generation to question the status quo. Teach them to celebrate who they are as unique individuals, rather then conforming to society's expectations. Raise sons who are caring, nurturing and loving. Raise daughters who can embrace their strength and power as females. Raise each child so that she or he can flourish and grow into a unique and whole adult. I invite you to do your part, in whatever way you can to help create the balanced society that Jane Evershed speaks of and I aspire to.

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