Children as young as seven believe that they are valued more for their appearance than for their character. Its time to break down these stereotypes, says author and childrens campaigner Natasha Devon
A study published by Girlguiding this week has revealed that half of girls feel stifled by gender stereotyping, with children as young as seven believing they are valued more for their appearance than for expected accomplishment or character. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that in the same week a government-funded examine has shown a quarter of daughters exhibit symptoms of depression by the age of 14.
Neurobiologists now know there is no discernible difference between males and brains at the point of birth. By the time humans reach adolescence, there will usually be significant divergence. Traditionally, psychologists have tended to assume this is because men and women are naturally and inherently different. This contribute to a widespread and largely unquestioned cultural faith that, left to their own devices, daughters would instinctively gravitate towards dollies, pink things, sparkles and baking, shunning “masculine” activities such as athletic and science.
What this assumption fails to take into account is the phenomenon of “neuroplasticity”, combined with gender bias. Brain development is determined by what we do, and therefore if, unconsciously, adults steer children towards certain activities based on their gender, they influence how their minds grow on a physiological level. Thus gender bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m not for one second suggesting that, if all things were equal, there isn’t a chance there would be a natural difference in the interests and activities that people of various types of genders are drawn to. But things are not equal, so we can’t know definitively either way. Furthermore, holding stereotypes have a negative impact on daughters’ mental health, convincing them first that an ever more demanding paradigm of physical “perfection” must be met with apparent effortlessness and then that being “popular”- meek yet sociable- sexy but not “slutty”, sporty in a narrow, feminine parameter( not” too muscular “) are imperatives. This, be included with the ever-spiralling academic pressure experienced by all young people, understandably causes high levels of nervousnes, which, when sustained over time, can lead to feelings of depression.
Never is this more pronounced than when one find the difference in culture between co-ed and single-sex schools. As someone who visits more than 150 schools throughout the UK annually, I’ve noticed that girls in a single-sex environment tend to be more confident, more willing to share their opinions and more likely to develop a passion for Stem subjects( science, technology, engineering and mathematics ). I set this down in no small measure to the fact that, in a single-sex school, there can be no such thing as “girl” and “boy” subjects. It gives us a glimpse into what society might be like if we levelled the playing field.
In the words of Jean Kilbourne, global expert on the relationship between media narrations and gender inequality,” the first step is to become aware “. I endeavour not to use gendered words such as “girls”, ” sons” or “ladies” when delivering class in schools , not only because they fail to acknowledge the potential presence of transgender people, but because I don’t believe it’s helpful for humen to be constantly reminded of their gender( and all the social expectations attached ).
I also challenge parents and teachers to expend a week engaging in a” compliments swap” challenge. This involves replacing kudo focused on appearance with praise relating to character. For example, instead of commenting on a person’s shoes or hair, the emphasis is moved to remarking on astute observations, acts of courage or kindness. Even the most enlightened people are usually surprised when they begin noticing how often they unconsciously reinforce the notion that a woman’s worth is no more than the sum of her parts. This is something that can be replicated on social media.
Education policymakers need also to acknowledge that, rather than spending every waking moment shall include participation in parrot-style, exam-centric, fact-based learn, children need the time and space to develop critical reasoning abilities. Educators can only give young people appropriate tools they need to question aggressive self-esteem- and mental-health-destroying cultural narrations if there is sufficient space within the school week to foster deliberation and debate.
The mainstream media can assist in this endeavour. After all, while a girl growing up in 2017 may have imbibed the message that it is possible for her to become “ministers “, she will also have learned that what will matter most is how her legs look in a pencil skirt.
* Natasha Devon is an writer and campaigner who works in schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK. She was previously the government’s mental health champ for schools
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