Gender Norms vs. Social Construct: What's a Girl to Do?

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If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media or news sites in the past month you know that gender issues have been at the forefront of the national conversation. And based on what I’ve seen in articles and media clips, newsfeeds and comment boxes, there seems to be two polarized camps, neither of which is the truth. One camp claims that gender is a social construct and therefore ought to be a personal choice; the other clings to narrow stereotypes and demands that everyone exist within those boundaries.

I sometimes find myself wondering if one is in response to the other, and vice versa. Do children experience a sort of gender confusion when they recognize that they don’t fit within the box; and do parents who recognize that their child doesn’t fit within that box push them all the more to conform?

Greyerbaby, 3/21/14, via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Greyerbaby, 3/21/14, via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

I was never so aware of this until I had a daughter. Every time I come home from the store I have a fresh rant for my husband. Here’s what I find in the girls’ section: short shorts, skimpy bathing suits, shoes that aren’t conducive to running and playing, pink and purple, purple and pink, and bedazzled everything. As she grows, if she pays close attention to the toy aisles she’ll learn that as a girl she is pretty limited. She can like dolls and dress-up clothes and play food, but dinosaurs and space and cars and trucks are for boys. She’ll learn that if she likes blocks or sports, then there are special sets and outfits for her, which must be pink or purple and sparkly. She’ll learn from books and movies that girls are either damsels in distress in need of a prince, or fiercely independent women who blaze their own trails and don’t need the help of anyone!

And what is she to think if she likes Olaf instead of Ana and Elsa (as my daughter does) or prefers Jake over Sofia? What if she tosses the dolls aside and spends her day building towers or making dinosaurs roar? What if she has no interest in dress up but wants to sit with dad and watch a Notre Dame football game? Will she wonder why God made her a girl instead of a boy? Will her heart ache as a pre-teen wondering if there is something wrong with her because she doesn’t fit in with the other girls, or what others expect of her? This is the thing that keeps me up at night.

I look at my daughter and see a creative, intelligent, generous, funny little girl. One who likes trains and dinosaurs, bugs and blocks, and also wearing mom’s shoes and jewelry and dancing; one who loves wearing dresses to church but whose favorite shirt came from the boy section because it has Olaf on it. I see a young woman made in God’s image and likeness, endowed with a special dignity and a life-giving vocation.

So, how do I help her see that as she grows? How do I help her have a healthy and authentic understanding of her femininity?

In John Paul II’s Letter to Women, he affirms and thanks all women for their self-gift to the world, and acknowledges that this self-gift is offered in so many, varied, ways. What a beautiful gift that letter is for us! And the saints! What a treasure we have in the women saints who have gone before us, offering their lives as a witness, and interceding for us now. There are saints who were wives, mothers, grandmothers, virgins, workers, doctors, writers, business owners – even queens! They present such a beautiful tapestry of the feminine genius.

So, in our home, we’ll present our daughters with a wide variety of toys and books and clothes and let them pick what they like. We’ll let them explore their interests and decide what they are passionate about pursuing. If she decides she wants a superhero backpack or a green shirt with a train on it, then I’ll happily (find a coupon or clearance rack and) buy it for her. I’ll also tell her the stories of the many great women of God who have transformed the world. We’ll help her practice the virtues that correspond with the feminine gift of receptivity – like kindness, hospitality, generosity, and compassion. And we’ll affirm over and over how wonderfully and fearfully she is made.

Because authentic femininity and masculinity don’t come from Carter’s or Mattel; they aren’t bound by colors or fabrics or styles; they aren’t limited to mechanics or the domestic arts. They are revelations of the heart of God, an expression of the love of our creator, and a gift to the world.

Copyright 2015 Megan Swaim.
Image: “Girl Child Playing Truck Dirt” by Greyerbaby, 3/21/14, via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

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About Author

Megan Swaim lives in South Bend, IN, with her husband, Josh, and daughters, Lucy and Mary. Together they are navigating the beautiful (and crazy) adventure of marriage, parenting, and ministering to the young Church. Megan is a high school youth minister and was one of the administrators of the My Year of Faith blog and app for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. You can read more from Megan at www.myyearoffaith.com.

3 Comments

  1. I am a mom of 2 daughters, also, and I’ve asked myself many of these same questions. It’s so distressing to see the marketing attempts to force them into such a narrow range of choices. I really appreciate your thoughts and reflections here, and I think it sounds like you’re doing a great job helping your daughter navigate these issues! 🙂

  2. One of my daughters loved wearing dresses and climbing trees. Another played doll houses for hours. My third daughter is a cowgirl at heart, riding western, barrel racing and doing plug. My twins love dancing, but one wants to try soccer in the fall. My boys are also equally different. Isn’t wonderful how unique God has made us all!

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