America is in love with individuality. It’s a place filled to the brim with people pushing the limits of social norms. It’s a place where we tell our kids that they can be anything they want to be. It’s a place filled with opportunities and choices, and where society is more accepting than ever before. The variety of lifestyles someone can choose from in America is unprecedented in the history of the world.
Love it or hate it, one thing we get out of such an openminded culture is the knowledge that our kids can be themselves. Conformity is out and individuality is in. They’re free to be as creative and innovative as they want, and they can let their unique personalities shine through. And with younger Americans being more openminded than ever, our teenagers should feel at ease to be themselves. Key word: they should. But do they?
Consider the stereotypes of average teenagers today. Can you think of one all-encompassing stereotype for the “ideal” girl? Probably not, because there are so many different ways for girls to express themselves. Some go for the glamorous look and wear curled hair and high heels to school every day. Some feel more comfortable simply in jeans and a t-shirt, while others go for an artsy/hipster/bohemian vibe. These are just a few of the many ways for girls to express themselves, and each variety is just as accepted as the next. Girls can be interested in art, sports, science, or music, without it having any effect on their social status. And whether they wear a lot of makeup, none, or somewhere in between, society continually reinforces the message that their self-expression is beautiful.
It’s awesome that girls are so encouraged to be themselves, but do boys get that same message? In theory, maybe, but in practice? As a recent graduate of an American public high school, I can tell you that the answer to that question is a resounding “no.”
For teenage guys, unfortunately, there is really only one lifestyle that the other kids at school will accept. Boys are constantly bombarded with the idea that the “ideal guy” is sporty and doesn’t care too much about anything. It’s okay to be smart, just not too smart. It’s okay to watch the new Star Wars movies, but talking about fan theories crosses the nerdiness line. Do you see the problem here? Girls have gained so much ground in the realm of self-expression, but we haven’t caught up in empowering our boys. So many of them are scared to really be themselves because straying away from the social norm can be devastating to their image, and by extension, their self-confidence. And it’s not just a mindset, either. It’s a reality that is physically present. Have you ever walked into a store and noticed how incredibly bland the men’s clothing section is? Girls have all the variety imaginable to dress themselves with, while guys are stuck with the same few options. The idea that guys should all be the same is subtly but firmly reinforced everywhere we go.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Society is always in flux, and over time, we can reframe the way boys are taught about expressing themselves. By showing them that we appreciate and value their individuality, we can create a world in which they are just as free to express themselves as girls are. How boring would the world be if everyone was just the same? And how unhealthy is it for people to keep their real selves buried? Let’s make sure to let boys know that they can be authentic too.
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This post was written by Jessica Shipman